to a further understanding of Haiti, we are publishing here the complete Chapter
2: Haiti to Canada and Appendix 1: Haitian History.
“Having witnessed countless scenes of misery, we wanted to intelligently help those looking to shine a little light into the homes of our countrymen.”- Dr. Monestime’s introduction to his book on rural medicine in Haiti, 1940
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, on December 16th, 1909 Saint Firmin Monestime was born in Cape Haitian, Haiti, to Monsieur et Madame Saint Germain Monestime. He was the only son in a family of seven children and, as was the custom in Haiti, the male child was given special status. His father was a successful tanner and could afford a good education for his son who turned out to be intelligent, hard working, ambitious, and capable.
Firmin, or “tit saint” as he was called by family and friends, grew up during the United States occupation of Haiti which lasted from 1916 until 1935. (For more on Haitian history see Appendix 1.) One of his early memories was of a photograph of the body of Haitian leader and hero General Charlemagne Peralte, who lead the revolt against the U.S. occupation, crucified on a barn door. The photo was circulated by the U.S. forces to intimidate the population. He recalled: “there was martial law and you couldn’t have a light on after ten o’clock at night. It does not say much for the Americans but under those conditions I became allergic to English and would not learn it.”
Firmin received his early education from age seven to nineteen at the Lyceum in Port au Prince. He attended University and graduated with a B. A. degree in 1931 at age 22. He taught history briefly. He then attended the University Of Haiti Medical School graduating with a medical degree.
After completing his studies, he was named Medical Officer on the International Route between Haiti, a former French colony, and the former Spanish colony the Dominican Republic. He recalled traveling by donkey, often crossing over rivers on suspension bridges or on “mountainous roads skirting cliff faces” through this wild area made up of mountains, valleys, and rivers.
He was on duty in October 1937 when Dominican Republic President Raphael Trujillo ordered the genocide of Haitians who were living in the disputed area in the Dominican Republic.
Twenty to thirty thousand Haitians were killed, many only because they spoke French or Creole instead of Spanish. “I saw all kinds of broken bodies. I helped bury the dead. There, I realized that, in death, as it should be in life, there is no difference between coloured and white people,” Dr. Monestime recalled.
Once Dr. Monestime was mistakenly arrested by Haitian soldiers but was released the next day. He also recalled that the Red Cross waited three months before bringing in medical supplies.
For his contribution he received the Chevalier de l’Ordre National Honneur et Mérite.
Dr. Monestime became Director of the Department of Rural Medicine in the Capital, Port au Prince, establishing an excellent reputation. He began to write about rural medicine and eventually wrote four books, L’Alimentation du paysan, L’Agriculture et la Médecine rurale en Haiti, 2ème. Série de conférences de médicine rurale and Conférences de médicine rurale (see sidebar page 16).
During this period he married Nelly Bonhomme and had two children, Daniel and Eddie, before dissolving the marriage.
During this time politics in Haiti was difficult and he began to speak out, write and go on the radio to express his views on the “deplorable conditions” in Haiti. He included influential families in his attacks.
In frustration over the politics of Haiti he resigned his position and sought a different future. His status was compromised by leaving the government service. He said: “In Haiti you become an enemy of the state as soon as you leave the civil service. I was afraid for my life.”
Technically he was not to leave the country. He considered going to the U.S. but was concerned by the racism there. He had never learned English as a reaction to the American presence in Haiti so speaking only the French language was a problem. He considered France but there were too many problems there after the chaos of the Second World War.
He found an opening in Quebec where his skills were appreciated. He left Haiti “quietly,” without announcing his departure, for fear of reprisals.
On his way to Quebec his plane landed in Miami, Florida. When he got off the plane and headed to the washroom he was faced with a choice of two washroom doors one for “whites” and the other for “colored.” “I was so insulted,” he recalled. When he went to buy his ticket to Canada he also had to stand in a separate line for “colored” people.
On July 26, 1945 Dr. Monestime arrived in Quebec with a dollar in his pocket. “I took a taxi to Enfant Jesus Hospital. The charge was 90 cents and I gave the driver a 10-cent tip,” he recalled. “After what I had seen, I was surprised at my reception in Canada. The people were wonderful and I was very happy.”
He was one of the first of a very small group of Haitian professionals who came to Quebec in the 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s thousands of Haitian exiled immigrants came to Canada.
Dr. Monestime had to take training and had to intern for several years to get his full Canadian medical accreditation. He spent the better part of a year in Quebec City developing his specialization in gynecology. He then became a Senior Intern in Gynecology in Quebec City and in General Surgery in Verdun Quebec. He was later the Assistant to the Head of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Burke Ewing, at the Ottawa General Hospital where he tutored other interns.
On graduation he became one of the first, if not the first, Haitian medical doctors licensed in Canada. In 1950 Dr. Monestime was offered a position as professor in Haiti but he chose to stay in Canada. He was ready to start a new life.
As mentioned, Dr. Monestime had been married in Haiti before coming to Canada. During his years of training in Canada he did not develop a lasting personal relationship.
In 1950 he was invited to a Christmas party. Also invited were Valentina Petschersky and her attractive daughter Zinaida. They were Russian refugees, or “displaced persons” as they were called at the time, from the Second World War.
Published May 2009
The following is an abridged copy in English of the introduction Dr. Monestime made to Conférences de médicine rurale. The book was produced as a follow up to courses taught to Haitian teachers in August 1940. It shows his early leadership, and courage in criticizing government policies that eventually got him in trouble with the country’s leaders.
He states: “the time has come to show the country’s current leaders what we have done for rural Haitian farmers recently abandoned to servitude and ignorance.” He goes on to say: “The primary illnesses that dominate in Haiti’s rural areas are malaria, yaws, syphilis and intestinal parasites. These illnesses hinder farming activities, sap the enthusiasm of school children and, in our view, are a national scourge.
Having witnessed countless scenes of misery, we wanted to intelligently help those looking to shine a little light into the homes of our countrymen. Any work done on their behalf must be based on improving their health.”
He praised the “Rural Education teachers who, in doing their job, pay no heed to the fatigue or emotion that comes with the mountainous roads skirting cliff faces.”
He went on to say: “To all our friends who have helped us present these concepts of rural medicine to the public, we owe our deepest gratitude.
To our parents, children, and brothers and sisters on the frontier, we also dedicate these pages, which represent the beginning of our struggle to combat the illnesses affecting the inhabitants of our countryside. We cannot cast aside our close bonds of kinship that come from our very origin. In closing, we thank all those who spontaneously made this modest work possible.-Dr. S. F. Monestime, August, 1940.”
Dr. Monestime did not have a copy of his book until a friend, Haitian historian and author Laurore St.Juste, provided him with a copy in 1970 when St.Juste was in New York. Correspondence indicates that he had a copy of the “important and precious book” for Dr. Monestime and would forward it to him. Receiving it undoubtedly brought pleasure to Dr. Monestime, bringing back memories of times past and allowing us to share his achievement here.
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