Re-imagining Black Futures

June 20, 2023

Big Thinking at Congress 2023

Discover Haiti’s role as a symbol of possibility and self-governance for people of African descent in the Americas in this Big Thinking lecture with The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean.

The only formerly enslaved society to claim freedom from its enslavers, Haiti declared itself a Black Republic in 1804 and offered refuge to all enslaved people fleeing bondage. Haiti’s independence, however, ostracized it from most of the world, including France (until 1825) and the United States (until 1862). Military occupation and foreign debt further cut off Haiti’s possibilities in the twentieth century. Today, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, but its history remains as a record of Black struggle, resistance, and possibility.

Join The Rt. Hon. Michaëlle Jean in a discussion on the importance of Black histories in the Americas, and how Black thought and ideas help us work towards a more progressive and inclusive society for all.


Headshot of the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean

The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean

27th Governor General, Commander-In-Chief of Canada

Headshot of Adelle Blackett

(respondent) Adelle Blackett

McGill University

[00:00:32] Andrea Davis: Welcome. My name is Andrea Davis, and I'm the Academic Convenor for Congress 2023. On behalf of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences and York University, it's my pleasure to welcome you to the final Big Thinking event of the 92nd Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[00:00:56] Today, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean will examine the theme "Re-imagining Black Futures" through the historical and contemporary lens of Haiti, a powerful symbol of Black freedom in the Americas.

[00:01:15] She will be joined by the respondent Adelle Blackett. Today’s event is bilingual and will take place in French and English with French and English simultaneous interpretation.

[00:01:31] The session also includes American Sign Language (ASL) and closed captioning in French and English. To access simultaneous interpretation, please download the Sennheiser Mobile Connect application and follow the instructions you received at the door. If you need assistance, please raise your hand. For those joining us virtually, click on the “Closed Captioning” button to enable captions. To use simultaneous interpretation, click on the “Interpretation” button and select the language you prefer.

[00:02:07] We begin by acknowledging the violent history of this place, highlighting and remembering the ongoing contradictions and conflicts of this land, water and air.

[00:02:25 York University recognizes that many Indigenous Nations have longstanding relationships with the territories upon which York University campuses are located that precede the establishment of York University.

[00:02:38] York University acknowledges its presence on the traditional territory of many Indigenous Nations. The area known as Tkaronto has been care taken by the Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Huron-Wendat. It is now home to many First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities. We acknowledge the current treaty holders, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. This territory is subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement to peaceably share and care for the Great Lakes region.

[00:03:17] As the descendant of Africans enslaved in the Americas who were taken from their ancestral lands against their will, I am committed to what Tiffany King calls “a notion of mutual care”.

[00:03:30] And I recognize that a future for Black peoples is not possible without a future for Indigenous peoples by whose leave I live, walk on, and share this land. I acknowledge finally that these Americas are built on violence and erasure, and we bring these histories with us when we enter any room, any virtual space, and we must bring them always into view.

[00:03:56] It is with this knowledge of history that we enter here, this afternoon, in the hope of creating a different world.

[00:04:06] On behalf of the Federation and York University, I'd like to thank the series sponsors - the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Universities Canada, and participating sponsor SAGE Publishing - for sponsoring this event.

[00:04:25] Today, we are joined by 21 high school students from York's surrounding community, and it is my honour to introduce Kamahary Mohamed, a grade 10 student at Emery Collegiate, who will reflect on the Congress theme through her poem "I hear myself speaking".

[00:04:25] She will be followed by York University President and Vice Chancellor Rhonda Lenton, who will introduce today's speaker. Thank you for joining us today. Please welcome Kamahary Mohamed.

[00:05:13] -> [00:08:54] [Kamahary Mohamed's poem]

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

I ask them for more opportunities to improve my education in school, to do something beneficial in this society. 

But of course, the color of my skin will make my 100% equivalent to their 60%. 

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

I ask them to recognize the impact of people like Claudette Colvin, Romare Bearden, and Katherine Johnson who have been covered up, whitewashed, and watered down in today's society. 

Of course, they keep us ignorant because hiding the truth is easier than acknowledging it. 

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

I ask them to stop calling me “grown” for acting how I've been acting my entire life. 

But wait, maybe it's the adultification they drill into my bloodline that they're talking about. 

Systemic racism has forced Black children into social, emotional, and physical adult roles before they even become adults, why? I'd ask them, but… 

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

I ask them to stop stereotyping, judging, and acting on those judgments when they're “serving and protecting,” so someone's child can return home to their mother instead of getting murdered while buying a pack of skittles.  

Sadly, Trayvon Martin suffered this fate and this probably won't change because…   

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

At interviews, I tell them that the way I do my hair makes me comfortable in my skin, and I’ll be keeping my hair like this.  

Even though our hair does nothing to affect our performance in this professional environment, Black women lose countless opportunities and jobs.  

It seems like… 

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

Have you ever noticed that when a white person wears something deemed ghetto, ratchet, or thug on a Black person, they get praised for it, bombarded with compliments? Like, "Wow, that looks cute on you."  

