Haitian Diaspora in Quebec: Rhymes and Revolution | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Haitian Diaspora in Quebec: Rhymes and Revolution

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history.

In the 1960s and 70s, Quebec saw an influx of Haitian immigrants fleeing Francois Duvalier’s dictatorship. By 1971, thousands of Haitians had immigrated to Quebec, the only other majority French-speaking society in North America. Arriving mostly in Montreal, Haitians encountered the Quiet Revolution, the perfect setting to establish their exiled community and combat Duvalier’s regime from abroad. Their battle for liberation infused with Quebec’s own.

But who are these Haitian immigrants, and what do we really know about their history? We speak with musician Jenny Salgado (a.k.a. J Kyll) and educator and historian Alain Saint-Victor to learn more about the relationship between Haiti and Quebec and the influences of the Haitian community in “la belle province.”

Garvia Bailey: The Haitian community is one of Quebec’s most important cultural groups. There are more than 140,000 Quebecers of Haitian descent. Their political engagement, their many successes in science, medicine, literature, the visual arts, and the whole arts scene –– all these rich contributions to “la belle province” are impossible to ignore, both here in Canada and around the world.

But who are they, and what do we really know about their history?

Jenny Salgado, musician, rapper, songwriter, is one of the key figures in Quebec’s Haitian community with success after success ever since she burst onto the scene in 1996.

Jenny Salgado: Redessinés, défigurés, mutilés, assassinés, ministrel du cinéma, grosse babines aux mats des bandes dessinées, des gogos, des gogos, des Gaulois, et goal à gogo, nos enfants se regardent dans la glace et se trouvent hideux, crachent dans la face du passé cryogénisé qui rit d'eux. Swag.

GB: If you follow Quebec rap, you know Jenny Salgado as J.Kyll, lead singer of the group Muzion.

Muzion’s first album was the ground-breaking Mentalité Moune Morne. When it came out in 1999, it showed the world a new kind of Quebec rap. The album topped the charts, and the group’s unique sound – blending French, English, and Haitian Creole – took the province by storm.

JS: To us, it wasn’t a style. It wasn’t even something we created. It just came out of our integrity. The French is specific to this place. It sounds like Montreal. It’s a hybrid language, a Montreal French. It’s from Parc Ex, Saint-Michel, Montreal North, RDP, Pie-IX. It’s not something we invented. It’s not copied, it’s not borrowed, it’s not planned. It’s just how we talk, that’s all.

GB: The hybrid nature of Jenny’s music goes far beyond word choice. Her music is steeped in Quebec culture, but also in Haitian culture and in the history of Haitian Montrealers. Like most Haitian Quebecers of their generation, Jenny’s family left Haiti in the 1970s to get away from the politics of their country.

JS: My parents made the decision that… well, they had no choice but to move. For their safety, for their own future, for their children’s future, they had to immigrate to Quebec to have better opportunities.

That tells you to what extent things that happened somewhere else, in the past, are the whole reason the community is here today.

GB: Jenny’s parents chose to settle in Montreal because of the close ties between Haiti and Quebec, which is the only other majority French-speaking society in North America. That immigration story is not only Jenny’s; it’s a pivotal moment in the history of a community that has gradually put down roots here.

Since the 1970s, the face of Quebec has changed dramatically, thanks in part to artists of Haitian descent such as Jenny Salgado, Kaytranada, Dominique Fils-Aimé and many others.

The history of Haitian immigration is also the history of Quebec in the 20th century.

I’m Garvia Bailey, and you’re listening to Strong and Free, a podcast from Historica Canada. Because Black history is Canadian history.

Alain Saint-Victor is a historian who’s just published a book on the history of Montreal’s Haitian community. He says that to understand the historical context of that first wave of Haitian immigration, we need to go back to the reign of former Haitian president François Duvalier.

Alain Saint-Victor: François Duvalier came into power in 1957, and he gradually set up a dictatorship. There was a so-called election, but historians have clearly established that it was the army that put him in power. And in 1964, he declared himself president for life and began destroying any form of opposition.

He started carrying out arrests, assassinations, and even massacres to some degree.

GB: Anyone who dared to criticize the government was seen as an enemy. Even being neutral was considered suspect and could get you into trouble.

ASV: Unions were banned, associations of journalists were banned, student organizations were banned. Any type of association that wasn’t controlled by the state was automatically targeted.

GB: There was a paramilitary force, called the Tontons Macoutes, that answered only to the president. They would invade people’s homes without any warning.

ASV: Once Duvalier declared you an enemy of his regime, not only could they “disappear” you, they could disappear your whole family, including children. That’s the kind of horror story people lived through in the 60s.

GB: Jenny knows this horror story all too well. Her grandparents were activists who fought against the Duvalier regime. And they too were targeted.

JS: Both my grandfathers were arrested by Duvalier, by the Tontons Macoutes, and ended up in Fort Dimanche. Fort Dimanche was a prison. It was a legendary old prison in Haiti, and it became Duvalier’s prison, where all the dissidents were locked up for God knows how long.

