Canada’s Aid to Haiti: Commendable, or Making Amends for a Discredited Anti-Aristide Strategy?

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Since Aristide was ousted in a de facto coup in February 2004, Haiti’s turn towards an unconstitutional, if widely recognized, government has presented the international community with a grave crisis. Among the handful of nations who are now involved in a high profile effort to help Haiti attain stability, Canada is perhaps the most frequently passed over. Yet this omission belies the fact that Ottawa has long played an active role on the island, and now may be Haiti’s best hope for moving forward. Yet, this seemingly constructive role is marred by the disturbing recent history of Canadian-Haitian relations in which Ottawa played a shameful role. Under Liberal Party rule, Canada joined with co-conspirators, the U.S., France, and Kofi Annan of the UN, to approve Washington’s extra-constitutional action against President Aristide, which sent him into exile.

Canada and Haiti began their formal diplomatic ties in 1954 with the establishment of a Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince. Since then, Canada has been involved in Haiti through a wide variety of programs designed to promote economic and political stability in the country. In recent years, however, the links between the two nations have gained new significance. According to the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ web site, “since the departure of President Aristide in February 2004, Canada has played a leadership role in international efforts to re-establish security and stability in Haiti and to assist in longer-term reform and reconstruction efforts.”

Canada’s reconstruction policy for Haiti is mainly based on three major goals, which are security and disarmament, social and economic reconstruction, and the resumption of the democratic process. Unfortunately, what the website does not portray is Ottawa’s disgraceful participation in the plot that led to Aristide’s ouster in February 2004. It was the low water mark for the Liberals, when then Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew, intent on generating good will towards Washington, chose sacrificing Aristide as the vehicle to achieve this goal.

The Canadian leadership may have been partially influenced by the sinister role played by the French foreign minister at the time, Dominique De Villepin. De Villepin has since been elevated by President Chirac to the post of Prime Minister, and is presently under heavy siege from a majority of the French for his recalcitrant stand on the issue of labor rights for the young. De Villepin at first appeared to be taking a progressive stand on Haiti. He seemed to be calling for Aristide to be protected against the “gang of thugs” as they were described at the time by Secretary of State Powell, as well as for protecting the constitutional order of Haiti. But after using up Aristide’s remaining hours of independence, as hostile forces entered Port-au-Prince, he revealed himself as an enthusiast behind the plot to oust Aristide.

While Canada’s current reconstruction plan for Haiti appears to be both comprehensive and responsive to the struggling nation’s needs, it must not be forgotten that Canada has a highly compromised recent history of interference in Haitian internal affairs during the Aristide era, but has barely uttered a word again the interim Latortue administration’s ineptitude and caricaturing of good government. But, as the developing world has focused its attention elsewhere, and as Haiti eventually falls off the international agenda, Canada’s substantial aid commitment, coupled with the two countries’ rich history of mutual exchange, may prove to be in Haiti’s best interest this time around.

Canada and Haiti
Canada’s current involvement on the island is multifaceted. In an attempt to promote stability, Ottawa has contributed 100 civilian police officers (75 of which come from Quebec) to the controversial mission of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) which came into being in June 2004.

Canada also has voiced its commitment to the stabilization of Haiti’s democratic processes. In last month’s elections, approximately CAN$30 million was allocated to enroll foreign and national observer groups, as well as deploy Canadian security agents around the country to help promote fair election processes. Moreover, Canada contributed an additional CAN$7.5 million to the International Mission for Monitoring Haitian Elections (IMMHE), which was headed by Jean-Pierre Kingsey from the Canadian Election Commission and which included eight other officials from different Latin American countries, including Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and the United States. It has yet to be established whether this operation achieved significant results since at the end it was not the UN or related electoral monitoring bodies that allowed for a Preval victory, but his own refusal to be robbed of his triumph by effort of the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH).

Social and economic reconstruction has always been a priority for the Canadian government, as such activities are critically linked to Haiti’s prospects for future development, and these efforts traditionally have largely taken the form of Ottawa’s extending financial backing to self-help projects. In 2004, CAN$154 million was contributed to fund the goals of the Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF), making Ottawa a key contributor to the rebuilding project. In the framework details, laid out from May to June 2004, Haiti’s principal goals were established by the Latortue government in cooperation with international experts from the World Bank, the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the European Commission. After the framework was established, the International Donors Conference was held in Washington D.C. to raise funds for those objectives. Eventually, about US$1.1 billion for the ICF goals was raised, and in June 2005, donor countries, international organizations, and financial institutions convened again in Montreal to assess the results of the initial implementation of the ICF’s goals. Canada’s commitment to the ICF process attests to its policy of favoring a multilateral approach in implementing a third world project. In line with this strategy, Ottawa has worked with the Organization of American States (OAS), the UN, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the “Francophonie,” among other international and area bodies, in its policymaking process.

