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#3631: FWD from Montreal Gazette - Folk religion thrives in Montreal (fwd)
Online with graphics at
Sunday 14 May 2000
Folk religion thrives in Montreal
In a hot garage, three drums beat wildly. Thirty people are crammed into
chairs, and a couch in front of an altar is piled high with multi-coloured
cakes and bottles of rum. The steamy air is funky with cologne. A middle-aged
black woman sings in Haitian Creole, smiling and swaying in front of the
crowd. A sweaty youth pounds a sacred drum, his head thrown back, dreadlocks
whirling like octopus tentacles.
Suddenly, the woman's body jerks upright. She spins wildly, arms and legs
flailing, and her eyes roll back in her head until only the whites show. Two
men rush to her side and support her in their arms. A yellow kerchief slips
off her head and her shiny, straightened hair tumbles down.
Body rigid, muscles taut, she stomps the ground with her bare feet. She whips
her head from side to side, eyes stretched wide, sweeping the room with a
It's early morning in Montreal North on June 24 - Quebec's National Day.
Inside Rolande Montreuil's bungalow, behind closed doors and shuttered
windows, members of Montreal's 50,000-strong Haitian community begin their
own kind of celebration - a voudou St. Jean-Baptiste.
Women with kerchiefs knotted around their heads and wearing hoop earrings
chant "Sina, sina, sina dogoue" as they dance, clap and tap their feet
ritualistically. "Nou pou ale vwe sine dogoue (we are going to see sine
Montreuil, the woman in the throes of spiritual possession, is one of a dozen
voudou priestesses and priests - mambos and houngans - active in the Montreal
Voudou - also known as voudu, voodoo and vadou - is a belief system that
blends West African religions with elements of other faiths, including
Catholicism. From its black roots, it takes the worship of ancestral spirits
and gods that slaves brought to the New World from Africa. The prayers and
hymns are borrowed from Catholicism.
Historically, the faith has been a little-known reality in Canada, practiced
clandestinely in basement temples. But thousands of Haitian Canadians are
doing their best to maintain the centuries-old folk religion in a new land
where voudou is often dismissed as quackery or demonized as a malevolent
In pursuing their faith, they face deep-set prejudices fed by recurring
pop-culture images of demented witch doctors sticking pins into dolls - a
practice that does not actually exist in the voudou belief system. Their
religion is stigmatized every day with such derogatory references as "voodoo
economics," "voodoo dolls" and "jungle voodoo."
For most of the faithful, however, voudou is simply a way of life. Like other
religions, it provides believers with a way to make sense of the world, a way
to cope with life.
"I do not practice voudou," says Joseph Cleveland, a Haitian-born cook and
painter who lives in Ottawa. "I live it."
Dissatisfied with more established Protestant and Catholic religions, some
Montreal blacks of non-Haitian origin but with roots in Africa or elsewhere
in the Caribbean have embraced the faith. Even some Quebecers of "pure laine"
origin are turning to voudou. Montreuil speaks fondly of an "adept," a
francophone Quebec woman who she says "wants to become a mambo."
- - -
A taxi hurtles up St. Laurent Blvd., past girls in sundresses tottering on
platform sandals, past bustling sidewalk cafes, whisking me to a 4 o'clock
appointment at Rolande Montreuil's home.
My driver, a Haitian, appears to have strong feelings about voudou. "It's the
devil!" he shrieks. He shudders with horror and fumbles frantically under the
dashboard. "They're playing with demons!" He twists around in his seat and
shoves a "Message of love from God" pamphlet into my hand: "Christ Jesus
responded: I am him. Mark 14:62."
Taped to the headrests for backseat passengers to peruse, in both official
languages, is John 3:16, typed out on pieces of white paper, enlarged and
covered in plastic.
After a slight detour - we get lost - the taxi pulls up to a bungalow on a
tree-lined street in suburban Montreal North. Two toddlers bounce out the
front door, drop to their hands and knees in a puddle of sunlight on the
shady veranda and start racing toy cars.
Montreuil opens the door with a shy smile. A tall, handsome black woman with
10 years' experience as one of Montreal's leading mambos, she leads me
through a jingly curtain of walnut beads into a sitting room with a black
upright piano, and pulls shut a child's safety gate.
An old family saying has it that the musically gifted Montreuils were born in
a piano, she says, laughing, "but my mother says we were born in a hounfour"
- a voudou temple.