They say the cells were smaller than a bathroom. You could stretch out your arms and touch the walls on either side.

They would cram 15 people in there. They’d have to take turns sleeping. They’d sleep one at a time because it was impossible for everyone to lie down - just atrocious conditions.

The day my grandmother went to get her husband at Fort Dimanche, she got to the gates, and they told her that her husband had died in prison.

That’s a part of my personal history, but also part of history in general. It’s the history of a country and a community that touch me deeply. It’s very much alive in my mind, in my memory, and in what I represent.

GB: After the tragic loss of her grandfather, Jenny’s family, like so many others in their position, decided to leave the country.

ASV: There was a whole wave of Haitians who left. That was what I call the first wave: a lot of intellectuals, writers, and professionals. They left Haiti to settle in various countries, but mainly in Canada, and more specifically in Montreal. 

GB: Why Canada? Well, Haiti already had a longstanding relationship with Quebec, dating back to the 1930s and 40s.

ASV: During the Second World War, a lot of nuns from Quebec went to Haiti to teach. They taught primary school and secondary school.

GB: And at the same time, Haitians were also coming to Canada.

ASV: There were Haitian students who came here in the 1930s, for example, Philippe Cantave. He was a student who actually founded an association called l'Association canado-haïtienne, the Canadian-Haitian association.

GB: In 1937, in Quebec City, there was a conference on the French Language in Canada, and a Haitian delegation was specially invited to take part.

Montreal was the francophone capital of the Americas, so it was a popular destination for that first wave of Haitians, the several hundred people who came in the early 1960s.

ASV: But they settled here as exiles, and that’s an important distinction. They weren’t planning to stay permanently. In their minds, they were waiting for the fall of the dictatorship, so they could go home.

GB: They didn’t have much trouble integrating into the Quebec labour market. The province was in the middle of its own transformation. The Haitians arrived at the height of the Quiet Revolution.

ASV: That was a significant transformation that was happening in that period, but it was one without bloodshed, without social upheaval, without a single gunshot being fired. That’s why they call it the Quiet Revolution.

GB: The Quiet Revolution was a period of political, economic, social, and cultural change that lasted 10 years, from 1960 to 1970. And during this time...

ASV: The Quebec government set out to strengthen the province’s position within Canada. And to accomplish that, it pursued several economic development projects.

GB: One of the most significant was the nationalization of electricity in 1963. Since then, the province’s power grid has been managed entirely by Hydro-Québec.

ASV: This revolution was also a period of emancipation for women in Quebec.

GB: Women demanded gender equality. They gained equal access to higher education on the same terms as men, and they entered the workforce in large numbers.

Imagine, before the Quiet Revolution, none of this was possible.

ASV: Previously, education in Quebec had been dominated by the Catholic Church - by the clergy. And now the State was taking over.

GB: In 1968, the province founded the University of Quebec network, which today includes 10 academic institutions.

ASV: There was a new sense of openness to other cultures. A lot of relationships were formed. And there were some Quebecers, even in the sovereignty and independence movement, who felt they had a lot in common with people in the developing world, who, at that time, were trying to rid themselves of colonialism.

GB: Some Quebecers dreamed of sovereignty, and they felt a strong sense of solidarity with the struggle for independence and democracy in other nations.

ASV: That’s why the Haitian intellectuals who arrived in that period were so well received and they found their place.

GB: Throughout the Quiet Revolution, they remained politically active. And despite the distance from their country of origin, they continued to denounce the Haitian dictatorship.

ASV: Exile left a strong mark on Haitian literature here in Canada, in the United States, and in France as well.

There was a whole literary movement that focused on denouncing the dictatorship. It started at that time and went on until the 1980s.

GB: In 1971, 14 years into his reign of terror, François Duvalier died. But by then, he had managed to appoint a successor: his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude. Like his father, he too became president for life.

ASV: Think about what this meant for that first wave of exiles who had wanted to go home one day. Now, in 1971, it became virtually impossible. They were going to die abroad. There was no way for them to go home.

GB: Around that time, there was a second wave of Haitian immigration. The dictatorship was still in place, but these new immigrants to Quebec weren’t considered political exiles; they were economic immigrants.

ASV: There were many, many people in this second wave. Many of them had lost their land in Haiti, their property. Some of them were still working in Haiti, but unemployment was getting much worse, and people were coming here mainly to work.

GB: From 500 Haitian exiles in Montreal in 1967 to more than 3,700 in 1971. The community was growing.

ASV: Immigration reached its peak in 1973. That year, Haitians were the largest group of immigrants to arrive in Quebec.

GB: 14.5% of immigrants to Quebec that year were from Haiti. Many of them went to work in the textile industry, where there was a great demand for labour.

But then Quebec went into a recession.

Unemployment grew, and the clothing industry gradually started to outsource to developing countries, where labour was cheap. Haitians were forced to adapt, and many turned to other occupations: driving cabs, working in restaurants and in health care.

ASV: That caused a reaction from the Quebec population, and also from employers. That’s when the racism against Haitians really started to show. They were becoming more visible because they were starting to occupy jobs that were “not intended for them.” And people started to say that they were stealing jobs.