Oh, but if I wear it the same way, it's "She wearing that out in public?"  

Maybe that's because…  

I hear myself speaking, but I don’t think they do. 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

Am I mute? Can you hear me speaking? I’m speaking—no, yelling and have been since before I came on this earth, carrying the screams of my ancestors and passing them on to the future generations 

Generations that deserve to have equal work opportunities to better their futures; generations that deserve to know about the change other strong, independent Black people have made; generations that deserve to be respected in all work environments; generations whose hands don't shake every time a cop car drives by.  

They deserve that, I deserve that. 

My throat hurts. My breath is long overdue. My voice is nearly gone. 

How long will it take you to hear me? 

Je m’entends parler, mais ils ne m’écoutent pas. 

[00:09:24] Rhonda Lenton: It's hard to follow isn't it? Thank you so much, Andrea, and for the organizers for inviting me here today to join you. Thank you so much Kamahary.

[00:09:39] That was very powerful and thought-provoking. Your words really capture so well the theme of this year's Congress, and the urgency of our individual and collective responsibility for identifying and implementing opportunities for meaningful change.

[00:09:57] Good afternoon everyone. It's really a pleasure to be here today, for today’s Big Thinking lecture.

[00:10:12] This year's Congress, "Reckonings and Re-Imaginings” is a unique opportunity to bringing together thousand of scholars, I think we’re over 10,000 scholars from across the country and beyond to determine together, how we can strengthen our impact on all of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

[00:10:38] In doing so, the Congress theme reflects our understanding that we must incorporate intersectional approaches that give voice to the historical injustices and contemporary inequities experienced by Indigenous, Black and other equity deserving groups if we are to reimagine and move and advance a more equitable and more sustainable world.

[00:11:06] We are all looking forward to today's Big Thinking lecture “Re-imagining Black Futures”, which will be moderated by Dr. Adelle Blackett from the Faculty of Law at McGill University, who will join Madame Jean following her talk.

[00:11:23] I am delighted to introduce our keynote speaker, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean. While she really needs no introduction, let me just simply highlight, I cannot do justice to her entire resume, but just after a very successful career as a journalist, news anchor and presenter in 2005, of course, she became the first Black woman to be appointed as Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada.

[00:11:56] She has a strong connection with York University, having received an honorary Doctor of Laws in 2007 which on the same day that she received that honorary doctor of laws, she opened the Harriet Tubman Research Institute here at the University which commemorated the 200th anniversary of the British Law to abolish the slave trade.

[00:12:20] So without further ado, please welcome me as we ask Michaëlle Jean to join us and to give her remarks. Thank you.

[00:12:50] The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean: Thank you very much. I always like to start just by looking at who is here and it's very very nice and important for me to be in your company.

[00:13:06] A few greetings first, Dr. Lenton, Rhonda Lenton, President and Vice-Chancellor of York University; thank you for your good words and for including me, welcoming me here again. Mr. Gabriel Miller, President and CEO of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, where are you? Nice to see you, you welcomed me yesterday, it was such a pleasure. Thank you.

[00:13:41] Dear Adelle Blackett, Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law, Professor Andrea Davis, my dear friend, Academic Convenor of the Congress 2023 and Professor in Humanities, greetings.

[00:14:05] To you all, researchers, academics, scholars in the humanities and social sciences from the university, from this university, and others from across Canada and around the world, I salute you, I salute you wholeheartedly.

[00:14:24] If you don't understand French, it's time to put on your headphones. I'd like to salute all of you who have worked to organize this high-level conference, which I think is matched only by the quality of its audience, whom I also salute.

[00:14:44] Dear Kamahary, where are you? I heard you. I listened to you, I heard your words of recognition and justice for all, without exception, without exclusion. I listened to you and I hear you, thank you very much.

[00:15:10] Dear friends, what I'm about to tell you is one of the most improbable chapters in history, a superhuman struggle against one of the worst crimes against humanity, that of the absolute dispossession, the dehumanization by every means of millions of women, men and children.

[00:15:44] A genocide that is still largely ignored today. This is the story I'm going to tell you so that you can better understand the realities we face today. This story never leaves me.

[00:16:03] I'd like her to find her way into your life. I'd like you to want to know more and more. The story of Haiti is the story of the world, it's not just about Haitians.

[00:16:21] It's a fundamental story, and one that all of us here share. We wouldn't be here together, and I wouldn't be here in front of you, was it not for its outcome. Knowing what the Haitian experience is made of, because it is singular, will certainly make you much more enlightened intellectuals, researchers and thinkers. And that's why I'm here.

[00:16:55] And let me start with my own story, how could I not? And how it shaped the woman who's speaking to you today. And I'm speaking freely, that's important. What brings us together right now is what happened to me when I was 10 years old.

[00:17:17] That's how old I was when I and my parents, like thousands and thousands of other families, were forced to leave my native country, Haiti, under terrible circumstances.

[00:17:30] I was born the year dictator François Duvalier came to power. I lived through what no child, no one in fact, should ever have to live through. I saw friends tied to poles, in full sun, under a scorching sun, for hours on end, executed by soldiers who first fired blanks several times at intervals before the 12th fatal shot. What cruelty.

