Montreal·2023 Black Changemakers

This academic and author sees preserving Afro-Caribbean culture as his true purpose

For 40 years, Frantz Voltaire has run a Montreal-based centre to share knowledge, past and present, of Black people from the Caribbean, African continent and in Canada.

For 40 years, Frantz Voltaire has run a Montreal-based centre to transmit his heritage to others

A distinguished-looking older, balding and bearded Black man wears a grey, cashmere turtleneck and a wool tweed jacket.
Frantz Voltaire has made Montreal home since he was jailed and then expelled by the regime of then-Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier in the late 1970s. He calls himself a passeur — 'someone who transmits heritage to the other generations.' (Cassandra Leslie/Ciel Photo)

CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province's Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the 2023 Black Changemakers.

Illustration of a man and women and the text Black Changemakers

Over his long career, Frantz Voltaire has been a professor, author, filmmaker, festival director, archivist and more.

But there's one word that best encapsulates his life's work.

"I am what they call in French a passeur, someone who transmits heritage to the other generations," says Voltaire.

Born in Haiti, Voltaire is a world traveller — but at the same time, very much a Montrealer.

He studied in the city in the 1970s before teaching for two years in Mexico, then returning to Haiti. He was jailed by the regime of then-Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier and expelled to Canada in 1979. He's been based in Montreal ever since.

While he was a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, he got the idea to create a centre for films and publications — not only Haitian works, but the work of other Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Canadian authors, too.

"In Canada, we didn't have any centre to collect materials about Afro-Canadians, about migration. So in the beginning we thought it was very important to document the presence," he says.

Frantz Voltaire is an academic and advocate who has long worked to preserve and promote the intellectual output of Afro-Caribbean and Black Canadian creators. (Franca Mignacca/CBC)

The Centre International de Documentation et d'Information Haïtienne, Caribéenne et Afro-Canadienne (CIDIHCA) turns 40 this year.

CIDIHCA's office is in Old Montreal, with satellite offices in Paris and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Voltaire says that multilingual Montreal, with tens of thousands of members of the Haitian diaspora nearby, is the ideal choice for the centre's home.

While the Caribbean is a popular vacation destination during the winter, part of the CIDIHCA's mission is to make sure that Canadian knowledge of the region goes "beyond the beach."

"Our presence establishes that kind of contact," says Voltaire.

'A little Smithsonian Institute for Haitians'

The centre has more than 500 works in its collection, primarily in French, with some English and Spanish titles, as well. It publishes new books each year.

"It's a little Smithsonian Institute for Haitians in Canada," says Sarah Martinez, a project manager at CIDIHCA.

Martinez has been a friend of Voltaire's since she was a student of his at UQAM 30 years ago and wrote a book in 2021 about his life, Un étranger de l'intérieur (A foreigner from the inside), based on a series of interviews with him. 

She says what Voltaire does is "fundamental for collective memory" because stories that document the richness of Afro-Caribbean culture aren't being published elsewhere.

Making these works available is just one way that he has long been "fighting for the dignity of people," says Martinez.

Voltaire's work has earned him both the Order of Montreal and a medal from Quebec's National Assembly.

"I don't see the history of Afro-Canadian communities as a small history. I see we are part of the new narrative that museums and universities have to incorporate in the history of Canada," Voltaire says.

And as the world faces challenges like pandemics and climate change, he says, it has become ever more apparent that "we need to integrate everyone in this global history."

The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Meet all the changemakers here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Colin Harris


Colin Harris is a digital editor and producer based in Montreal.