While Ottawa has actively adopted a multilateral position, it has maintained an equally important bilateral aspect to its policies. In fact, Ottawa has positioned Haiti as the most important recipient of Canadian long-term development assistance in the Americas. As a result, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)-a well-respected agency which promotes international projects and earmarks Canadian foreign aid for various NGOs-has been playing an important role in Haiti since the agency’s creation in 1968. Its initiatives in Haiti have included highly diversified projects such as the AIDS Project, the Integrated Education Project in Artibonite, Kore Famn Fund II (for women), the revitalization of Haiti’s Savings and Credit Unions, and the Nippes Agroforestry Project.

Quebec and Haiti
As a province, Quebec does not maintain any official relations with Haiti, but as a function of its membership in the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), bilateral meetings between the Quebec’s National Assembly and the Haitian Chamber of Deputies and Senate have been held. Also, owing to its autonomous capacity for engaging in some forms of policy initiatives, the Quebec government has the authority to make agreements with other countries on topics which fall under Quebec City’s specific jurisdiction. In 1987, the governments of Haiti and Quebec signed an agreement on education that was renewed in 2003. The agreement enabled some Haitian students to study in Quebec universities for the same tuition fees as Quebec students.

More notably, Quebec has made Haiti its “number one beneficiary of the assistance provided by the Direction de l’aide internationale (DAI),” a sub-section of the province’s Ministry of International Relations. Although DAI cannot come anywhere near matching the magnitude of CIDA’s financial contributions, Quebec’s assistance can have a powerful moral significance. The Quebec government’s website references the CAN$4 million in aid it has allocated for 60 projects. Quebec shares the rest of Canada’s objectives relative to Haiti, and, according to Francine Lemieux, an official at DAI, Quebec has taken same approach as Canada. This is not entirely coincidential; the majority of NGOs working in Haiti come from the province of Quebec.

Because of their experience and long-term involvement in Haiti, DAI and CIDA often sponsor the same on-site organizations. Moreover, there is a high demand for French-speaking NGOs and even more so, for Creole-speaking staff (which is the language spoken by a majority of the island’s poor-among whom help is most needed). Second, NGOs chosen by Quebec and Ottawa are often working on the same project-for example, the Paul-Guérin Lajoie foundation which works to improve the educational system, receives funding from both governments. Furthermore, the emergence of Haitian-Canadian NGOs like ROCAHD, Regroupement des organismes canado-haitiens pour le développement in Quebec is another important recent phenomenon, and marks the growing importance of the Haitian diaspora in shaping Canada’s policies relative to the island.

The Diaspora’s Impact
Ottawa’s ties with Haiti are nourished by the presence of a major Haitian diaspora in Canada, 90 percent of who reside in Quebec. In fact, Quebec and Haiti have always shared a close relationship; with a common French colonial background laying the foundation for mutual exchanges and linkages, Haitians started immigrating to Quebec in the early 20th century, but came in significant numbers only when repression under the Duvalier dictatorship began to mount in the 1960s. At that time, Quebec was undergoing the so-called “Quiet Revolution,” a period of economic, social and cultural openness to immigration. Consequently, Haitians were welcomed to Quebec, and frequently were able to obtain good jobs in their same professions, as well as the more traditional fate of obtaining menial jobs. Many immigration-related programs, such as family reunification, were crafted to foster the immigration experience once arriving from Haiti. Meanwhile, French-Canadian organizations began to increase their involvement in Haiti, a hemispheric country desperate for outside humanitarian help. Since then, Canadian NGOs have become increasingly concerned about Haiti’s persisting plight.

