CERLAC 40th Anniversary Reflection Series

CERLAC reaches its fortieth anniversary in November, an occasion to celebrate the achievements and dedication of our members. We recently experienced the loss of our founding director, Louis Lefeber (see this profile from a 1999 CERLAC Newsletter), but many of the people who shaped CERLAC are active colleagues with excellent memories. We are launching a series of online posts in which members of long standing share brief reflections concerning the centre’s development and its broader contexts in the recent history of Latin America and the Caribbean. Liisa North inaugurates the series with a post about the creation of CERLAC, to be followed on a weekly basis and in rough chronological order by posts from other CERLAC members.

Liisa North on CERLAC beginnings

Betinho de Souza | Photo courtesy of Liisa North

Founded in 1978, the history of the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) has been inextricably linked to the twists and turns of Latin American and Caribbean politics. Large numbers of exiles from the brutal military dictatorships that took power in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay began to arrive in Canada after the 1973 military coup in Chile, and quite a few of them enrolled in graduate programs at York University.

Among them was Herbet (Betinho) de Souza, one of the many prominent intellectuals among the new arrivals. I first met him in early 1974, in the Founders College Senior Common Room where York’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies-affiliated faculty had organized an informational session for a packed room of about a hundred refugees who wanted to enroll in Ontario universities. Betinho and quite a few others decided on York. He enrolled in the graduate program in Political Science with scholarship support and a free apartment in the Graduate Residence.

Brazil’s military dictatorship had driven Betinho to Chile in 1970 where he joined the presidential advisory team of Socialist President Salvador Allende. Upon his arrival at York, he quickly turned to leading the organization that eventually became the Latin American Research Unit (LARU). With support from the World Council of Churches, and physical space from Founders College, LARU began to publish studies, organize events, edit a journal, create a Documentation Centre, and stimulate the activities of a group of York students and faculty who taught in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) undergraduate program that had been established in 1972.

LARU associated graduate students – Latin Americans and Canadians -- , together with the faculty of the LACS program, were the movers and doers who established CERLAC in 1978. Among them, Betinho, with irrepressible joie de vivre, provided inspiration for teaching and research on the human rights abuses and repression of the Southern Cone dictatorships from which the exiles had fled. While Betinho eventually returned to Brazil, when its military regime fell apart and basic democratic guarantees were ensured, many others went on to complete doctoral degrees, to teach and lead research at various Canadian universities. Among them were Viviana Patroni and Eduardo Canel, who completed their graduate studies at York, were hired by the University, and became CERLAC directors.

As his doctoral program supervisor, I was disappointed that Betinho did not complete his graduate studies at York, and deeply saddened when it became clear that he, a hemophiliac, had contracted AIDS from the then contaminated blood products in Canada. However, I was very pleased when York awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1996, one of the numerous honours that Betinho received for a life dedicated to promoting social justice. He was one of many “students” who taught me as much as I could possibly teach him.

Liisa North (Department of Politics) was CERLAC’s Director from 1989 to 1991 and served as Acting or Deputy Director at various points in the 1970s and 1980s.

Peter Landstreet on the Chile Project

Photo by Riet Delsing

CERLAC’s Chile Project launched in 1980, two years after CERLAC’s founding. It was one of CERLAC’s responses to the 1960s-1970s wave of military coups referred to in Liisa North’s post and sought to support social research in the country. Chile remained under military rule for 17 years, until 1990.

The Project, at its peak in the mid-1980s, constituted the largest research program on Chile in any university in the world outside of Chile itself. It had about 25 members (Research Associates)—faculty and doctoral students on the Canadian end, mainly but not only at York University. Others participated in specific ways in particular projects (as computer and statistical specialists, for example). And we had many researcher counterparts we worked with in Chile.

The energy driving the creation of the Project at first came from Chilean graduate students at York who had left in the wake of the coup. The two stand-outs driving the process forward then were Harry (Polo) Díaz and Alejandro Rojas, who later became professors respectively at the Universities of Regina and British Columbia. They convinced me of the importance of creating such a project in CERLAC, and to be willing to be its Director. In that process, I decided I’d need to go live in Chile to get to know the country from the inside. (I’d previously lived in Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.)