GB: Starting in the 1970s, and all through the following decades, Haitians in Quebec have been fighting against discrimination, racism, and deportation.

Many first-wave Haitians hadn’t experienced this kind of discrimination when they arrived, and they got to work helping the newcomers integrate.

They created community organizations like the Maison d’Haïti and the BCHM, the Office of the Haitian Community of Montreal.

ASV: That’s when the idea of a community really developed. That second wave created the community. It was a wave that brought in a large number of Haitians who wanted to settle, wanted to stay, wanted to educate their children and build a community.

This is important to understand. Naturally, their struggle against racism, their struggle to be accepted in certain jobs – all that strengthened the community because there was a sense of solidarity in working towards that common goal.

GB: In 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier’s government was overthrown in Haiti, finally putting an end to 29 years of rule by Duvalier father and son.

Some of the first-wave exiles were still holding on to their hopes of finally going home. But for most of them, this proved to be an impossible dream.

ASV: Several decades had passed. That's a lot of time. And by that point they had lost touch with the reality of life in Haiti. It wasn’t the same country that they had left, and that came as a shock to them.

GB: Since then, the community hasn’t stopped growing. Today there are several generations of Quebecers of Haitian descent who were born in Canada.

Some of the battles fought by their parents and grandparents in the 70s, 80s, and 90s continue to this day. And these battles are at the heart of Jenny Salgado’s music, music that emphatically stands up against injustice.

JS: When we learn about our history, we see that it’s a history of never-ending struggle for Black communities, for Black people, and in particular for the Haitian community.

My ancestors fought for their right to be treated as people, as full-fledged human beings. How can I just ignore all that? Or do I recognize this, and accept the fact that I have to continue the work that was done before me?

Bottom line, when you put all my work together, that’s the story it tells.

GB: It’s no surprise that, when you ask Jenny about her musical inspiration, she mentions a whole range of musicians and styles.

JS: Obviously, it starts with the music that was played in our home. There was the Haitian music my parents listened to. They listened to all kinds of music, from Haitian troubadours, to, you know, Big Band, compas, blues, jazz, reggae, and soul.

My mother listened to a lot of Quebec music, and French music. So, I absorbed all of that, too. And all of that has coloured the way I create melodies and the way I create rhythms.

That includes all the Quebec musicians I’ve heard, from Ferland, to Diane Dufresne, to poets like Gérald Godin and Michèle Lalonde.

GB: But when it comes to writing melodies, what informs her signature sound is the music of Haiti.

JS: I love using sounds and instruments from Haitian music. But I’m talking about the early sounds, the ones that are connected to their African roots – the tamtam and the shakers that you hear in rara, in Voodoo music.

I marry these sounds with modern ones, with electronica, with electronic sounds. So, it’s a kind of transmission, a kind of passing down, a bridge between what came before me, what exists today, and what will come after me.

GB: More than 20 years after Muzion released their first album, the influence of Haitian culture in Quebec is stronger than ever.

At one time, the Montreal dialect that combines French, English, and Creole would be heard only in certain neighbourhoods. Today, it has spread across the entire city.

Patnè, sézi, bahay, lakay are just a few of the Creole words now used by young Montrealers of all backgrounds. What do they mean in English? Patnè means friend, sézi means shocked, bahay means thing, and lakay means home.

JS: To hear my dialect spoken by native Quebecers – I’m flattered by that. I think it’s really cool. It shows how at the beginning, we wanted to move out of the margins and join the mainstream. And since then, there’s been such an evolution.

GB: But to Jenny, using these words comes with a certain responsibility.

JS: We have to make sure it doesn’t go too far, where those words are appropriated by the masses, or by just anyone, without any understanding of the origins of this language, who it belongs to, who actually created it.

The fact that this language was born in Montreal but is rooted in another place, you know? It comes from immigration, from our parents’ journey. There’s a profound backstory that needs to be honoured, that needs to be passed down. I don’t want us to forget where it came from.

GB: It’s true. This unique style of French reflects the history and the presence of the Haitian community in Quebec. Jenny knows it, I know it, and now you know it, too.

Strong and Free is produced by Media Girlfriends and Historica Canada.

You can find Strong and Free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

This series is part of a larger Black history education campaign by Historica Canada. For more resources, visit historicanada.ca

This episode was written and produced by Josiane Blanc.

Senior producers are myself, Garvia Bailey, and Hannah Sung.

Sound design and mix by David Moreau and Gabbie Clarke.

The Media Girlfriends team is rounded out by Lucius Dechausay, Jeff Woodrow and Nana aba Duncan, the founder of Media Girlfriends.

Thank you to Quebec author-composer-performer Jenny Salgado. And thank you to our script consultant, educator and historian Alain Saint-Victor.

Thank you to Imposs for the use of his song “Jaco” featuring Jenny Salgado.

English versioning by Power of Babel.

Fact-checking by Cloé Caron.

I'm Garvia Bailey, thanks for listening.