Sean Mills' A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Quebec explores the intricate and largely unexplored relationship between Québec society and the influence of migration from the Global South, specifically Haiti. His work details the bonds created between cultural and political elites as well as how Haitian migrants in the 1970s helped to shape Québec society. While some of the broader arguments may seem a bit familiar, the book is a necessary and important contribution to the history of Québec, Haitian migration, and Canadian history broadly speaking.
Mills divides his book into two parts with the first part dealing with the inter-war connections between Haitian cultural elites and those in Québec. He reveals how Haiti was both connected to French Canada by language and yet, at the same time, was considered fundamentally different and less civilized. Language and culture could help bring together Haitian elites and French-Canadian ones as Black Haitian leaders could "speak white" (26) by speaking French. As one Laval professor put it: "If I closed my eyes, if I did not know that I was sitting among palm trees [End Page 326] among ebony faces, how could I imagine myself anywhere else but in a Parisien salon!" (33) The Vodou and Creole influences among the Haitian peasantry led French-Canadian intellectuals to have a dual understanding of Haitians. They simultaneously connected with Haitian elites through language, yet believed peasants needed saving. As Mills demonstrates in the next chapter, the peasants' beliefs and culture was what drew French Missionaries to Haiti in order to help save Haitians from themselves. While Mills' work in conveying these views is notable, Part One does appear to be the weaker portion of the book. It only encompasses two chapters while six make up Part Two making the decision to split the book in two an odd choice. The emphasis in these first two chapters is almost all on the writings of elites and despite the frequent mentions of the Haitian peasantry, the reader is not exposed to them as much as one would like. It would have also been interesting to know if French Canadians shared the sentiments of the cultural and political French elite and were able to overlook race when it came to the Haitian elites.
Part Two is arguably some of Mills' best work. In these chapters, Mills introduces readers to Haiti's brutal leader François Duvalier who rose to power in 1957 and ruled until his death in 1971. Originally elected as a populist Black nationalist leader, Duvalier was known for torturing and murdering his political opponents. His repressive regime forced many Haitians who opposed him into exile and Mills eloquently describes the harsh realities faced by liberally-minded intellectuals and artists, many of whom arrived in Québec and began to contribute to the transformation of Québec society that was taking place in the 1960s. In some ways, the argument feels somewhat familiar in that Québec society was changing because of international influences but what really stands out is Mills' ability to complicate the argument further by detailing the myriad ways that language, race, gender, and class intersected and played an important role in transforming Québec society with the arrival of Haitian migrants.
Any historical study that deals with migration has to balance how much attention to devote to the receiving nation versus the migrants' home nation and there are no easy methods of deciding this. There are moments in the book where readers may want more on Haiti, and hear from a broader segment of the Haitian people beyond their activities and role in relation to Québec. The book tends to focus quite a bit on Haitian intellectuals and their works though there are moments in Part Two where Mills does give us greater insights into how a broader class of Haitians struggled to carve a space in Québec society.
Part Two pays particular attention to how Haitians were active...