Canada says one thing and does the opposite in Haiti. Despite Justin Trudeau saying Haitians must approve the solutions to their country’s crisis, in practice Canada simply imposes authoritarian measures.
Last week Labour Against the Arms Trade tweeted, “on Tuesday, the last 10 remaining senators in Haiti’s parliament officially left office, leaving the country without a single democratically elected government official. On Wednesday, a Canadian military aircraft delivered armoured vehicles to the Haitian national police.”
It’s a useful, if somewhat overstated, juxtaposition. For years Haitian elections have had little legitimacy and in mid-2021 the US- and Canada-led Core Group appointed a leader with no constitutional or popular legitimacy. Ariel Henry’s rule has led to a boost in Canada’s assistance to the Haitian National Police (HNP). Ottawa put $42 million into the HNP in 2022. In October US and Canadian warplanes delivered an initial batch of Canadian-made armored personnel vehicles to the Haitian police and Ottawa has pushed to increase UN assistance to the HNP. In Port-au-Prince this week Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP Mike Duheme signed “a new Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate cooperation between our two countries and to strengthen the capacity of the HNP.”
Rather than supporting democracy, the lack of elected officials in Haiti has spurred Canadian policing assistance. After the US, France and Canada overthrew Haiti’s elected government in 2004 Canada ploughed significant resources, including trainers and diplomatic backing, into the new police. Through the 2004-06 coup period a Canadian led the police component of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and 100 Canadian police officers were part of the 1,600-member UN police contingent mandated to train, assist and oversee the HNP. Following the 2004 coup Canada spent tens of millions of dollars on the police after severing almost all assistance to Haiti’s police and judicial institutions when Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party won elections in 2000.
Canada helped the coup regime create a more reliable mechanism for repressing political resistance. Hundreds of police officers suspected of loyalty to the ousted Lavalas government were fired and some killed. At the same time hundreds of former soldiers from a human rights’ abusing military disbanded by Aristide in 1996 were integrated into the HNP.One year after the coup Reuters reported, “only one of the top 12 police commanders in the Port-au-Prince area does not have a military background, and most regional police chiefs are also ex-soldiers.”
Though its mission was supposed to ‘professionalize’ the HNP, the Canadian-led UN police force contributed to the militarization of the HNP and facilitated its abuses. Amidst the post-coup violence the International Crisis Group reported that the HNP “have taken over old [Army] practices, including military-style operations in the capital’s poor neighbourhoods with little regard for collateral damage to civilians. … It is common to observe routine HNP patrols in Port-au-Prince carrying weapons that seem better adapted to war than police work (M16, Galil, M14, FAL, etc.).” A Canadian commander of the UN Civilian Police Unit declared in fall 2004 that all he had done in Haiti was “engage in daily guerrilla warfare.”
Hundreds, maybe over one thousand, were killed in political violence by the HNP in the two years after the 2004 coup. On many occasions Associated Press, Miami Herald and Reuters reported on police killing peaceful demonstrators in Port-au-Prince calling for the return of democracy.
While they almost never publicly criticized police killings after the coup, prior to Aristide’s overthrow Canadian officials claimed he politicized the force as part of a multifaceted campaign to destabilize the elected government.
Since 2004 Ottawa has provided hundreds of million dollars in what is officially described as Canadian “aid” to the HNP. Two years ago, the Trudeau government even tendered a $12.5 million contract in operational support to the HNP under its Feminist International Assistance Policy. Canadian funds have helped build or refurbish many prisons and a major police academy. Through various training initiatives Canada has helped increase the size of the HNP from 5,000 in 2004 to 14,000. Foreign donors provide as much as half of HNP funding.
Between 2004 and 2019 a Canadian generally led the UN police contingent in Haiti and officers from this country staffed its upper echelons. In June 2019 Canada’s then ambassador André Frenette tweeted, “one of the best parts of my job is attending medal ceremonies for Canadian police officers who are known for their excellent work with the UN police contingent in Haiti.” At the time a few dozen Canadian police assisted their Haitian counterparts.