So I went with wife and son to live and work in Chile for the first half of my 1982-83 sabbatical. (I returned ten times in research contexts.)

Our airplane’s arrival in Santiago indicated what lay ahead. Walking down the steps of the ramp to ground level, we passengers had grim-faced uniformed men with machine guns all the way down both sides of the ramp, their eyes locked on us, making an unspoken but clear statement: “Watch out.” Then after clearing border control (Policía Internacional), my unavoidably expanded take-away thought was “Watch out: we know you’re here.” Over time I acquired a lot of ways of dealing with this situation, mainly with the help of my increasingly numerous new Chilean friends, many of whom were ex-professors and ex-students having been expelled from their universities by the military administrators. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to cope. They kept us safe as I came to know what amedrentamiento (intimidation, instillation of fear) feels like, and developed ways of adapting to it.

I spent six months finding out about and visiting dissident research centers throughout the country. The evolving Chile Project worked with them, and found ways to help them, over more than ten years, and they helped us.

The Project trickled out in the first half of the 1990s. The ending of the military dictatorship in 1990 removed much of the ethical passion that had fueled it.

Peter Landstreet (Department of Sociology) was CERLAC Deputy Director from 1982 to 1988.

Alan Simmons on CERLAC's Early Research on Immigrants, Migrants and Refugees

In the 1980’s CERLAC began to develop international migration research as a major thrust.

Bloody civil wars in Central America over previous years had generated a flood of displaced people and refugees. As these wars wound down, the refugees wanted to know if they could return home to live in peace. NAFTA, not adopted until 1989, was on the horizon. Concerns were rising about the future impact of trade agreements on the rights of workers and migrants. Unprecedented numbers of undocumented migrants from around the world including the Americas were entering Canada to claim refugee status. Immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America were calling for measures to address the racism they faced in Canada.

CERLAC fellows, students, and partners in Canada and abroad responded vigorously to these issues. Looking back, here is what stands out for me.

Exciting new studies were developed at CERLAC to examine how international migration—covering broadly flows of immigrants, visa workers and refugees, along with trade, investment, human rights, and anti-racist policies that influence such flows—could be shaped to favor regional well being and democratic development.

The early research done at CERLAC contributed to significant developments in migration systems theory, a perspective that from its emergence in the late 1980s has generated new insights into links between migration, rights and development.

Senior officials at York encouraged CERLAC’s studies in this field to an unexpected degree. I recall that Harry Arthurs, President of York University at the time, came to listen to visitors speak and panels discuss what we were doing. He and several Vice-presidents and Deans provided encouragement and crucial initial support.

Our exceptional partners were a key to success. I remember particularly the mutual support we developed early on with the Mexican human rights scholar, journalist and activist, Sergio Aguayo. Several individuals like Sergio who were involved early in our programs remain active collaborators and friends.

The research I have described above helped to initiate an important transition in CERLAC’s identity and mission. CERLAC was founded to advance research and knowledge of the Latin American and Caribbean regions. Beginning in the mid 1980s CERLAC added, as a major transformative step, new studies on the impact of Canadian trade, investment, and international migration on these regions and on immigrants and migrants from these regions in Canada. Among the first of many publications reflecting the new transnational mission was Frances Henry’s widely cited book, Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto.

International migration issues have become ever more complex and important over time. New themes—transnational social networks, remittance flows, precarious migrant workers, border controls, and immigrant youth settlement—have been added to CERLAC’s original research agenda. Studies on these and other themes are still unfolding in a world facing new waves of undocumented migrants and troubling threats by wealthy nations to block them with walls and military intervention.

Alan Simmons (Department of Sociology) was CERLAC Director from 1985 to 1989 and Acting Director in 1999-2000.

Patrick Taylor on The Beginnings of Caribbean Studies at CERLAC

Central Square cafeteria at York University in the early 1970s was a lively place for the West Indian students who gathered there following lectures to discuss issues of the day. What was going on in the Caribbean? Who were the visiting politicians in town? Which were the best student groups to join? What were the best courses, and who were the best professors? Who was going back home to contribute to building their newly independent nations?

