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Asylum for Haitian refugees, not Confederates

Chantal Sundaram

September 10, 2017

On August 15, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests over the removal of the monument to Confederate general Robert E Lee, a bronze plaque was quietly removed from the Bay’s outdoor wall in downtown Montreal.

It had been placed there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, descendants of southern combatants who sought asylum in Montreal after their defeat by the North in the Civil War. The Bay gave no reasons for the removal, but they are clear, as protests grow over this legacy in the US.

The plaque commemorated a hidden history in Canada: Confederates were given asylum here after the Civil War. In particular it commemorated Jefferson Davis, president of the confederate states from 1861 to 1865. After defeat Davis considered coming to Montreal in exile, and wealthy Montreal printer John Lovell welcomed him in 1867.

But now on the US border near Montreal, a tent city of hundreds of Haitian refugees grows by the day. They are fleeing the Trump administration’s curtailing of the temporary asylum granted them in the US following a devastating earthquake in Haiti. But because of the Safe Third Country agreement and the fact that Canada does not recognize economic hardship as grounds for asylum, they wait in limbo.

It is a terrible irony that proponents of the Confederacy, with its support of slavery, had a far easier time finding asylum in Canada. Lack of economic and political safety in Haiti today stems directly from its history as a slave colony, and as punishment for its slave revolution. There should be no question about who deserves asylum.

And yet, on the heels of Charlottesville and the broader crisis for undocumented immigrants and refugees in the US, there is no humanitarian answer from Liberal governments in Ottawa or Quebec City.

Monuments to racism

The symbols of the Confederacy that are at the centre of debate and protest in the US today are not in fact historical relics: they were erected in the 1950s as a direct response to the rise of the Civil Rights movement and as an attempt to defend the South’s segregationist Jim Crow laws. This is no less true of the Montreal plaque: it was in 1957 that the United Daughters of the Confederacy financed it.

To defend any of these monuments now is to defend the legacy of slavery and racial segregation into the present and to give voice to those who would turn back the clock on everything the Civil Rights movement achieved. The protest over these monuments is about the reality of US racism today.

But the removal of the Montreal plaque also resonates with the present in Canada given the plight of the Haitian refugees. Due to Trump’s threats to deport all the undocumented, Amnesty International and many others have called for the repeal of the Safe Third Country agreement: the US is no longer a safe port of entry under Trump. Even without repeal, exemptions could be made to resolve this crisis. The only thing lacking is political will.

Racism in Quebec

The situation cannot simply be blamed on racism inside Quebec: it is Canadian federal law that currently prevents asylum to those waiting at the border.

Nonetheless, Quebec neo-Nazis and white supremacists, particularly the street thugs of La Meute, are attempting to foment racial hatred around the Haitian crisis. In mid-August they held a rally in Quebec City on the same day that a rally was being held in support of the Haitians, which resulted in skirmishes with police.

La Meute’s rally should have been dwarfed by those who oppose exploiting a refugee crisis to build support for the far right. But in Quebec as in English Canada, effective strategies to stop them are still evolving.

The Wednesday before in Quebec City, around 50 people gathered in a vigil in front of the US Consulate to denounce the far right from Charlottesville to Quebec. Some organizers had been part of the vigil after the attack on the Quebec City mosque in early 2017, and one, a Quebec solidaire activist, was quoted in the media as saying: “it’s important to send a message 6 months after the attack that the inclusive Quebec we want is one we must create, not just talk about it.” Their slogan was “united against hate.”

A gathering in Montreal the day before the altercation with La Meute and police pointed the way to the kind of mobilization that is necessary to both support refugees and stop neo-nazis. The Montreal Haitian community and their supporters gathered on the initiative of young leaders of that community to ask why both Quebec and tederal governments have handled the situation so badly.

They were supported by others like Amir Khadir, MNA for Québec solidaire, who said he too did not understand why the arrival of the asylum-seekers was so chaotic: “We have many public buildings that could house them, particularly empty hospitals. I don’t understand why we don’t have access to these buildings but leave these migrants at the border, in tents, far from the community that is more than ready to offer their support.” He said both governments must send a clear message that they will not give in to the resentment expressed by some: “I ask myself, would it be the same reaction if it had been Italians who knocked at our door?”

It was on the eve of Canadian Confederation that the Confederacy plaque was placed on the Bay’s Montreal wall. Montreal at the time was the central city of Canadian capitalism, run by wealthy Anglophones upholding British law. The Hudson’s Bay Company itself is a symbol of British North America’s colonial conquest.

And it was only a few short months ago that controversy swirled around the dismantling of the monument to Edward Cornwallis in Halifax, as a symbol of invasion and colonialism of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. The same false debates about respect for Canadian history accompanied the fall of that monument to racism.

The revenge of history

We celebrate resistance to historical racism, from the removal of the Montreal plaque to the Confederate statues falling in the US.

But most urgently we must build a broad-based movement of thousands that demands asylum for today’s refugees, fleeing ongoing imperialism. And one that can at the same time stop the growth of the far right, from La Meute in Quebec to the Canadian Nationals, Sons of Odin, Pegida, and others in English Canada.

At a time when the Canadian state celebrates its 150 years of Confederation, it must account for how it was easier to accommodate Confederates than those fleeing the legacy of slavery in Haiti.

August also marked the anniversary of the great Haitian slave revolt during the French Revolution, about which its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture said:

“It is not a liberty of circumstance, conceded to us alone, that we wish; it is the adoption absolute of the principle that no man, born red, black or white, can be the property of his fellow man.”

That is our collective history, not marked by monuments but by our own selves resisting racism and all injustice.

 Join the discussion "How do we stop the far right", Monday September 25 at 7pm at Steelworkers Hall, Toronto

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