To her many friends, it will come as a surprise that Yolène Jumelle formed part of the Canadian Who's Who. Since 2004, she has been listed in that almanac of notable Canadians. She is also in the Who's Who in Black Canada, and the International Biographical Centre in Britain lists Yolène as: "a person who made an outstanding contribution to human rights."
Yolène was discreet all her life, but it is time the true story of a person who did not boast be made known to all.
At the time of her death, all I could muster in her obituary were the words "Yolène devoted her life to helping others." These words hardly do justice to a person who made an enormous contribution to Quebec and Canadian public life.
Yolène began her life in Haiti as the daughter of a murdered politician who was a candidate for the presidency in Haiti. The Duvalier dictatorship imprisoned her for her politics, into which she had been born: the jumelliste party was opposed to the Duvalier regime.
In prison, Yolène was tortured, not knowing if she would be killed from one day to the next. She was freed after an American, using his diplomatic status, spirited her out of Haiti. But Yolène, knowing of the American role in Haitian politics, decided not to stay in the United States.
Quebec became her adopted land in 1971. In Montreal, she earned a masters degree in sociology and studied law. It was there that she befriended Michaëlle Jean, Canada's former Governor General. To those attending Yolène's funeral, Michaëlle Jean addressed a letter of condolence in which she referred to Yolène having suffered at the hands of Papa Doc Duvalier.
I have no doubt that these harsh beginnings made Yolène into the determined and strong advocate for human rights that she was.
In Quebec, Yolène helped found La Maison d'Haiti, an NGO that helps Haitian immigrants integrate into Quebec society, La Maison des Jeunes L'Ouverture, which helps combat juvenile criminality, and CRARR (Centre de recherche-action sur les relations raciales) whose purpose is to counter racism in Montreal and in Canada.
As a black woman in North America, Yolène assumed a leadership role in the Congress of Black Women serving first as its vice-president from 1984 to 1988, then president in 1988-89.
Both the federal and Quebec governments recognized Yolène for her contributions to the larger community. In 1989, the federal government named her an administrative judge at the Immigration and Refugee Board, where she decided on refugee claims, and in 1997 the Quebec government named her to the Tribunal administrative du Québec, where she adjudicated social welfare cases.
But most of Yolène's good works will never be documented. Her many friends will remember how Yolène took up both their causes and those of their parents and children as if they were her own.
Martha McDougall is a friend of Yolène.
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