Haiti still paying price for freedom, says Michaelle Jean
December 21, 2017
At the recent National Black Canadians Summit (NBCS) in Toronto, this country’s first Black governor general Michaelle Jean recalled her first meeting with Barack Obama during his inaugural visit to Canada as the United States president in February 2009.
It was his first official foreign trip since taking office a month earlier.
Sitting Canadian governors general and American presidents are commanders-in-chief of their armed forces.
“Who would have thought that one day, the commander-in-chief of Canada and the United States would both be of African descent and in office at the same time?” she said. “That is what we said to each other and he said, ‘Let’s rejoice’.
After discussing issues of interest to both countries, Obama asked Jean about Haiti where she was born.
“I remember some journalists saying, ‘What is this that she’s talking about Haiti with President Obama’,” she recounted. “Of course, he asked because he knows that history.”
Jean had just returned from a visit to Haiti to assess the damage in the wake of a violent hurricane in the country’s north.
As she addressed a crowd of mostly young people gathered at the foot of the statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a young woman suddenly stepped forward and shouted, ‘Remember, you owe it to them, you owe it to our heroes. If it weren’t for what they did, you wouldn’t be governor-general of Canada. If it weren’t for their courage, their struggles, their victory, Barack Obama wouldn’t be president of the United States either. You tell him that everything got started here in Haiti. We are poor, but we are proud.’
Jean shared that poignant moment with Obama.
“He said that girl was right,” she pointed out. “He just kept repeating, ‘She’s so right’. The president was obviously quite moved.”
Haiti was the world’s first Black republic and the first country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery.
Before independence, St. Dominigue – now Haiti – was France’s most profitable colony because of slavery. After the slaves defeated Napoleon Armies and independence was secured, French slave owners submitted detailed tabulations of their losses and Haiti was forced to pay a debt for their historic independence in 1804.
Despite an embargo and natural disasters that have crippled Haiti, Jean expressed unmitigated pride in coming from a country that took the powerlessness of fear and turned it into the power of fearlessness.
“Haitian men and women want all humanity to remember that immense and unique role that they played and for which they are still paying a price,” said Jean, a former United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) special envoy for Haiti. “For through the blood and sweat of her main actors, the Haitian Revolution proved to the world that the human spirit could triumph over the most extreme hardships, no matter how impossible victory may seem…I do not flinch when I say humanity owes Haiti a great debt for bequeathing the gift of freedom and emancipation to the world.”
She said the slave-initiated Haitian Revolution that established the second independent nation in the Americas after the United States was not only a triumph for the African Diaspora.
“It was a victory for the Americas, including Canada because slavery was also a reality in this country,” said Jean who is the Internationale de la Francophone organization secretary-general. “…Some 215 years later, Haiti is still standing, reeling from one calamity to the other. From human catastrophe to natural disaster and sometimes betrayed by its own. Haiti still stands. It is a tale of resistance and we need to remember that as we chart a course forward.
“Personally, I can’t be disassociated from the story of that defiance, that uprising against colonialism and slavery. It is part and parcel of who I am today. It teaches me that freedom and human rights are never a given. They are always taken by those who decide to break free and enforce their dignity. Constant struggle, constant and endless vigilance is the price. As Black people, struggle is not a lifestyle choice. It is a critical necessity. How many times have we had to rebuild ourselves from the daily assaults on our being? It is constant, unceasing work.”
Born into poverty in Haiti, Jean and her family moved to Montreal in 1968 to flee the Duvalier regime.
She and her sister were raised by a single mother, who despite a difficult divorce and the stress of living in exile in Canada, displayed courage and dignity while providing for her children.
Jean studied comparative literature at the University de Montreal, taught Italian in that university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, worked in shelters for female victims of domestic violence and established a network of emergency shelters in Quebec and across Canada before enjoying an outstanding career as a television journalist, anchor and host of news programs on Radio-Canada and CBC Newsworld.
She was appointed Canada’s first Black vice-regal in 2005.
Held to mark the International Decade for People of African Descent, the three-day summit attracted many young professionals from across Canada.
Jean had a special message for young people who may be dejected because they are not given the opportunity to showcase their creative skills and talent.
“Remember a day when you felt some big aspiration come to you, a moment when all of a sudden you could see yourself doing this amazing stuff with your life,” she said. “The time when your passion came alive before your eyes, your dream, your destiny felt within reach. You could touch it and then something happened. You could read between the lines and you picked up from your environment that, no, because you are different, somehow you are not the person that’s expected there. You are not supposed to, it’s not meant for you.”
She reminded them that they are not the problem.
“It is their loss and they are the ones who forego talent, passion and devotion,” Jean, who with her husband created the Michaelle Jean Foundation which works with arts organizations, the business sector, local organizations, government and other sectors of society to make a lasting difference in the lives of people across the country, said. “Are you at fault? Not one bit my dear. Study after study has shown that at equal merit and equal skill, Black and Brown people, as they see us, are unemployed. What this means is that some people forego great opportunity because it’s now a proven fact diverse organizations consistently outperform organizations ruled by homogeneity. It is common sense.
“Better wisdom flows from multifaceted experiences, different outlooks and perspectives, multiple breeds of passion, diversified sources of compassion and various kinds of innovation. So, whose loss is it? Who wants a deficit in talent, shortage in will power and a creativity shortfall? Choosing to lose out on young people and their immense contribution is to deprive your organization from one of the great resources on the planet.”
She said inclusiveness and leaving no one at the margins create participation and liberates energy which is enough to power an entire society.
“So that’s our struggle,” Jean noted. ‘It’s to expose the problem, strategize a way out of it and change the reality, create the possibilities. All of us have something to contribute. We all have a story to share over generations. While none of us could escape oppression, all of us experienced resistance as well. Each one of us has a story to tell about that time when we straightened our back, raised our chin and stood up for ourselves. Each one of these acts of resistance matters. They matter a lot. These actions cannot be disassociated from our individual and collective path…Our capacity to resist thus creates motion and change, freedom, justice and emancipation for all that brings us to the International Decade for People of African Descent.”
The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, citing the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society.
Jean said the Decade provides Canadians the opportunity to build on their shared history, common bonds and collective capacity to change local, national and global circumstances.
“The Decade is an opportunity to remember that European, American, Canadian and First World prosperity were built on the sweat and blood of all these slaves,” she added. “…True liberation is to recognize that this history, as despicable as it is, is a shared history. It is one that has impacted and transformed everyone on the globe…To share that history is to share our common humanity. In the end, despite the vast difference between being jailed and being the jailer, a difference that should not be minimized, the truth is both guards and prisoners live in the prison. To free both is the ultimate liberation.”