[00:18:17] I've known whole families taken away and made to disappear. I've heard the screams of our neighbors murdered by the regime's militia, who set fire to the house after blocking all the exits.

[00:18:37] When it was my father's turn to be arrested, we were preparing ourselves for the idea that he would never come back alive. A military truck later dumped him in front of the house, and if you knew how much I cried, how much I cried to see my father cowering, holding himself up, wobbling on his legs, face unrecognizable, disfigured by the hits - , his body covered in blood, his own and that of his best friend, dead in his arms from the wounds inflicted by the torturers.

[00:19:18] And if they freed my father, it was to show all the college students he led what could happen to them if they dared to criticize the president and his army.

[00:19:34] For us, as for so many others, there was no other solution but to flee, to leave the country. It was a matter of life and death.

[00:19:44] We were very lucky to be helped by ambassadors who managed to get my father out. My sister and mother and I lived in fear and insecurity until we were able to join him a year later in Quebec, Canada, where he had been granted refugee status.

[00:20:06] It's such a trauma to have to leave everything behind in such haste, fear and terror. You can imagine, having to leave everything you're familiar with, your whole life behind, some of you in this room certainly know what I'm talking about.

[00:20:31] Gathering in a hurry the few things you can take with you, a few clothes, a few photos, not being able to say goodbye to your loved ones, your friends, not knowing if you're going to make it, or even where you're going.

[00:20:44] You have no idea how much I loved the Caribbean Sea, in all its pure shades of blue, glistening in the sun. I loved the scent of tropical flowers, ylang-ylang, jasmine, frangipane, the taste of mangoes, pineapples and passion fruit, the sweetness of sugar cane and fresh coconut, the aroma of vanilla in milk [...] I loved my grandmother's stories late into the hot night.

[00:21:19] Haiti is also a land of great beauty, you know. With such a generous people. You could say I was a happy child, suddenly plunged into a nightmare. Now imagine this 10-year-old girl, the little refugee from Haiti, dizzy, blinded by the neon lights at Montreal's Dorval airport, with her mother and little sister.

[00:21:52] Leaving your home and native land forever is a bit like separating from your own body. To this day, the experience haunts me, but at last, Canada, there I was, a child of the sun arriving in this wintry land on a cold February night.

[00:22:15] First, there was the fear of the icy ground, then the wonder of that first snowfall that I'll always remember. And in this small asbestos mining community, Thetford Mines, Quebec, we were the only black family.

[00:22:37] We couldn't escape the gaze. We were the attraction, the object of curiosity, yes, benevolent most of the time, but not always. Here and there a few racist words, a few insults were hurled at us.

[00:22:53] With the trauma of total uprooting, I walled myself up in silence, I no longer spoke. I listened, as if mute, and tears often came.

[00:23:14] I told myself I wouldn't say another word for the rest of my life. The words were too heavy, they inflamed my throat. And my mother, also isolated, was very quiet. And then came a moment of redemption. It was a teacher who saved me.

[00:23:38] She called me in front of the whole class and in a very soft voice said: Michaëlle, tell us your story. Tell us your story. I was frightened. I stared at her, and she insisted gently.

[00:24:06] And it felt like it went on forever. Michaëlle, tell us where are you from? Tell us. And I finally managed to articulate a few words, and I saw a gleam of interest in the eyes of my classmates. I'm seeing it in yours right now.

[00:24:33] The words and memories began to flow, the voice came back to me, I spoke of my love for my native land, I spoke of my loss, because I was in mourning, and that's when I began to heal. And little by little, the nightmares left and the need to tell was a balm to my wounds.

[00:25:06] I was able to learn to breathe again... We were always grateful to have found asylum in Canada, and my parents always said: Michaëlle, indifference is not an option. You have to see everything, even when it's difficult, even when it's painful. And that made me who I am today.

[00:25:43] In the high-level meetings at the United Nations on migration issues in which I participated on several occasions as Secretary General of the International Organization of the Francophonie, I was the only one, always the room of all the leaders in the room to be able to say: I've been there.

[00:26:02] For me, it's not about rows of numbers and statistics. We're talking about shattered lives, about men and women and children trying everything to rebuild their lives.

[00:26:25] So I'll tell you what story I'm from, since you're asking me. And you're inviting me to tell it. This great piece of history that too few people here know about, the history of Haiti, the history of Black people and the history of the world.

[00:26:46] Just as the history of Indigenous peoples is a crucial chapter in the history of humanity, without knowing the experience of Black peoples and Indigenous peoples, we cannot understand the history of the world.

[00:27:05] The island where I was born, the largest Caribbean island after Cuba, was originally called Haiti Bohio Quisqueya by the Arawak, Taïnos and Carib peoples whose territory it had been for millennia.

[00:27:32] One day, on October 12, 1492, the Arawaks, Taïnos and Caribs, themselves great navigators of the Caribbean Sea, saw three tall-masted ships arrive on the horizon, three Spanish caravels from which swarmed dozens of canals with crews who soon landed on the island.

