Last weekend Haiti solidarity activism took a leap forward. As many as 50 cities held events commemorating the first anniversary since Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's elected president, was forcibly removed from office by U.S marines and flown to the Central African Republic from an airport "secured" by Canadian soldiers.
Saturday in Montreal 500 people- maybe as many as 650 throughout the four-hour demonstration - braved sub-zero temperatures to protest the repression of Haitian democracy. Marchers carried signs denouncing summary executions by the Haitian National Police (HNP), the hundreds of political prisoners in Haiti and the campaign of violence by a disbanded military that the U.N has refused to disarm. It was a spirited gathering, filled with music, dancing and exuberant speeches.
When the demonstration reached the French consulate, Jean St. Vil, a march organizer, described (what some might call) the irony of the civilizing effect that Haiti had upon the French and other European empires. Three years after the Haitian slave rebellion, Britain, witnessing the cost of the uprising, banned the barbaric slave trade.
"Paul Martin is swimming in the blood of Haitians," said another speaker, denouncing Canadian involvement in Haiti.
In recent weeks dozens of Haitians have been killed, many by trigger-happy HNP. Despite a climate charged with political violence, thousands marched from the Port Au Prince slum of Bel Air to the national palace last Monday. HNP fired on the demonstration. At least three marchers died as U.N soldiers looked on. The deputy commander of the UN peacekeeping force told AP that no shots were fired at the police, stating that "Everything was going peacefully. . . . We don't know why they came to disband the demonstration.' He went on to say that U.N soldiers were unable stop the police from terrorizing the population as their mandate is to support the police.
In the first six months after Aristide's removal, 500 Canadian soldiers were part of the U.N force that supported the HNP. This is an important example of the significant political and financial support Canada has offered the Latortue regime. At present Canada is in direct command of the 1600 member U.N civilian police and has 100 RCMP officers in the country. Both installed deputy "justice" minister, Philip Vixamar and another member of Latortue's inner circle are on the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) payroll.
Saturday's demo was the largest mobilization over the past year of people from within Montreal's Haitian community. Additionally, a hundred demonstrators of non-Haitian descent attended the march - far more than the handful who attended the last Haitian solidarity protest. Disappointingly, however, there were still dozens - if not hundreds - of committed anti-imperialist activists who failed to turn up. Knowledge about the situation in Haiti, particularly the significance of Canada's role, continues to be insufficient.
Many people fail to understand that political repression continues precisely because Haitians demand the return of their elected government (10,000 protestors on Friday according to Agence Haitien Presse).
It is clear that Canada has significant influence over the installed regime and Canadian activists should understand that our government is far more likely to change its position than the Bush administration. Montreal is a strategically important city in the struggle for the cessation of Haitian political repression. First, it is the Canadian city with by far the largest Haitian community. Additionally, the minority Liberal government is anxious about maintaining its seats in Montreal, including that of the foreign affairs minister, Pierre Pettigrew, whose margin of victory was less than 500 votes. The Haitian vote is crucial as they make up a sixth of Pettigrew's electorate. Like all immigrant communities in Quebec, the Haitian community largely votes Liberal due to Quebec's separatist politics.
Despite limited non-Haitian left pressure, the Liberal government is beginning to show signs of uneasiness regarding Haiti. A few months ago Canadian officials denied the existence of any political prisoners in Haiti. Last month, however, Denis Coderre, Canadian special envoy to Haiti, met with elected Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune who is presently in jail. On Monday in Ottawa an official from the foreign affairs department came to a talk by Thomas Griffin, main author of the recent University of Miami Human Rights Report on Haiti. The foreign affairs official admitted that human rights violations are widespread in Haiti, but claimed there is nothing Canada can do.
Superficial gestures meant to placate protestors mean little to Haitians under attack. A genuine start might be Paul Martin's public condemnation of Haitian repression, an act that would likely lead to the freeing of political prisoners and a reduction in killings by the HNP.
To bring this about further mobilizations are upcoming in Montreal including plans for another demonstration in mid May. Canadians have some power in reducing the repressive political climate in Haiti. If Pierre Pettigrew, the foreign affairs minister, were to lose his seat because of his policies on Haiti, it would be a historic dent in Canadian imperialism.
If people want to join the Canada Haiti Action list serve please e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org