When I arrived at York University I found myself among first generation West Indian students who often talked about returning to get involved in the politics of the newly independent anglophone Caribbean territories. This was a time of political optimism, when differing socialist policies in Cuba, Guyana, and Jamaica seemed to provide positive options for change. Political perspectives varied, but were most divisive in the case of Guyana, where it was a question of Burnham versus Jagan.

But this was also about Canada. Student groups brought in speakers like Dominica’s Rosie Douglas, who had been jailed in Canada with other black students following the Sir George Williams incident in Montreal. Douglas did not come to speak about Black Power. He came to talk about racism in Canada, about the needs of working class persons of colour whom he had begun to work with and teach while in jail. As a white Barbadian immigrant, I had only heard the Sir George Williams incident described as a “riot.” At my own high school in Barbados, opposition leader Tom Adams had come to our mainly black class to tell us that as an independent democratic nation we already had Black Power in Barbados. Adams would later become prime minister of Barbados and help the Americans invade Grenada. Douglas would become prime minister of Dominica.

Interest in Latin America and the Caribbean following the Cuban Revolution and the new wave of immigrants from the region in the 1970s made possible the hiring of faculty at York and introduction of courses and an undergraduate programme in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. This was the basis on which CERLAC could later develop. As a graduate student at York in the late 1970s with an interest in the Caribbean, I heard that students were working with Louis Lefeber and Liisa North to develop a research centre focusing on the region, and by the time I was ready for postdoctoral research, I was pleased to be welcomed at CERLAC as a research associate.

When Alan Simmons was appointed director of CERLAC his mandate included strengthening the Caribbean arm of CERLAC in response to continued pressure by faculty and graduate students. Michael Kaufmann was appointed deputy director, along with Peter Landstreet. Alan’s interest in migration placed a strong emphasis on Caribbean immigrants coming to Canada, while Michael’s interest focused on Jamaica under Manley and popular democracy in the region. With my own interest in contemporary culture, religion and politics in the Caribbean, I was welcomed by them. I recall on a research trip to Jamaica meeting up with Alan and his wife, Jean, who took me on a tour with them through Morant Bay and around to Port Antonio. On that same trip I met Judith Soares, with whom Michael had put me in touch, and she would become a close colleague and friend with whom I still collaborate.

The Caribbean has played an important role in the development of CERLAC initiatives. In addition to major joint research and institutional development projects, the Caribbean component is notable in the Baptista lectures and scholarships, endowed by the Royal Bank and friends of Michael Baptista, a Guyanese-Canadian; the former Jagan lectures, a joint initiative between CERLAC and the Caribbean community; and the more recent Lukkari and Taylor scholarships for graduate students. Graduate students working on the Caribbean have organized study groups and workshops and participated actively in CALACS and other conferences hosted by CERLAC. Notably, one of Alan Simmons’ graduate students, Dwaine Plaza, would become President of the Caribbean Studies Association, whose annual conferences in the Caribbean are attended by many York faculty and graduate students. Another York graduate, my colleague Andrea Davis, would become CERLAC’s first director of Caribbean background and, subsequently, as chair of Humanities, would introduce York’s new certificate in Black Canadian Studies.

Patrick Taylor was deputy director of CERLAC and graduate diploma program coordinator from 1995-1997.

Patrick Taylor on The Jagan Lecture

Over the years, York University has been host to a number of organized lecture series addressing issues of direct relevance to the Caribbean community in Toronto.  These included the Caribbean Initiative Conferences organized by George Eaton in the early 1980s and the Elsa Goveia Lectures organized by David Trotman in subsequent years.  The Jagan Lecture series was one of CERLAC’s most successful contributions to this dialogue with the Caribbean community in Toronto, and coverage in the media sometimes reverberated back to Guyana and other Caribbean countries.