[00:28:05] And what's about to happen will change the course of human history. The natives soon realize that the man who demands that his men drive a huge cross, a huge wooden cross, into the ground is the leader. His name was Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who convinced the Queen of Spain, Isabella I of Castile, and her husband, King Fernando 2 of Aragon, to finance his expedition to conquer the Indies.

[00:28:44] At the time, what Europeans called the Indies were the eastern territories of Asia, South and Southeast Asia. Columbus promised to bring back to the monarch all the riches of the territories he would take possession of. He also promised Isabella, known as Isabella the Catholic, to evangelize and convert all conquered peoples to Christianity.

[00:29:12] Europeans place their territorial conquest in the name of God, of the Christian faith they want to spread. For centuries, they have waged war on Arab and Muslim peoples, particularly around the Mediterranean and North Africa, where they have led bloody crusades.

[00:29:32] Conquered territories and peoples, that's what this cross planted on the ground means. The Spaniards scrutinize the islanders massed in front of them, men and women, sparsely covered because of the tropical climate, and on their skin a red paw taken from the seeds of a flower called [...] for its medicinal, antiseptic properties, which also protects them from the sun.

[00:30:02] So, in his diary, Columbus describes them as red pots. And convinced he had landed in India, he called them Indians. He's got it all wrong. He's got it all wrong.

[00:30:19] And to think we still call First Nations Indians. What do we say, "Indian Affairs", we keep saying that, when it's all wrong.

[00:30:34] But in fact, the winds caused the Spanish caravels to drift eastwards. Not through the Indies, the East and Asia, but westwards in the other direction. When they realized their mistake, they named these lands the West Indies, adding the qualifier, the New World.

[00:30:56] Columbus and his men are struck by the sophisticated ornaments, the colorful feathers, the tattoos, but their attention is especially drawn to the golden beads that the natives wear around their necks and on their wrists.

[00:31:12] He also notes that these people are unarmed. Anacaona, the courageous Arawak queen, and the other Taïno and Carib chiefs show no hostility. On the contrary, they are welcoming, eager to communicate, curious to know where these leather-clad men come from, who they are? What is this language we don't understand?

[00:31:43] They offer the Spaniards trays of fruit, share tobacco pipes, hot and sweet drinks, coffee and chocolate, all products of exotic flavors unknown in Europe. The natives also offered them some of these necklaces. Columbus and his men realize that these are indeed gold nuggets, yes, the gold the Europeans covet.

[00:32:11] These well-armed, well-equipped men from Spain are there to bring back the gold, ready to pillage and slaughter to get it.

[00:32:22] The Arawaks, Taïnos and Caribs are fooled. They know nothing of his sabers, swords and firearms, which will soon be turned against them. The native chiefs are massacred, Queen Anacaona is kidnapped and hanged. The native population was enslaved to extract the gold that would make Spain one of the richest powers in Europe. Mission accomplished for Christopher Columbus.

[00:32:57] And he brazenly christened the island Hispaniola, or Little Spain. Other voyages followed, taking the conquest even further. The great empires of the European monarchies - Spain, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and Germany - eager to extend their hold and power over the planet, competed to wrest territories and natural and mineral resources from each other in Africa, Asia and now the Americas.

[00:33:37] Named by a German cartographer in honour of Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer in the service of Spain. This is how the Europeans named this vast continent, inhabited for thousands of years from north to south by numerous populations whose pride in their civilizational trait will be mocked.

[00:34:02] Such outrageously vanquished peoples have radically and tragically diminished in number on this continent, decimated by the murderous attacks of colonizers who also pitted them against each other, and by viruses and diseases brought over from Europe.

[00:34:24] Then the Spanish missionary of the Dominican order, Bartolomé de las Casas, known for his denunciation of the practices of the Spanish colonizers in the Americas and his defense of the rights of the Indigenous peoples, and the same one who recommended that Black Africans be taken as slaves to compensate for the mortality of the natives and to carry out the hard work in the extraction mines, and on the sugar, cocoa and coffee plantations.

[00:34:59] Las Casas only belatedly became aware of the war being waged in Africa and the brutal and barbaric inhuman treatment inflicted by the colonizers on the African people. To his last breath, he would repent. He will repent his fatal error, which has cost millions of human lives, subjected to the defining ideology of colonization: the superiority of the white race.

[00:35:30] It was on the strength of this argument, that of white supremacy, that the European monarchies arrogated to themselves the right to dominate, dispossess, exterminate, capture and embark on thousands of ships that would criss-cross the oceans and seas between Africa, Europe and the Americas, millions of men, women and children chained and humiliated, to be sold and delivered like cattle, like beasts of burden, over whom the masters had all the powers of life and death, rape and torture.

[00:36:10] It's a terrible story: from this trade and slavery, Europe cashed in all the profits and covered itself in gold. And wealth derived from the despoilment of others, from the blood and sweat of bruised and invaded peoples.

[00:36:30] The history of the peoples of Africa and the Americas is tainted by an experience from which one does not emerge unscathed. That of pervasive racism, total dehumanization and genocide of unprecedented proportions, estimated at over 30 to 40 million victims.

