To contribute to a further understanding of Haiti, we are publishing here the complete Chapter 2: Haiti to Canada and Appendix 1: Haitian History.

Appendix 1:Haitian History

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The current Republic of Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Shaped like a “giant lobster claw” Haiti is a mountainous nation that occupies the western third of the Island. It is a colourful country with blue skies, brilliant flowers, white beaches and green farmlands that back against the mountains.

The Island of Hispanola had a population of three million Taino people when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Spanish entrepreneurs seeking gold enslaved the Taino people and they eventually died off through disease, over work or death trying to escape. In a few decades the Spanish brought in African slaves to work in the mines and plantations.

In 1625 the French landed on the island, fought for control and eventually won the western third of the island which became Saint-Domingue. The French developed plantations of cotton, sugar cane and coffee. They brought in their own slaves by the thousands. When the French Revolution broke out in France in 1789 there were some 45,000 slaves and 30,000 free people of mixed blood in Saint-Domingue .

A Haitian revolution took place shortly after the one in France.  With the colony facing a full-scale invasion by Britain, the rebel slaves emerged as a powerful military force, under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. Louverture successfully drove back the British and by 1798 was the de facto ruler of the colony.

In 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence, reclaiming the indigenous Taíno name of Haiti (Land of Mountains) for the new nation. Haiti is the world’s oldest Black republic and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States.

By 1874, after a period of instability, Haiti enjoyed a relatively stable period with peaceful transitions of government and a flowering of art and culture. This period of relative stability and prosperity ended in 1911 when revolution broke out and the country slid once again into disorder and debt. In 1915 the United States, which had banking interests in Haiti and feared a growing German influence, occupied the country. They stayed until 1934 while keeping a financial interest until mid-century.

Haitians resented the Americans and resisted them. One of their national heroes is General Charlemagne Peralte who was killed in 1919 by the occupying forces. Thousands of Haitians died during the occupation with some estimations as high as 15,000. In 1930, Sténio Vincent, a long-time critic of the occupation, was elected President, and the U.S. began to withdraw its forces.

It was during this time that Dr. Monestime was growing up in Haiti. He became involved in the Government first under President Vincent and then under the  President Élie Lescot in 1941. After Dr. Monestime left in 1946, a military junta handed over power to Dumarsais Estimé, a black Haitian, who introduced major reforms in labour and social policy, and greatly expanded civil and political liberties for the Black majority. Another coup brought to power General Paul Magloire in 1950 who established a dictatorship which lasted until December 1956, when he was forced to resign as a result of a general strike. After a period of disorder Dr. François Duvalier, coincidentally a former school mate of Dr. Monestime’s, was elected President in September 1957.

Over the next 30 years Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc” ruled by force. A small group at the top lived the good life while the ordinary citizen lived in poverty. Many left the country to settle elsewhere.

“Baby Doc” was finally expelled in 1986 and a new constitution provided for free elections. Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in 1990 but was overthrown within a year  and anarchy reigned until the U.S. again brought in troops and Aristide returned and won another election. International troops provided peace keeping. Aristede again left under strange circumstance. Another election took place in 2006 with Rene Préval winning a five year term.

Haitians in Canada

The large Haitian population and their difficult way of life has led to many leaving for other countries for a better opportunity. In the 1940s the few Haitian immigrants to Canada  were usually professionals. Even then indications are that there were less than 40 arrivals. Dr. Monestime was one.

In the late 1950s during the Duvalier era and to the present day thousands sought hope in the United States and Canada and elsewhere. It is estimated that there are over one million Haitians in the U.S. - many in the New York and Miami areas and other cities where Haitian cultural “enclaves” have developed. Many came to Florida illegally in makeshift boats.

Many Haitian immigrants chose Quebec as their new home because of the language and religion. About 95% of all Canadian arrivals of Haitians overall went to Quebec. Since professionals were not allowed to leave Haiti, many came as political refugees without proper documents and were welcomed.

Many who came later were sponsored immigrants who were accepted because they had relatives here. Most live in and around Montreal. Michaëlle Jean came to Canada in 1968. She became Canada’s first Black Governor General in 2008.

There is extensive Haitian cultural activity in Canada. They have their own newspapers, periodicals and radio programs. There is an excellent Haitian art scene with paintings, sculpture and music. There are many outstanding authors and athletes, especially in Quebec.

Many Haitians have aligned with other Blacks for political and social reasons to fight some of the contradictions and barriers in society here as elsewhere. There is no doubt that Haitians are a vibrant community with a major role to play in Canada’s multicultural society.

Haiti Today

Haiti is the most densely populated nation (over 8 million people) and the poorest in the western hemisphere. About 80% live under the poverty line and 54% live in abject poverty. Most Haitians work in the agricultural sector on small subsistence farms. Deforestation and weather continue to create great difficulty.

There is some sugar refining, flour milling, textiles, and product assembly based on imported components. Haitians depend on imports for much of their food, manufactured goods, machinery, transportation equipment, fuel, and raw materials. Most comes from the U.S. Canada provides millions in aid, peacekeepers and other support.

Life expectancy in Haiti is 51 years and literacy is about 50%. French and Creole are the languages of the country with French primarily used by the upper class. The country is primarily Roman Catholic with some Voodoo practiced. There is an approximate 10% professional population. About 95% of Haitians are of African origin.

Canada contributes millions in aid to Haiti. Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean visited Haiti in early 2009 where she met the new Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis whom she described as “very dynamic and worth knowing.” Michaëlle Jean emphasized that Haiti was politically stable but that the situation was “terrible” because of the food crisis, the hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008, and that the situation was becoming worse with the economic crisis.

Published May 2009

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