In “‘Haitian Paradox’ or Dark Side of the Security-Development Nexus? Canada’s Role in the Securitization of Haiti, 2004–2009” Kevin Walby and Jeffrey Monaghan describe being denied documents through Access to Information: “Exemptions are telling. First, these exemptions demonstrate how the issue of policing in Haiti is framed in terms of national defence as much as it is framed as international development. Second, these exemptions demonstrate how high-ranking government officials in Canada have vetted our requests and acted to deny information based on its sensitivity and political salience. Third, these exemptions demonstrate that securitization of Haiti is a long-term initiative on the part of multiple government agencies.”
While Canadian diplomats regularly attend police ceremonies and praise the HNP, almost without fail they’ve stayed mum about the force’s abundant abuses. During the remarkable popular uprising against corruption and neoliberalism between July 2018 and November 2019 the police killed dozens, probably over 100. Videos of police beating protesters, violently arresting individuals and firing live ammunition during protests circulated widely. Amidst a month-long general strike in the fall of 2019 Amnesty International reported, “during six weeks of anti-government protests … at least 35 people were killed, with national police implicated in many of the deaths.”
In March 2020 the government put out an outrageous, if correct, travel advisory, warning Canadians that Haitian “police have used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds.” Apart from this message to Canadians, the government failed to directly criticize the killing of demonstrators by a Canadian-funded and trained force. Even when asked directly by the establishment Le Nouveliste about an incident of police repression in July 2020 Canada’s ambassador Stuart Savage refused to answer. During large protests in the fall the HNP again killed many protesters and beat many others with no comment from Canadian officials.
Aside from direct political repression, the population identified the HNP as a leading threat to their safety. According to an October report from the Institute Karl Lévêque, 40% to 60% of Haitian police have connections with gangs. More fundamentally, Haitian prisons are full of poor individuals in pre-trial limbo. After the UN police mission MINUJUSTH replaced the larger MINUSTAH military force in 2017, Regroupement des Haïtiens de Montréal contre l’occupation d’Haïti wrote that MINUJUSTH’s “principal objective is to help the Haitian state develop and professionalize the existing National Police…which will actually translate into more repression of the Haitian people … The power to maintain order…is really the power to defend the status quo, the power to keep intact the dominant order…One cannot pretend to ‘reinforce’ the rule of law when the state, by its nature and orientation, exists only to defend without compromise the interests of the dominant class and of a certain political class.”
The HNP enforces a highly inequitable economic order and Canadian officials have argued that strengthening the Haitian police was good for business. After meeting Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe in 2014 Canada’s International Development Minister, Christian Paradis, linked strengthening the HNP to “attracting private investment”. Paradis said, “we discussed the priority needs of the country as well as the increased size of the Haitian National Police, in order to create a climate to attract private investment.”
Canada’s aim with Haiti’s police operate at cross purposes. To smooth the way for foreign capitalists they seek a ‘professional’ force capable of maintaining order largely free of corruption and egregious abuses. Concurrently, they want a force willing to violently suppress protests against an illegitimate regime and (if needed) oust a popular government trying to the redress the country’s vast internal inequities and foreign dependence.
A similar tension exists in Canada’s broader policy towards the country. Haiti is attractive to global capitalism since it has the lowest labour costs in the hemisphere. Impoverishment is good for sweatshop owners such as Canada’s Gildan, but the insecurity it breeds isn’t.
At this point insecurity has become a substantial obstacle to capitalist interests. But Canada has contributed to Haiti’s descent into chaos by imposing the highly regressive PHTK party and Ariel Henry. Canada has supported “oligarchic gangsterism” in Haiti, as I’ve noted, to stunt popular, sovereign minded, forces.
Today, reinforcing the police offers some potential reprieve from the insecurity caused by neighborhood-based gangs that control large swaths of the country. But the HNP also entrenches an illegitimate foreign-imposed government, which is an obstacle to overcoming Haiti’s most important problems, which are an absence of democracy and sovereignty.
Facts on the ground prove Canada has chosen authoritarian rule that benefits imperialism and a local elite over democracy.