[00:36:55] The main languages spoken in the world today reflect colonial rule. Territories were thus balkanized. In the Dominican Republic, on the same island, Spanish is spoken, and in Haiti, right next door, French.

[00:37:16] Then Creole emerged, a language of anchorage and resistance for his stopovers in the masters made sure they came from different African ethnic and linguistic groups so they couldn't communicate with each other.

[00:37:32] So France had taken from Spain part of the island, which became the French colony of Saint-Domingue, while the Spanish kept the other half, which they called Santo Domingo.

[00:37:45] After 400 years, 400 years, of inhuman exploitation and ferocious colonization, something unimaginable happened in Saint-Domingue in 1791. Saint-Domingue, home to the region's largest estates and richest plantations, saw an explosion of anger and an insurrection that nothing could contain.

[00:38:19] Firstly, because of the number of men and Blacks who revolted. Half a million slaves inflamed by a gigantic hope. Three beams of light, three flagship values: Liberté (freedom), Égalité (equality), Fraternité (fraternity). That the Blacks of the plantations felt in their flesh, Liberté (freedom), Égalité (equality), Fraternité (fraternity).

[00:38:52] They will dare to seize them, in view of their powerful charge, these three flagship values, in this revolution that in 1789 put an end to absolute monarchy in France. Liberty or death. They seized this ideal and applied it to themselves, despite their conditions, or especially because of their condition as slaves. Treated as inferiors, mercilessly exploited from the cradle, and abused to the grave by their masters. They set fire to plantations and properties, took up arms, drove away white plantation owners and took over the territory.

[00:39:43] As you can imagine, in a panic, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sends out his warships. But nothing can quell the revolt. The Blacks break their chains and free themselves.

[00:40:04] No turning back. 100,000 will lose their lives. So it's from this fight, this invincible courage that my country was born, and we, its daughters and sons, are aware of it, every day.

[00:40:30] And let me take it a step further. As I was saying, we don't emerge unscathed from centuries of slavery, from the stigma of colonial domination, from this unprecedented violence and legacy. It's not surprising that a system founded on the ideology of white supremacy, this alienation, this senseless hatred, based on skin color, but above all on interests, has given rise to so much fracture, heartbreak and horrific massacres.

[00:41:10] We like to remember, of course, the great and glorious history, the incredible victorious feat, but we also need to learn from the contours of this history, from the episodes of ruthless and bloody confrontation between Haiti's founding fathers themselves.

[00:41:25] Remember their names: Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Pétion, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, generals, Afro-descendants recruited and trained in the French colonial army.

[00:44:45] Of course, all these heroes had their share of bravery and valour, but they also had their share of misdeeds and contradictions that the white settlers were able to stir up and exploit as they saw fit, to divide and conquer.

[00:42:09] A former slave freed as an adult by his masters, Toussaint Louverture's exceptional military skills elevated him to the pinnacle of military and political power in the French colony of Saint-Domingue.

[00:42:26] Napoleon Bonaparte recognized him as a leader and appointed him Captain General of Saint-Domingue, second only to the legal representative of France.

[00:42:41] This Black man, a former slave, was lifted to the top. Toussaint Louverture dreamed of greater autonomy in a colonial context. When Napoleon Bonaparte became commander general of all troops and first consul in charge of revising the French constitution, the colonies were placed under a regime of exception. Toussaint Louverture then drew up a new constitution of his own.

[00:43:16] The constitution of Saint-Domingue of July 8, 1801, which dared to guarantee equal opportunity and equality before the law for all races. He retained forced labor and the importation of workers through the slave trade, and made himself governor for life.

[00:43:42] Louverture identifies himself as French and tries to convince Napoleon Bonaparte of his good will. Of course, Bonaparte, who is preparing a pact with Spain, disapproves of Toussaint Louverture's ambition to decolonize the whole island, including its Spanish sub-region.

[00:44:05] He sends his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, with 20,000 armed men to arrest Toussaint Louverture, firmly establish colonial order and reinforce slavery.

[00:44:20] Betrayed by his lieutenant-general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, seeing him take part in his capture, Toussaint Louverture fell into total disarray. He was deported and imprisoned within the icy walls of Fort de Joux in France, where he froze to death in 1803.

[00:44:49] Alexandre Pétion and other enemies of Toussaint Louverture joined the independence movement and proclaimed the Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804. It was the end of the French colony of Saint-Domingue.

[00:45:09] Thus was born in 1804 the first Republic of Black men and women who liberated themselves and returned to the land once soiled by their degradation and painful captivity its original name, Haiti.

[00:45:36] This fundamental alliance between conquered peoples. We are, but also remembering the first peoples of this place. A few months later, Jean-Jacques Dessalines established Haiti's first empire and proclaimed himself emperor under the name of Jacques Premier.

[00:46:03] His reign was short-lived. Alexandre Pétion, initially close to the emperor, led a conspiracy against him that resulted in Jean-Jacques Dessalines' death on October 17, 1806. Followed by the abolition of his small empire.

