Historian, Political Scientist and Custodian of Haitian Culture
Our interview takes place in the offices of the Centre International de Documentation et d'Information Haïtienne, Caribéenne et Afro-Canadienne (CIDIHCA), or International Centre of Haitian, Caribbean and Afro-Canadian Documents and Information, located in Old Montreal. The number of books and reference works found here is a fitting image of Frantz Voltaire’s encyclopedic knowledge. Born in Haiti in May 1948, this community leader first set foot on Canadian soil at the age of ten during a family trip. It was the beginning of an international career that has taken him to five continents for his studies and work. He has been a teacher, researcher, speaker, author (A Brief History of Blacks in Canada, 2007, and Black Power in Haiti: The 1946 Explosion, 1988), documentary maker and publisher.
A remarkably inquisitive and cultured man, Frantz is fascinated by social justice, the relations between citizens and the state, and the political history of countries in the Americas. His father was an accountant with a degree from Columbia University in New York state, while his mother was a storekeeper. He was educated by Haitian Spiritans influenced by the Christian philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (a key figure in the development of human rights). These men of faith involved in supporting Haitian communities were of course passionate about social justice.
There’s no question that the influence of leftist social movements also had a shaping effect on Frantz’s worldview as a young man. In the summer of 1967, he experienced Expo 67 in Montreal. He says he was fascinated by what he saw and heard there, discovering a city that was open to the world, having liberated itself from the rule of conservative and Catholic authorities. Following a period studying in Paris the same year, he travelled to various African countries. From 1968 to 1973, he pursued undergraduate studies in history at the University of Chile and a master’s degree in political science at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLASCO). His studies came to an abrupt end after Augusto Pinochet seized power on September 11, 1973. Two days later, Frantz was arrested by Pinochet’s repressive regime along with thousands of other protestors. Held for more than two months in the national stadium in Santiago, he was beaten and tortured with electrical shocks, like many Cubans, Caribbean people and supporters of President Salvador Allende’s socialist politics.
Exiled from Chile in November 1973, he first took refuge in Peru, then established a new home in Montreal at the end of the year. Canada no doubt appealed to him due to its modern society, the presence of a stable, legitimate government and the existence of a francophone community. In Montreal, he completed a master’s degree in political science and international relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). He then spent four years as a lecturer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and an activist in progressive social movements. Following a return to Haiti, where he worked in the countryside, he was arrested by François Duvalier’s dictatorship in August and deported back to Canada. Three days after his arrival in the country, he began his career as a professor at UQAM—a position he would hold until 1991.
Driven by the desire to raise awareness about the cultures and social relationships of Haiti and the African diaspora and to maintain a dialogue about related political issues, he founded the CIDIHCA in 1983. This organization, of which he is the president, serves a broad clientele by operating a document centre (containing 20,000 works) and holding lectures, academic conferences, exhibitions and cultural events, including an anti-racism week in March each year. From September 1993 to November 1994, he served as chief of staff for Haitian Prime Minister Robert Malval’s cabinet, helping to develop an agreement with the United Nations Security Council following the exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The life of the extraordinary activist is featured in the book Un étranger de l’intérieur (“A Stranger from Inside”) by Sarah Martinez (Éditions Somme Toute, 2021).
It's fascinating to delve into the knowledge and experiences of this man who witnessed first-hand the actions of political regimes in places where democracy was in the process of emerging. As he explains today in national media outlets, the 1960s were a time of upheaval, as youth demanded respect for civil rights, open dialogue between government and the people, a rethinking of society’s values and, lastly, openness to the world. Events such as the Vietnam War, Cuban Revolution, May 1968 in Paris, the campaigns led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the Black Is Beautiful movement brought about a multitude of social and political changes. Quebec was shaken by two student-supported events. There was the riot and fire at Concordia University in January 1969, which were stoked by racism and discrimination against blacks on the part of the university’s administration. Meanwhile, Operation McGill français protested against the university’s inflexible administration, calling for it to become more French and listen to the demands of francophone and anglophone students.
The combined ideas and demands of the French-Canadian population during the years from 1960 to 1970 (independence) proved to be a key factor in defining Canadian identity and examining the role of immigration.
“While the overt racial discrimination formerly found in the country’s policies has disappeared from Canada’s laws and regulations on immigration, the marginalization of ethnic groups and blacks is still a reality today. The challenge faced by certain institutions here in Montreal, in Quebec and across the country is to improve the standards, practices and functioning of organizations,” states Frantz.
The multiculturalism policy (1971) that emerged from the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1969) laid out clear policy guidelines with respect to the position of immigrant populations. While the final report of the Laurendeau-Dunton commission (1969) defined Canada’s bilingual and bicultural nature, the prioritizing of non-European immigration remains a subject of questioning and debate to this day. It should be noted, however, that the multiculturalism policy and the subsequent legislation associated it with certainly led to more respect and support for the cultures of millions of Canadians who arrived here via immigration. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act adopted in 1988 specifies “that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future.”
As Frantz remarks, “Canada’s openness to immigration and the coexistence of different cultures within the country represent a strength.” He completely dismisses the great replacement theory, which claims that immigrants are undermining Canadian or Quebec identity. “The provinces and federal government have the power to regulate immigration and language rights for all Canadians,” he notes. As someone who speaks French, English, Spanish and Creole, he also believes that multilingualism is a strategic advantage for business development and that it helps to enrich society as a whole.
Having experienced life under dictatorships, he is keen to point out the essential role played by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms and their enforcement in society: “The provisions of the charters ensure that citizens’ rights are protected against questionable actions, policies or laws proposed by the provincial or federal governments. They provide a framework for respecting values: freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, respect for democratic rights, responsible government and more. The charters clearly represent a check on illiberality and dictatorship.” On December 1, 2022, the historian, guardian and disseminator of Haitian and Caribbean culture in Canada and America was awarded the Vermeil Medal of the Académie française (France) for his contribution to the influence of the French language and literature.
A father of two daughters, one a physiotherapist and the other a lawyer, Frantz shares some life advice: “Open your mind and learn to ask questions. Reflect on your life choices. Rethink your consumption options and favour simplicity for the sake of the planet.”