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Canada in Haiti

When reading wild propaganda about Canada’s role in Haiti I often wonder if the reporter is a sycophant or whether they’ve been duped.

With the Caribbean nation set to hold its most credible presidential election in sixteen years Ottawa announced it was withdrawing support for the October 9 poll. The Trudeau government’s decision to follow Washington in seeking to undermine the election was confirmed in an anti-Haitian screed titled Canada showing Haiti some tough love. In it CBC reporter Evan Dyer ignores Washington and Ottawa’s intervention in the 2010 election to bring far right president Michel Martelly to power and how their and Martelly’s attempt at a rerun sparked the popular backlash that postponed last year’s vote. Dyer also ignores Canada’s role in plotting, executing and consolidating the 2004 coup against Jean Bertrand Aristide’s government or the fact his Fanmi Lavalas party has been effectively excluded from elections since.

Dyer describes Canada as “Haiti’s most loyal backer”, working tirelessly to advance democracy in the Caribbean nation. In a particularly embarrassing bit he turns Canada’s role in the post-coup election, which followed widespread political repression and excluded Haiti’s most popular political party, into a noble democratic exercise. Dyer reports: “In 2006, Canada’s then-chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, personally led a team of Canadian observers to Haiti. One of them, Cheickh Bangoura of Ottawa, was shot in the arm carrying out his duties in Port-au-Prince, but was back at his post observing the vote the next day.”

Lauding Kingsley and Canada’s role in Haiti’s 2006 election is comical. After widespread fraud in the counting, including thousands of ballots found burned in a dump, the country was gripped by social upheaval. In response, the chair of the International Mission for Monitoring Haitian Elections released a statement claiming, “the election was carried out with no violence or intimidation, and no accusations of fraud.” Kingsley’s statement went on to laud Jacques Bernard, the head of the electoral council despite the fact that Bernard had already been widely derided as corrupt and biased even by other members of the coup government’s electoral council.

Kingsley’s connections in Ottawa put his impartiality into serious doubt. In addition, his close ties to the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), which received about 80 percent of its funding from the US government, helps explain his partisan statements. At the time of Haiti’s election, Kingsley sat on the board of IFES and a year after the election Kingsley stepped down from Elections Canada to become president of IFES. A University of Miami Human Rights Investigation that appeared more than a year before the election summarised the “multi-million dollar” IFES project in Haiti: “IFES workers … completely take credit for ousting Aristide. … IFES … formulated groups that never existed, united pre-existing groups, gave them sensitization seminars, paid for people to attend, paid for entertainment and catering, and basically built group after group. … They reached out to student groups, business … [and] human rights groups which they actually paid off to report human rights atrocities to make Aristide

look bad. … They bought journalists, and the IFES associations grew into the Group of 184 that became a solidified opposition against Aristide…. Gérard Latortue, the [coup] prime minister, was an IFES member for a couple of years before the ouster of Aristide. … Bernard Gousse, the [coup] justice minister … in charge of prisons and police, was in [IFES] for many years.”

Dyer is probably ignorant of this history. Someone at Global Affairs Canada likely fed him the bit about Kingsley to build their “we’ve tried to bring democracy to Haiti” storyline and Dyer didn’t bother looking into the sordid affair.

Dyer is not the first mainstream reporter to make a mockery of facts and logic when covering Canada’s role in Haiti. With evidence of the coup government’s violence mounting Marina Jimenez published an article puppeting the Canadian-backed regime’s perspective on the killings. In a January 2005 story headlined “Backyard Baghdad”, she wrote that ousted President Aristide “from his South Africa exile” is “funding” and “directing” a “war.” Jimenez reported about a purported pro-Aristide campaign to murder police officers, “Operation Baghdad”, but the story made no mention that independent observers said this was an invention of the coup government to justify their attacks on the pro-Aristide slums. Or that a month before her article appeared more than ten thousand pro-constitution demonstrators marched in Cap Haitien behind a banner claiming “Operation Baghdad” was a plot created by pro-coup forces to demonize Aristide supporters.

Efforts to communicate with the then Globe and Mail reporter had little impact. A year and a half later Jimenez would smear the author of a Lancet medical journal study detailing widespread human rights violations in the 22 months after Aristide’s ouster. After the report received front-page coverage in the Montréal Gazette and National Post, with quotes from Haiti Action Montréal adding political context, Jimenez sought to discredit a study that estimated 8,000 were killed and 35,000 raped in Port au Prince. Jimenez quoted Nicholas Galetti, in charge of Haiti at the Canadian government’s Rights and Democracy, baselessly claiming the peer-reviewed study was “based on flawed methodology.”

Former Montréal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery’s coverage of Haiti reveals how a journalist can be duped, but also the importance of pressuring journalists to investigate troubling claims about this country’s foreign policy. Given only two days to prepare for her assignment, Montgomery was ripe to be manipulated by the Canadian ambassador and Ottawa-funded organizations in Haiti. In “Parachute Journalism” in Haiti: Media Sourcing in the 2003-2004 Political Crisis Isabel Macdonald writes: “Montgomery recalled being given anti-Aristide disinformation when she called the Canadian embassy immediately after she had been held up by armed men while driving through Port-au-Prince days before the coup. Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Cook, told her, ‘We’ve got word that Aristide has given the order to the chimeres [purported pro-Aristide thugs] to do this kind of thing to international journalists because he’s not getting any support.’ According to Montgomery, Cook had urged her to tell the other international journalists who were staying at the same hotel: ‘I think you should let all your colleagues at the Montana know that it’s not safe for them.’”

Though she later realized the ambassador’s claim was ridiculous, Montgomery told other journalists at Hotel Montana (where most international journalists stay in Port-au-Prince) that Aristide’s supporters were targeting them. The ambassador’s disinformation also coloured her reporting in the critical days before and after the February 29, 2004 coup.

A few months after the coup I described Montgomery as “once progressive” in a piece criticizing her coverage of Haiti. The article sparked the hoped-for reaction, contributing to a re-evaluation of her position. Over the next year and a half she performed a 180° turn on the issue and during the 2006 federal election campaign Montgomery wrote an opinion piece titled “Voters should punish MPs for Haiti”. It argued that Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew and the prime minister’s special advisor on Haiti, Denis Coderre, should lose their seats for undermining Haitian democracy.

When seeking to understand coverage of Canada’s role in Haiti one should probe the structural forces shaping the flow of information. But, within the prevailing structural constraints individuals have some flexibility in whether they ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ or serve power.

I invite readers to email Dyer (evan.dyer@cbc.ca) to ask if he was duped by Canadian officials.

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Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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