[00:46:21] Pétion reaches an agreement with another illustrious figure of the Haitian revolution, Henri Christophe. But competition and discord soon set in. Christophe, elected president of the republic, broke with the Pétion-controlled Senate.

[00:46:39] Haiti is de facto divided into two states: the Senate, which no longer recognizes Christophe as president, elects Pétion in his place. War ensues.

[00:46:50] Christophe controls the north, where he creates a kingdom of which he proclaims himself king. Pétion reigned over the south and, recognizing the aspiration of the peasants, former slaves, to own their own piece of land, he seized the plantations and divided them between his supporters and the people. And for the people, Pétion became Papa Bon-Cœur. The good-hearted leader.

[00:47:19] A supporter in principle of constitutional democracy, Pétion became increasingly intolerant of the constraints imposed by the Senate. In 1816, he proclaimed himself president for life. In 1818, he suspended legislative power.

[00:47:38] But let's give Pétion credit for one thing: it was he who enabled the formidable abolition movements driven by Haiti to spread to all the oppressed peoples of the Americas. Liberté (freedom), égalité (equality), fraternité (fraternity) not only for us Haitians, but for all the other shackled peoples of the continent and the world, said the president of the young republic of Haiti to Simón Bolívar, nicknamed El Libertador.

[00:48:16] Driven out of Venezuela in 1815 and given asylum by Pétion. Pétion also gave him wings, agreeing to provide Bolívar with the financial, material and logistical means to resume decolonization campaigns, following the astonishing example of Haiti. But on one condition: that this struggle would guarantee the emancipation of the slaves, freedom for all on all the liberated lands.

[00:48:53] That's how the new republics of Latin America that we know today were born, from the audacity, the victorious vision and the resources of the small republic of Haiti. There are no small peoples and no great peoples. There is a vision for the whole.

[00:49:15] As you know, Haiti and its people paid a heavy price for this incredible feat, which overturned four centuries of colonial domination. The great European powers, with the complicity of the United States, all slaveholders and segregationists, did not spare their reprisals. Haiti was isolated by a total embargo and, lacking market access, its economy was reduced to nothing.

[00:49:41] France demands that Haitians pay their former masters 150 million francs and that loans be taken out exclusively with French banks, at the highest interest rates. It is creating a debt so heavy and so long-lasting that it has contributed to throwing Haiti into poverty and underdevelopment.

[00:50:06] By the way, I recommend you read the New York Times investigative series from May 2022. Go and read it. A monumental effort led by Canadian journalist Catherine Porter, formerly of the Toronto star.

[00:50:21] One of the questions the survey takes the time to answer is: what would have happened if Haiti, freed from its debt burden, had developed at the same pace as its Latin American neighbors?

[00:50:35] A reasonable hypothesis from all points of view. What if the money had stayed in Haiti? It could have been invested in essential infrastructure - bridges, schools, hospitals - investments that pay off in the long term and stimulate a country's growth and development. Taking all this into account, the loss to Haiti - what economists call the opportunity cost - is estimated at between US$21 and US$115 billion, or around one-and-a-half to eight times the size of the Haitian economy in 2020.

[00:51:11] So for nearly six generations, up until my parents' generation, Haiti paid tens of billions to the French state. And that was to compensate, capital and interest, the slave owners driven off their plantations by our ancestors, and their descendants.

[00:51:37] In other words, we had to pay those who owned us for the privilege of regaining our freedom after centuries of violence, genocide, abuse and forced labor for their benefit.

[00:51:53] The Haitian economy has never recovered from this odious debt, to the point of becoming the poorest country in the hemisphere. A stigma, a label still attached to Haiti in the dominant discourse. What do people tell you and what do you hear when they talk about Haiti? The poorest country in the hemisphere. You need to know why.

[00:52:18] The United States also took a stand in Haiti, with President Woodrow Wilson sending hundreds of marines to occupy the country to protect American economic interests. A racist ally of France, they in turn took complete control of Haiti's economy and central bank.

[00:52:47] On August 1, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to withdraw the Marines and on August 15, 1934 formally transferred authority to the Haitian armed forces, which had been created by the United States.

[00:53:06] 220 years later, since its proclamation, the Republic of Haiti is still on shaky ground. And the population is trying to survive, afflicted by one ordeal after another, including the spirit of discord.

[00:53:23] The spectre of betrayal, of division, very often stirred up by great powers, into which unfortunately the fathers themselves, the founding fathers of the nation, sank.

[00:53:36] As if we couldn't escape it. I could, you know, go on and on about the American occupation, the numerous coups d'état, the transition from one regime to another, the destabilization, the political disarticulation of the country, the impasses.

[00:53:55] History has shown time and again, and I'll end on this note, that the perpetrators of our misfortunes are not only from outside, but also from within our own ranks. How many autocrats, murderers, predators, assassins and bandits have acceded to power in order to abuse it.

[00:54:15] With no regard for the common good, or the ideals of our emancipation, or the rule of law, the principles of justice, the best interests of the people and the republic, the best interests of the nation, the general interest, they have systematically flouted freedom.