While no official statistics exist, it is estimated that somewhere between 40
and 80 per cent of Montreal Haitians practice voudou. The range is wide
because many of them attend Catholic or Protestant church services and
practice voudou in secret.
"It's hidden in our culture," says Alix Joseph, head of the Centre Haitien de
Regroupement et d'Integration a la Societe Canadienne et Quebecoise, which
works mostly with new immigrants. "People are not going to tell their friends
or the public that they are voudisants" - voudou practitioners.
Voudou was banned in Haiti until 1987 and is still held in contempt by some
members of Haiti's transplanted upper middle class, some of whom (like my
taxi-driver) have converted to evangelical Protestant sects and have been
taught that the faith is satanic.
While often portrayed as inherently evil, "there is good and there is bad,"
Montreuil says. Sweeping her arms in wide arcs, she explains: "So we do good.
But the bad is there, because when you do something good for someone, it's
bad for someone else. It's life itself that brings that."
Voudou is primarily concerned with maintaining a balance between the spirits
of the dead - gods known as loas (pronounced "lwa") - and nature. Voudou can
be used to carry out bad deeds, put a curse or spell on someone or cause an
enemy to fall ill, but using it for these reasons is considered evil. Mambos
and houngans who abuse their power and mess around with black magic will be
punished by the loas.
Practitioners of black magic are called bokors, or sorcerers, who, according
to Haitian folklore, can use their powers to turn people into zombies, the
living dead who are then used as bokor slaves.
Montreuil says she is a priestess of the Guinee (a mythical region of Africa)
tradition that focuses on the Rada divinities. These particular loas
originated in an area of West Africa that now falls within Benin and Nigeria,
and are considered to be the "gentle" spirits. More than two centuries ago,
to help the oppressed Haitian slaves overthrow their French masters, the Rada
spirits evolved into the stronger, angrier Petro spirits - "plus chauffes,"
- - -
More people crowd into the shuttered garage. It's 30-plus degrees outside and
it is becoming hard to breathe. The drumbeat is hypnotic and I slide down in
my chair. A laughing girl seated across from me notices and asks: "Est-ce que
tu veux tomber en trance?" (Do you want to fall into a trance?) Someone hands
me an ice-cold beer.
A quiet young woman clad in a white golf shirt and beige pants begins to
dance. She falls to the ground and starts thrashing. People rush to her side
and hold her arms down. When she stands up, it's immediately apparent she has
been "mounted" by Erzulie, the flirtatious goddess of love. The
transformation is astonishing. The shy young woman has been replaced by a
vamp who sashays over to the table and anoints herself with perfume. Then a
large woman starts to flail and falls into the chair on my right, trembling.
Voudou's most defining rituals are these dances that drive participants into
trance-like states, allowing loas to "mount" the worshippers who are referred
to as "horses." Through the "horse," the loa dispenses wisdom and counsel or
simply makes known its desires. After the loa departs, the person who was
possessed usually cannot recall what happened. This certainly appears to be
the case with the young woman who has just been possessed by Erzulie: she
looks completely bewildered.
Presiding over the pantheon of voudou gods is Gran Met, the supreme creator.
Other loas, who function as intermediaries between humans and Gran Met,
include Damballah, the "great serpent"; Legba, god of the crossroads; Ogoun,
the warrior hero; and Erzulie, the goddess of love. There are countless
others as well as powerful deities called Ghedes who are associated with
death, cemeteries and sexual excess.
In return for their guidance, the spirits must be "served" in ceremonies
offering food, drink and sometimes animal sacrifices. Some worshippers take
this a step farther by marrying certain spirits in mystical ceremonies.
Montreuil, for example, is married to a Haitian journalist but is also
mystically married to Damballah, and wears a gold snake-ring coiled around
the middle finger of her left hand.
Two years ago, Sakala-Bi Vakembo, a Congolese-born Montreal nurse, married
Erzulie during an all-night mystical marriage ceremony and feast. In return
for her guardianship, Vakembo, who is single, pledged loyalty, service and
sexual fidelity. He's free to conduct his sex life as he wants most of the
time, but two nights a week he must sleep alone and wait for Erzulie's visit.
"If I must work, I work. If I have things to do, I do them. But before
midnight, I say my prayers to her," he says. "On Tuesday, I am ready to
receive her in my house. She is always in my house - but it is my way of
saying that I am at her disposal. We are here together."
