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Doing Jack for Haiti

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Issue: 33 Section: Opinion Geography: Canada, Latin America Haiti Topics: NDP

January 27, 2006

Doing Jack for Haiti

by Derrick O'Keefe

jack_layton001_web.jpg
Jack Layton campaigning in Halifax in 2004. photo: Rob Maguire
What would have had to happen in Haiti over the course of the election campaign to have compelled NDP leader Jack Layton to bring up Canada's shameful involvement in the plight of the western hemisphere's poorest country?

A brief summary of critical events in Haiti over the course of the long winter race for Parliament would indicate a foreign policy situation worthy of debate, if not strident denunciation. Haiti's slated January 8 elections were postponed, for the fourth time; the Brazilian commander of the United Nations mission died of an apparent suicide and was replaced by a Chilean general who participated in the overthrow of Allende and was trained at the notorious School of the Americas; Father Gerard Jean-Juste, along with hundreds of other political prisoners held by the de facto Haitian regime, languished in prison even after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Solidarity activists made a concerted effort, in particular, to encourage Jack Layton to use the election spotlight to call for the release of Father Jean-Juste, whom Amnesty International has declared a 'prisoner of conscience'. It is, incidentally, widely believed that Jean-Juste, if he were to be released and allowed to run under the exiled Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas banner, would win anything resembling a 'free and fair' election in Haiti today. At the same time as many progressive and concerned people looked to Layton and the NDP to raise the issue, an energetic campaign was being waged to punish Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew for Canada's support of the coup in Haiti. (Pettigrew was indeed defeated by Bloc Quebecois candidate, Vivian Barbot).

Despite all of this, Haiti did not warrant a mention from the national NDP communications team. Nor did, in fact, the issue of U.S. war resisters seeking sanctuary in the United States – another issue the NDP could have featured in order to both highlight a just cause and expose the hypocrisy of the Liberals' rhetoric against the war in Iraq. Until the last week of the campaign, when Layton made an important call for a debate in the House of Commons about Canada's new, more aggressive role in Afghanistan, the only thing resembling 'foreign policy' on the NDP website was a letter of condolence to the Israeli people regarding Ariel Sharon's failing health.

None of this to say that there are not a number of NDP candidates, members, and supporters who took the issue seriously, with some even joining in challenging Liberal incumbents at all-candidates meetings. Alexa McDonough, as the party's foreign affairs critic, and a handful of Members of Parliament, including the re-elected Libby Davies (Vancouver-East) and Bill Siksay (Burnaby-Douglas), have written letters critical of Canada's involvement in Haiti. With a minority Conservative government that will only, if anything, be more overtly supportive of suppressing Haitian democracy and self-determination, the 10 additional New Democrat MPs elected Monday can hopefully contribute to efforts to raise this and other vital foreign policy issues.

But there's no time like an election campaign to bring matters to public attention, and Layton and his handlers failed to bring up Haiti. And that failure represents a disservice to the people of Canada, a life-threatening disservice to political prisoners like the ailing Father Jean-Juste, and a disservice to the long tradition of movements against war and empire in this country.

Years ago, Tommy Douglas passionately denounced Canadian complicity in the war in Vietnam – which included arms sales and the development of the chemical weapon Agent Orange – and called that conflict "the greatest moral issue of our time."

Jack Layton often said he would hold Paul Martin's 'feet to the fire' on foreign policy matters. The feet may now be Stephen Harper's, but Canada's policy in Haiti remains one of the great issues of our time.

Ordinary people across this country, whose morality – in the real sense of the word, not in the nominal "God Bless Canada" sense of our PM-elect -- includes the principal that all human lives, no matter where they are lived, should matter equally, are voicing their outrage at Canada's involvement in the misery of ordinary Haitians. And, as people continue to learn the grim truth about Canada in Haiti, many more will join in saying loud and clear: Not in our name. One can only hope, perhaps in vain, that Jack Layton will be among them.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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