[00:54:38] Privileged castes of oligarchs have been formed, gulfs have widened ever wider, leading to greater impoverishment of the population, and the dream of equality has been crushed, destroyed.

[00:54:55] Contempt for others and their dignity, predation, total indifference and abject exploitation of the working classes and peasants in extreme poverty and misery, separation and characterization based on skin color, is a denial of our common humanity.

[00:55:16] And if only, if only we could have kept the universal humanist values, the founding and original ideals, in the foreground. The country is sinking into misery for lack of investment in its human capital, in targeted public policies, in essential infrastructures, in the protection of its territory, for lack of a vision of inclusive, responsible and sustainable development, its youth is idle, aimless and without prospects for the future. And the deficit is abysmal.

[00:55:49] A lack of justice and equity. Impunity and corruption as a system, a population abandoned, left to precariousness and indigence, look at the disaster. These lawless criminal organizations, now the masters of the capital and presiding over the balkanization of the country, more than a hundred criminal organizations whose munitions and weapons of war are bought on the American market, also transit freely from Florida to Haiti on boats that are in no way bothered by the American coastguard and which, once the weapons have been delivered, leave with cargoes of drugs.

[00:56:30] The hypocrisy is blatant, it has to be said. While the U.S. maritime police are boarding boats carrying poor migrants fleeing by sea these gangs are terrorizing them.

[00:56:43] A nameless terror that translates into the daily rape of women and children, the appalling multiplication of kidnappings, torched neighborhoods, targeted assassinations, constant assaults - it's hell.

[00:57:00] The population, exhausted and feeling completely let down by a corrupt political class and a largely infiltrated and outdated police force, descends into exasperated anger. And how hard it is to see them resorting to expeditious violence against any suspected gang member captured by popular vigilantes in the neighborhoods.

[00:57:32] The horror of the summary executions of young gang recruits, known or presumed, takes place before the appalled eyes of children. De facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry is not trusted by the population. He was put in place by the group of ambassadors to Haiti from the United States, France, Canada and the United Nations after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

[00:57:59] And they proceeded without any regard for civil society or the Haitian constitution. President Moïse was executed by the same criminals who had been granted impunity, in the belief that he would obtain their protection by encouraging them to join forces, thus following in the footsteps of his predecessor Michel Martelly.

[00:58:20] But with the mafia, as soon as you get close to it, it devours you. They seize the opportunity. So what am I thinking when I see my native country in this state? I can't help but think of the 500,000 slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, that half-million women, men and young people who rebelled for the conquest of freedom, the hope of equality and the thirst for fraternity.

[00:58:55] To the 100,000 of them who lost their lives, to their suffering, their sacrifices, their deep aspirations for justice and solidarity, and I am saddened to see Haiti's institutions dismantled, paralyzed, leveled once again by corruption and total impunity. I am saddened by the spectacle of native land, discredited in the eyes of international organizations and despised by so many.

[00:59:22] And I say this in all truth, freely. So we have to put ourselves to the test of facts and realities, from past centuries to the present day. In conclusion, I'd like you to think every time you hear the word Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, of what the Haitian people have been able to offer humanity.

[00:59:55] Here in Canada, we're part of the same story, that of European colonization of this continent, from east to west and south to north. Our destinies are therefore linked, and it's up to us to learn from them together.

[01:00:18] Thank you.

[01:00:49] Adelle Blackett: Madame President Lenton, CEO Murray, Professor Davis, poet Kamahary, audience members, colleagues and friends, Your Excellency, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, what an honor to hear you tell this story of Haiti that can hardly be told.

[01:01:15] But it has to be said over and over again in all its magnitude, without sparing us from its pain. The pain experienced by the little 10-year-old girl who loved the sea so much and who, faced with the trauma of historical and systemic oppression, walled herself up in silence.

[01:01:44] This little girl who has become a most distinguished and eloquent voice offers a fair plea to understand just how much the history of Haiti is the history of Canada, is the history of the world. The history of slavery and colonialism is a global history that has shaped the world as we know it and as we live it, in all its inequalities.

[01:02:15] For want, want not, the past will be silenced. If, according to anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the history of the West is not repeated according to the world's perspectives. The perspectives of the world, we know that when words, but yes silences come to seek us, to inhabit us when the words are ours or not. 

[01:02:42] In a speech you gave after the terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010, entitled "Lettre au pays natal" (Letter to the homeland), you said that “ It’s when the great word resilience is bandied to characterize the Haitian people. Mercy! This refrain too, is unbearable. Resilience is the last resort of the flayed.” Telling our story from the world's perspective is more like telling a story of refusal.

[01:03:17] You rightly speak of resistance and anchoring. Certainly through Creole, but also according to the poet Aimé Césaire in his "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal" (notebook of a return to the native land), in the way you imbue any story - in French - with the nuance, complexity and beauty of the native land to which you systematically return out of love and a duty to remember.

[01:03:48] The story of the Haitian people should show us all the way, because they stood up and told the world that they believed in their humanity. And unsubmissive Haiti is still paying the price.