We are sitting in his apartment in Cote des Neiges. The walls are adorned
with a sequined voudou flag and another flag bearing the likeness of Malcolm
X. Vakembo says he instinctively rebelled against Christianity as a young
child growing up in the Congo, but his parents forced him to attend a
Protestant church. Ten years ago, he went to a voudou ceremony in Montreal.
"It suddenly clicked," he says. "This was what I'd been searching for. From
that moment, all other religions ceased to exist. Voudou is the religion of
For the past several years, he has met weekly with a group of believers to
study the history of voudou and discuss how they can clear up the widespread
misinformation that surrounds it. The group has compiled a couple of booklets
on voudou songs, prayers and history.
"When people see voudou," he says, "they say that it is diabolic, that it is
satanic. Our work consists of clearing up misconceptions about voudou to make
it accessible to everyone."
During the French enslavement of Africans on the island of Hispaniola - which
today comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic - voudou was forbidden; the
French feared it would lead to a slave rebellion. But the ban only succeeded
in driving it underground. The slaves disguised their loas behind
representations of Catholic saints and practiced voudou clandestinely at
night in the forests.
As it turned out, the French did have reason to fear, for faith in their
religion enabled Haitians to win the world's first successful slave
rebellion. Legend has it that the uprising began Aug. 14, 1791, when a slave
and voudou priest named Boukman held a ceremony during the night and
sacrificed a pig, calling on slaves and maroons - runaway slaves - to unite
The bloody struggle ended with the creation of a black republic in 1804.
Amazed at the fearlessness of the rebels, who believed no bullets could harm
them, the French demonized voudou as a barbaric pagan religion after their
defeat, providing countries such as the United States with an excuse not to
recognize the fledgling republic.
Efforts to break voudou's hold on Haiti's people have continued into this
century, and voudou has proved to be a powerful force in fueling uprisings.
During the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, voudou leaders
organized guerrilla forces. In 1941, with state backing, the Catholic Church
mounted a huge campaign against voudou. Agents of the church destroyed voudou
religious objects and torched voudou temples. Practitioners were forced to
convert to Catholicism. And yet the cult endured then, as it does now.
To some degree, Haitian Catholics have come to accept the persistent power of
voudou and the fact that many Haitians who profess to be Christians are still
adherents of voudou at heart.
- - -
Several streets over from Vakembo's apartment, in a low-rise apartment
building, lives Noukaab, who goes by one name. He explains that since today
is Monday we must honour Baron Samedi, the Ghede who represents death and
"opens the doors" at the cemetery. A black satin scarf tied around the
doorknob and a melted stump of black candle attest to his devotion.
Noukaab, a slim, brown-eyed, handsome man, is wearing black jeans, sandals
and a baggy black sweatshirt layered over a white T-shirt. A recent immigrant
to Canada, he is unemployed and looking to start a business. Of Haitian
origin, he took an African name because he says it reflects his "Afrocentric"
views. He, like Vakembo, is a member of the ad hoc voudou study group.
"This is for Gran Brijit," he says, pointing to a mauve candle burning on a
dessert plate on the floor. Brijit is Baron Samedi's consort, he explains.
"When you light the candle you say a prayer."
A fierce breeze blows through the kitchen door, which opens out onto the
third-floor fire escape. The candle sputters and several scraps of paper
fixed to the refrigerator door with a magnet flutter. Creole hymns wail from
a cassette player on top of the refrigerator.
Noukaab sings, "Kouman ouye la. Mwen bien. Nap kebe." (How are you? I am
well. We are here.) To the left of the refrigerator, a white bath towel is
spread out on an altar.
"We have to salute ancestors with clairin," he says, picking up a bottle of
white raw sugarcane rum, a drink native to Haiti that dates back centuries to
the time of slavery. "Those who have been dead for 500 years, they don't know
any of the new drinks."
A bottle of Haiti's famous Barbancourt rum, a bottle of strawberry fruit
punch and two perfume vials are also on the altar.
Noukaab wears a thin gold band on his right hand, a thick silver one on his
right, signifying that he is married to Erzulie.
In his bedroom, white towels are spread with rum, champagne, perfume and a
plate of biscuits, beside a pair of tiny pink running shoes that belong to
his daughter, who usually lives with her mother.