According to the last national census, 74,500 Canadian citizens declared that they were of Haitian origin, and between 2000 and 2004, the number of Haitian immigrants has increased by approximately 7,000, according to the Quebec Immigration Office (Ministère de l’Immigration et des Communautés culturelles du Quebec). In an article in the Haiti Tribune, Jean-Claude Icart, a sociologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, describes the Haitian community in Montreal as more organized, integrated and active, than ever before. In fact, money, merchandise, and educational material are frequently sent back to the island. In total, around US$1.5 billion in remittances from the Haitian diaspora worldwide is sent every year back to the island. This represents the largest and most consistent single source of aid received by Haiti, and often surpasses the contributions of all international bodies combined. As such, remittances play a massive role in maintaining the country’s most basic infrastructure. This aid, however minimal it adds up to be, was especially important in sustaining Haiti during the period of trade sanctions imposed during the early 1990s against the military junta. The diaspora’s significance was so great that Aristide eventually created the Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad.

The Haitian diaspora’s influence extends beyond their own country to their adopted lands, and nowhere has this been more evident than in Canada. In December 2004, the Conference of Montreal with the Haitian Diaspora hosted groups including representatives from the Canadian and Haitian governments, international organizations, and around 400 members of the diaspora, drawn mainly from Quebec’s Haitian community, but also from the U.S. and France. While there had been many smaller conferences in the U.S. between members of the Haitian diaspora and USAID, the Montreal Conference was the first comprehensive meeting with the Canadian diaspora. The conference’s goals were to help integrate Haitian-Canadians into Haiti’s economic development and democratic processes, as well as foster interest among the diaspora in Ottawa’s Haiti-related development policies. Notably, the Conference looked to the diaspora for advice on the implementation of the ICF’s goals. The conference’s final recommendations acknowledged that the diaspora has had an impact on Haiti and, at the same time, on Canada, and that the NGOs and other officials now hope for comparable gatherings to be called in the future.

The Emergence of Canadian Dissidents

The positive engagement between Canada and the island is not without controversy, however. In 2005, Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton published a book on the controversial role that Canada played in overthrowing Aristide on February 29, 2004. The work explains in detail the sequence of events from the initial destabilization of Aristide, to the coup, and finally its aftermath. It shows how some NGOs, including some based in Quebec, were involved in helping to stage or rationalize the coup. According to the authors, Canadian media outlets “are much less interested in criticizing their own state’s adventures abroad.” In fact, many analysts believe the Canadian armed forces may have been involved in the coup, yet the issue has failed to provoke outrage or arouse the amount of interest in Canada which it deserves.

Engler and Fenton are not the only ones who have protested Canada’s policies toward Haiti. Many Canadian and Haitian-related websites such as Znet and, newspapers such as Haiti-Progres, and documentation such as the University of Miami Human Rights Report, have spared no energy in lamenting Canada’s sometimes “colonialist role” in Haiti, claiming that it has been thinly veiled under the moniker of development aid. The Canada, Haiti Action Network (CHAN), on its widely followed webpage-Canada out of Haiti-claims that Canada, to a large extent, is responsible for some of the instability now to be found in Haiti.

A good example of the growing awareness about the subject can be found in a number of incidents that occurred in the 2006 elections, where some protesters asked Canadian voters to boycott the Liberals, particularly then-Foreign Affairs Minister, Pierre Pettigrew who, according to those groups, as well as objective research, was the lead factor in concerting Ottawa’s Haiti policy with that of the U.S., and whose knowledge of Haiti couldn’t have been more meager.

The Future of the Canadian-Haitian Relationship
Canada, Quebec, and Haiti have intertwined histories with long roots. The Haitian diaspora is now more integrated than ever before in influencing Canadian policies toward Haiti, as well as affecting policies inside the country. Although it appears that the possibility for a positive relationship between the two countries exists, a growing group of Canadian dissidents have voiced their disapproval of Canada’s continuing misadventure in Haitian affairs, usually on the side of the United States. Taking all these factors into account, how Canada shapes its future policies towards that troubled island remains an ongoing question.

In an interview with COHA, Carlo Dade, senior advisor for the think-tank, Canadian Foundation for the Americas, has observed that: “Canada has a comparative advantage to lead in Haiti.” The historical and cultural links between Canada, Haiti, and Quebec are strong, and the fact remains that the U.S. is too preoccupied with the Middle East to commit to any long-term involvement on the island. Given that a high degree of commitment is the only solution for achieving sustainable development in Haiti, and that Canada is the most logical nation that at the present time that appears willing to step up to the plate, Ottawa is presently at a crucial juncture. Will newly installed P.M. Stephen Harper accept the responsibility of extending to Haiti a helping hand that is devoid of suspicious motives, and will Ottawa be prepared to challenge Washington if it concludes that U.S. policies and Haiti’s best interests cannot be reconciled?