'The foreign god was good, our gods they called the devil'
Vodou priest addresses suppression of religion and why 200 years after independence, half of Haitians remain illiterate
Many think the French revolution was the greatest milestone in humanity's fight for equality. Yet for others in the Americas, Haiti's slave rebellion against its French colonial masters marked the true beginning in the march towards emancipation.
Two hundred years ago, against all odds, Haitians staged the first and only successful slave revolution in world history.
The rebel victory was seared into the consciousness of slaves and slave-owners alike, spreading hope and dread across the hemisphere.
Yet Haiti's founding, which made it only the second independent nation in the New World, was greeted with near-universal hostility. When slaves throughout the continent followed its model by staging revolts, the defiant nation had to be taught a lesson.
Virtually all countries united to strangle the new country's economy through economic blockades and diplomatic isolation, while the Vatican recalled its priests.
"In the Caribbean, a little country surprised the world," recounted Euvonie Georges-Auguste, a Vodou Mambo (Priest) who spoke to a handful of students at Ryerson in late May.
"And we will continue to surprise the world because we believe in fraternity, because true democracy is founded on brotherhood."
Yet the struggle for independence continues to this day. While Haiti's rich natural resources made it one of France's most lucrative colonies, it is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere. As Auguste explains, "Haiti is not a poor country, but it is an impoverished country, which became poor because of the people who came and took everything from the country and gave nothing."
On the bicentennial anniversary of Haitian independence, a coup displaced the country's democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In a stark reminder of how directly foreign interests still rule the country, American troops flew Aristide out of the country and Gerard Latortue, who had resided in Florida for the previous 15 years, was handed the presidency.
Auguste laments the downfall of Aristide who, unlike virtually all of his predecessors, did not divert the nation's wealth into Swiss bank accounts. She notes that Aristide's background in social work gave him the political will to invest in people and attempt to purge the country of Its enduring poverty.
Auguste told the Ryerson gathering to always persist in their demand for a better society. "The person who symbolized a better society in Haiti was Jean-Bertrand Aristide."
Aristide's government was the first to recognize Vodou as a religion, ending 500 years of exclusion and discrimination against Vodou practitioners. Auguste served as the Vodou representative in Aristide's Cabinet.
Vodou had been instrumental in fomenting the Haitian Revolution. It united slaves stolen from disparate African countries under a cohesive belief system, while Vodou also exhorted people to fight for their freedom.
However, after the revolution, the French returned to run the country's education system.
Adherents of Vodouism were barred from schools, forcing people to identify with a Christian denomination if they wanted to be educated.
"The French never forgave our ancestors who were vodouists because of the revolution they won," Auguste attests.
Instead of lionizing Vodou as the religion that instigated freedom, Auguste said the Haitian state, "agreed with our colonizers to minimize Vodou."
Just as Haitian society has long been divided between classes, a deep-seeded fear of the African religion caused it to be castigated as "inferior" to Christianity, though most continued to integrate Vodou beliefs into their Christian faith.
It even got to a "level where the foreign god was good and our gods they called the devil."
Vodou for Auguste, is something that resonates deeply in the Haitian psyche, and in abandoning it, people risk severing a part of themselves.
While Haiti may be poor financially, Auguste notes that it has inherited a rich culture spiritually. Vodouism regards the world as a family and all of its people as brothers.
The Christian norms taught in schools alarm Auguste, in their ridicule of Vodouism and assertion that women should submit to their husbands.
Ultimately, for the nation to advance, Auguste thinks it is necessary to educate mothers who tend to raise their children virtually by themselves.
"If [your child becomes] a Prime Minister, we [mothers] made them the Prime Minister, and if they belong to gangs we made them belong to gangs... We made society the way it is."
When two decades after Haiti's independence, France threatened to re-enslave the island if they didn't pay an exorbitant debt, it necessitated closing every school.
The country and its education system have been struggling to get out of this debt-induced decrepitude ever since.
Auguste herself led the literacy campaign in Haiti's Western department during Aristide's time in office.
Auguste describes schools that are comparable to slums and says the universities are even worse. Children sometimes have to be restricted to one meal a day so their parents can afford to send them to school.
It distresses her that, as in colonial times, the brightest students are being sent to study abroad where they have all the advantages that make them never want to return to Haiti.
Auguste finds when they arrive in foreign countries they feel their very being is inferior, to the extent they abandon their Haitian identities.
In the end, Auguste said Aristide's untimely demise was accelerated to prevent him from enacting legislation to raise the Haitian minimum wage (most workers currently subsist on $2 a day).
Ryerson student Mohammad Ali who has been active with the Toronto Haiti Action Committee, which is currently trying to raise funds to construct a school in Haiti, concurs. Ali noted the campaign for a $10 minimum wage in Canada must be linked with an international struggle against lowering labour costs.
"They say in Canada if the minimum wage goes up, it will send the jobs to Mexico, and in Mexico if the minimum wage goes up, they will send jobs to Haiti," noted Ali. "But they're running out of countries in this continent to send jobs to."
Shane Milne, a member of Ryerson's social justice club, said he will encourage the Canadian Federation of Students to adopt a motion criticizing the United Nations' current Haiti mission and signifying their solidarity with Haitian students.