He scans the room, taking in something unseen. I ask if he can see the loas.
"They are always with me," he says, chuckling.
- - -
In the 1950s, voudou took on some sinister aspects. During his brutal 30-year
regime, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier co-opted mambos and houngans to maintain
his dictatorship. He capitalized on resentment toward the privileged
light-skinned elite by invoking black power, and though he officially
repressed voudou, he also made skillful use of its imagery with his secret
police, the infamous Tonton Macoutes, whose uniforms were designed to look
like Baron Samedi.
In 1987, after his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, was deposed, voudou
became legal in Haiti for the first time. But it is still the religion of the
poor; the upper classes, having embraced a more Western lifestyle, often seem
uncomfortable with its primitive origins.
That tangled history might explain Haitians' persistent ambivalence toward
the faith: an old saying has it that 70 per cent of Haitians are Catholic, 30
per cent are Protestant and 100 per cent practice voudou.
Joseph Augustin, an attache at the Haitian consulate in Montreal, says this
reality is reflected in the makeup of Montreal's Haitian community.
The first wave of Haitian refugees fleeing Duvalier's repressive regime
arrived in Quebec between 1963 and 1971. Most of these were well-educated,
French-speaking professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers.
The second wave was very different. These gens du peuple hailed from the
lower classes, often people from the countryside who hadn't severed their
cultural roots - "those who need to go and dance the voudou," says Augustin,
who has written a book called Le Vodou Liberateur, which explores the role of
voudou in the Haitian community.
He argues that voudou is not a cult, but a culture.
Augustin, a former Catholic priest who studied theology at the Universite de
Montreal, estimates that 300 members of the local Haitian community regularly
attend all-night ceremonies and fall into trances.
"It's not just anybody who can go to these ceremonies," he says. "They don't
accept people they don't know."
Despite the outward rejection of voudou by some members of the Haitian
expatriate community, most will seek out a mambo or houngan when they are
experiencing personal difficulties or health problems, Augustin says.
Montreuil believes the spirits called her to become a mambo at the age of 30.
A new immigrant to Montreal at the time, she had recently enrolled in a
computer course at a local college. But the loas wanted her full attention
and disrupted her studies, she says. She was disturbed by visions, her
computer inexplicably malfunctioned and she was plagued with eye problems.
A phone call to her mother in Haiti, a powerful mambo herself, decided
matters. Montreuil understood that she had no choice but to accept her
Today, Montreuil leads a busy life. By day she works as a travel agent.
Evenings and weekends, she ministers as a mambo, helping people cope with
problems and ailments.
She advertises in the Haiti Observateur, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based newspaper for
the Haitian expatriate community, and has traveled throughout Canada and the
United States ministering to clients.
She charges from $20 a session up to several hundred dollars for a
full-fledged ceremony with hired drummers. She treats a range of problems,
from health, to finding a job, to winning back a straying husband, to finding
love. Some treatments use elaborate ceremonies that necessitate the purchase
of food and alcohol for the loas.
When a Haitian falls sick, he or she doesn't think about microbes, doctors,
hospitals and needles, Augustin says. "We start by thinking that it is a
spell cast by a sorcerer."
But misunderstandings might arise if a Haitian who believes his illness is
caused by a voudou curse goes to see a doctor who is unfamiliar with Haitian
culture, says Andre Arcelin, a Montreal doctor of Haitian origin: "The doctor
might believe that he is psychotic and he is having hallucinations or is
"I have to fight a little against certain beliefs that are part of Haitian
culture," he says, adding that he tries to do this without attacking a
patient's belief in voudou.
Arcelin's position is complicated by the fact that his late grandmother was a
famous mambo in Haiti known as "Grandnana" (Grandma). After her death she
became part of the voudou pantheon, and some Haitians claim to be possessed
by the loa of Grandnana, he says.
"Sometimes patients come to see me because they think that I am the
repository of the power of Grandnana." They believe that if he examines them,
their symptoms will disappear in a couple of days. "They see me as a doctor
and they see me as a houngan."
Voudou is part of his culture, Arcelin says. His wife, Nicole Roy-Arcelin, a
former Conservative MP and now a member of Montreal city council's executive
committee, has released an album of voudou songs even though she does not
practice the religion.
"My father believed in voudou," Arcelin says. Because of his medical
education, however, his own belief is "maybe a bit less."