Susan Mann, President of York University signs exchange agreement with President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana

For many years Dr. Cheddi Jagan, long-time leader of the People’s Progressive Party in Guyana and one of the key architects of Guyanese independence, found himself no more than opposition leader in Guyana.  With the passing of Forbes Burnham and the opening of the electoral system, Jagan was elected President in 1992 and there was growing international interest in Guyana’s future potential and Jagan’s growing profile as an international spokesperson for developing nations. At the time, Frank Birbalsingh was negotiating an exchange agreement between York University and the University of Guyana. At his recommendation, CERLAC invited Jagan to give the keynote opening address at CALACS’s 27th Annual Congress, hosted by CERLAC in 1996.  Covered widely by the Toronto and Caribbean media, Jagan presented his vision of a new global human order, made possible by debt relief and sustainable development. Jagan’s passing on March 6, 1997 was a major loss to the Caribbean community, and it generated a desire to commemorate his contributions.

Frank Birbalsingh again approached CERLAC and, together with Ramabai Espinet (Seneca College) and Chandra Budhu (George Brown College), proposed a series of lectures in Jagan’s honour.  CERLAC embraced the project, as did York International, and a joint committee with representatives of the community, York International and CERLAC was struck to generate speakers and organize the lectures. From the beginning the series was intended to be non-partisan, interdisciplinary and broadly Caribbean in orientation, recognizing the ethnic and geographical complexity of the Caribbean, and acknowledging the strengths and limits of Jagan’s contributions.

The committee felt that it was appropriate to build on the momentum of Jagan’s previous presentations at York by inviting another very high profile speaker to launch the series, and it selected his wife, Janet Jagan, who replaced Jagan as President of Guyana. Co-founder of the People’s Progressive Party, Janet Jagan spoke passionately about her husband’s legacy in the context of Guyanese history and politics to a packed audience at York University in March 1999.  She was followed the next year by Winston Dookeran, Governor, Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, whose lecture focused on development challenges for small states.

The organizers did not shy away from controversy and selected as its next speaker the well-known Trinidadian thinker and political activist, Lloyd Best, whose presentation in 2001 was on race, class and ethnicity in the Caribbean. Paying tribute to Jagan’s contribution, Best did not hesitate to critique post-independence Caribbean leadership of all persuasions, including Jagan’s, in a talk spiced with humour, that analyzed the complexities of Caribbean society and politics and called for a new Caribbean-based understanding of the region.

Subsequent speakers in the series included one of the Anglophone Caribbean’s most famous novelists, Barbadian George Lamming, who had friendly relations with Jagan, and whose lecture in 2002 on language, politics and ethnicity in the Caribbean was notable, in part, for the number of Toronto-based Caribbean novelists in attendance. Lamming was followed in 2004 by renowned literary and cultural scholar, J. Michael Dash, who lectured on the Haitian Revolution and Haiti’s enduring symbolic legacy through to the 21st Century.  Not to be outdone was Carolyn Cooper, the riotously outspoken feminist scholar of Jamaican popular culture, who presented on the sexual politics of dancehall culture in 2005.  Finally, in 2007 historian Walton Look Lai recounted the history and explained the significance of East and South Asian indentureship in the Caribbean.

What was most remarkable about the Jagan lectures was the way in which a vision of a Caribbean lecture series was successfully generated by the Caribbean community for the community with dedicated support from CERLAC and York.  Funds for the talks were generously contributed by various bodies across the university, Caribbean embassies and consulates, and airline partners.  However, without a lasting endowment the series would eventually come to an end, but not without making its mark on CERLAC and the wider Caribbean and Toronto communities.  Other prominent lecture series hosted by CERLAC have now replaced the Jagan Lectures, including the Diana Massiah Lectures (2013-2015) and the ongoing Michael Baptista Lectures, generously endowed by the Royal Bank and the Friends of Michael Baptista.

Note:  For the full list of Jagan Lectures, many of them with attached pdf files of the lectures, see https://cerlac.info.yorku.ca/news-and-events/lectures/

Patrick Taylor was deputy director of CERLAC and graduate diploma program coordinator from 1995-1997.