[01:04:06] What about the future? The subject of this installation of series from the Big Thinking at Congress 2023. How does this return allow us to reimagine the future of Black people? 

[01:04:22] It seems to me that your answer, Madame Jean, is inescapable. The future lies in the return. Sankofa, we have witnessed this word and symbol developed by the Akans people, from the West African states and Ghana, as well as Ivory Coast and Togo, which demands a return to the roots. 

[01:04:51] Going back to find what we left behind is necessary to build our future. The return is not a return to folklore, to a story of kings or even “Amazons of the king of Dahomey, princes of Ghana with 800 camels.” Your narration of history, again according to Césaire, obliges us to bring this gaze that does not waver in the face of recurring disappointments. In the face of forces working to destroy our solidarity, we have an enormous responsibility towards our collective well-being, our communal fulfillment. We need to confront the deepest fear or, to paraphrase historian Vincent Harding, in his account of the vocation of the Black scholar, the fear that we are really so powerful, so capable, to dare to build yet another world.

[01:06:10] You know it so well, and so you bring to it an eye that is full of perception and empathy. A passionate eye, your passionate eye.  

[01:06:25] After admiring you from a distance since my youth, I had the honor of making your acquaintance in 2012, Ambassador for Unesco in Haiti, you knew that I was working with the international organization to which the Haitian state had been a member since its founding in 1919, the international labor organization alongside unions, employers, government representatives, to try to rebuild a post-Duvalier labor law, a future of labor law that put emancipation back at the heart of Haitian labor law. 

[01:07:07] And you received me at the University of Ottawa and during an exchange that left such a deep impression on me, with its commitment to the country's self-determination, you left me with generous words of encouragement and confidence in the collective potential of the people.

[01:07:30] In short, in your insistence on return and active commitment, you embody this wide-eyed, lucid hope for Haiti, which is inseparable from the Haitian people, which is inseparable from the future of Black people, which is inseparable from the future of Canada, which is inseparable from the future of the world.

[01:07:57] Two of our great luminaries, C. L. R. James and Sylvia Wynter, have long theorized the centrality of Haiti to any attempt to understand and reconstruct black futures and world perspectives. These visions are rooted in a profound belief in our potential as a people of African descent to recreate and succeed in creating a new world.

[01:08:27] At the United Nations headquarters in New York, the second session of the new Permanent Forum of People of African Descent is taking place, instituted as a logical follow-up to the International Decade of People of African Descent.

[01:08:46] Its members prepared the session by soliciting perspectives on the importance of Haiti's history to the construction of a declaration on the promotion, protection and full respect of the human rights of people of African descent for this collective future. And the recent Halifax Declaration drafted via your foundation, with the very broad participation of black communities, including, and especially with young people, a text that insists on the importance of breaking the silence, recognizing, seeking justice and fostering development. Will be especially interesting for this development of the declaration.

[01:09:43] In the university sector, I couldn't fail to mention the Scarborough Charter Against Anti-Black Racism and for Black Inclusion in Higher Education in Canada, which puts forward the principles of Black self-fulfillment, inclusive excellence, mutuality - because our designs are deeply intertwined - and institutional accountability for achieving this inclusion, as well as very concrete actions to shape our future.

[01:10:14] And I advise a return even to the history of the United Nations and its predecessor the League Of Nations to take just one too little known example, the Haitian lawyer and ambassador Dantès Bellegarde one of the only members of the 1924 Temporary Committee on Slavery, 100 years ago, who was not a colonial administrator, and during the very occupation of Haiti by the United States, dared to insist on the importance of the Haitian revolution's contributions to the conceptualization of the Slavery Convention and free labor worldwide.

[01:10:57] The history of Haiti teaches us or neglects to articulate a vision of free labor lived in full human dignity in our time. And so to conclude in the current construction of a future UN declaration on people of African descent, thus, restorative justice.

[01:11:25] Indifference is not an option. You put it so well. We can't be mere spectators when, once again, according to Césaire, “life isn't a show, because a sea of pain isn't a proscenium, because a man who cries isn't a bear who dances.”

[01:11:46] Above all, dear audience, when you imagine and participate in building emancipatory Black futures out of solidarity, that is, out of a deep understanding of our human mutuality, I invite you to keep in mind that little 10-year-old girl who would like to see the sea swell with the sun, become a jewel as big as the earth. Thank you for your support. 

[01:12:43] Andrea Davis: I'd like to express my sincere gratitude to the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean for this moving discussion, it's a great honour to have you with us today. I would also like to thank Adelle Blackett for this powerful response.

[01:13:00] On behalf of York University and the Federation, we would like to thank once again the sponsors of the Big Thinking series: SSHRC, CFI, Universities Canada and SAGE Publishing.

[01:13:12] The video of today's talk will be available on the Congress platform until June 30. This is the last Big Thinking lecture of Congress 2023. And it's been a pleasure to welcome you all this week. 

[01:13:27] Please fill out a survey about your experience after you leave. Thank you for being with us today, I invite you to enjoy the rest of your day and the other sessions of the Congress. Thank you for your time.