As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our international reputation as peacekeeper and upholder of democracy.
But there is a dark side to our foreign policy — a policy that often aligns Canada with the objectives of the United States in punishing small countries that attempt to break free of American dominance.
Haitians hold a special place in human history. In 1804, after a slave revolt against France, they established the world’s first independent black country. Haiti has been paying for this affront to the international order ever since. For 122 years, Haitians were forced to pay a crippling indemnity to France for loss of slaves and territory. Today, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank impose austerity on Haiti, benefiting a tiny minority of wealthy families who were returned to power in a 2004 coup, after a decade of democracy.
Between 1991 and 2004, against all odds, Haitians managed to elect a series of democratic governments. These governments improved health, education and the rule of law even as they were under siege by the Haitian elite. The Haitian people also endured a punishing US led aid boycott.
Canada, who Haitians once saw as a constructive partner, joined the United States and France to help overthrow the Haitian government. The coup d’état took place in the middle of the night on February 29, 2004. This is the first time Canada has played a military and strategic role in removing a democratically elected government.
In 2009, I accompanied my partner, David Putt, who was in Haiti to work on clean water projects in some of the rawest slums in Port-au-Prince.
A few weeks after arriving I was taking photographs in Cham Mas, a major square in the centre of Port au Prince. A poor but neatly dressed older man approached me with his arms out, shouting in broken English. “Blan, blan, (foreigner) you don’t know what is happening here.” He thought I was a journalist. He wasn’t being aggressive – I walked towards him, afraid that the UN soldiers patrolling the square would harass or arrest him. Taking off his hat, he spoke again: “they are killing us! We are poor people. Life is very hard. Tell them, them what they are doing to us. Tell them to stop! Tell them to stop!” He began to cry. I held his hand until he composed himself. He put on his hat and slowly walked away.
This encounter moved me to the core and was the beginning of a deeper awareness of the plight of the Haitian majority. I later learned that many people had been killed in Cite Soleil, where the man was from. On a personal level this film is a response to the impassioned plea of the man I met in Cham Mas.
Elaine Briere is an award-winning filmmaker and photojournalist. Her photographs have appeared in the Globe & Mail, the New York Review, Canadian Geographic, Amnesty International, and Neue Zurcher Zeitung (Switzerland). She has exhibited in Holland, Sweden, Australia, Japan, the USA and the 2006 World Urban Forum. East Timor, Testimony was published in 2004 by Between the Lines.
Bitter Paradise: The Sell-out of East Timor won Best Political Documentary at the l997 HOT DOCS! film festival. Her work is collected by the Visual Heritage Division of the National Archives of Canada and she is a recipient of the Order of East Timor. Her current film, Haiti Betrayed was released in May 2018.
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