Montreuil says proudly that her 17-year-old daughter "has been chosen, too."
One night several years ago, Montreuil was awakened by noises from the girl's
She and her husband found their daughter speaking to something they couldn't
However, she says the girl has not been quick to embrace her gift, because
she doesn't want the responsibility that comes with the power.
I follow Montreuil into the kitchen where she chops celery sticks and puts a
pot of water on the stove to boil.
Would she show me her temple - called an honfour - and altar? Can I go see a
"I have to ask their permission," she says shyly, leaning against the
counter. "Maybe the next time."
- - -
Eight months later, an invitation for a ceremony finally arrives.
I am invited to attend a St. Jean-Baptiste ceremony in the early-morning
hours of June 24, one of the most important dates in the voudou calendar. St.
Jean-Baptiste is represented by a loa called Sen Jan Baptis in Creole. He is
depicted as a youth dressed in a sheepskin sitting under a tree with a lamb
on his knee. He holds a cross made of branches tied together with the
proclamation "Ecce Agnus Dei" (Behold the Lamb of God). Sen Jan Baptis is
believed to have healing powers.
I buy a bottle of white wine to offer as a present to the loas. I pick up
Noukaab and Vakembo and we drive to Montreuil's place in Montreal North. We
carry cases of beer into the kitchen and put them in a cooler. Montreuil's
mother has flown in from Haiti and she is ironing linen. We repair to the
garden, waiting for the guests to arrive.
It's a sultry night and we sit around an umbrella table in the back yard.
With us is a conservative-looking white woman - Montreuil's adept, the woman
who wants to become a mambo. Montreuil's son rides a bicycle with training
wheels on the patio.
Just before midnight, we go in through a screen door, down some stairs and
into the garage - Montreuil's honfour.
An ornate symbol called a veve and representing Sen Jan is drawn on the
ground with a cornmeal paste. Multi-coloured tinsel streamers sway from the
ceiling. A painting of Sen Jan hangs above the altar. After 12, the drummers
arrive and unpack their congo drums.
Montreuil and her mother, a green-eyed mulatto, shake rattles covered in
beads and summon the loas, singing in Haitian Creole. Suddenly, the older
woman collapses in a chair to my left and starts moaning and breathing
"Ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke," she chants frantically, in an eerie stacco
rhythm - the trademark sound of Ghede, the lord of death and the cemetery,
the loa who mocks vanity and pretension. Her eyes roll back in her head, and
there is sweat on her upper lip. "Ke ke ke ke."
Montreuil holds a cup of water to her mother's lips, but the elderly woman
hits it with her hand, sending it across the room where it hits the floor.
She goes over to the altar and picks up a bottle of Barbancourt, quaffs a
mouthful and then spews it at the crowd in a lewd manner. She picks up a
cigar, which someone lights, and starts puffing. Singing bawdily in Creole,
she lifts up the hem of her dress and gyrates lasciviously.
- - -
There are signs that voudou, for so long a little-known reality in Montreal,
is becoming more accessible. Last Oct. 30, the Haitian community held its
first open-invitation voudou ceremony to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Alix Joseph of the Centre Haitien points to the fete as "the beginning of a
reaffirmation" in the community. "This didn't happen before," he says. "I
didn't realize there were so many priests and mambos in Montreal and Quebec -
and I'm Haitian."
It is part of a new openness in the community. On Saturday mornings, CKUT,
90.3 FM, hosts a Haitian-music show that plays voudou music. Haitian voudou
bands, including Boukman Eksperyans, travel to Montreal for music festivals.
Supplies for voudou ceremonies are displayed openly in Haitian grocery
stores. It's even possible to order supplies on the Internet.
Despite the richness of voudou culture in Montreal, experts worry about its
staying power. At the same time that this revival is occurring, some elder
members of the community lament the lack of interest in voudou among
Arcelin, for one, believes that most of these young people are not familiar
with voudou. They also have a shakier grasp of Creole, the dialect of the
Haitian countryside, than their elders, and that's the language of the songs
"It is completely lost for the young generation, I believe," he says. "They
are completely cut off from voudou."
"I have the impression that with the new generation, maybe in 25 years, that
it is going to extinguish itself quietly," says Alix Joseph, who finds that
Haitian youths view voudou as a quaint folkloric tradition.
"But for the moment it is very alive."