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Fabienne Colas talks diversity as Montreal’s strength and her hope for the Haitian community

Fabienne Colas is the unstoppable force behind the Montreal International Black Film Festival.
Fabienne Colas is the unstoppable force behind the Montreal International Black Film Festival. Global News

Fabienne Colas is a Haitian-Canadian actress, director, producer and activist. As the head of the not-for-profit Fabienne Colas Foundation (FCF), she has dedicated the last decade to promoting diversity and artistic freedom through education and support.

Colas is the brains behind Montreal’s International Black Film Festival and is among Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2019.

She spoke with Global News about how the past decade shaped up, the challenges in her community and her hopes for the future.

Global News: What were you doing in 2010?

Fabienne Colas: A decade ago it wasn’t a good time. Haiti was hit with an earthquake and it was very difficult for my family and I. 2010 was a very challenging year with the troubles of trying to get my parents out of Haiti, bringing them here to Montreal. But the mission, the vision and the goal was to bring them here, but at the same time I was really trying to use my voice to advocate on the behalf of my whole community, the Haitian community, asking the government to help soften the immigration rules so people could welcome their families sooner.

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READ MORE: #GreatMTLer: Meet Fabienne Colas, the unstoppable force behind Montreal’s Black Film Festival

It was not easy at all, but quickly enough we understood that we needed to create an ecosystem so we could work. We were working together, trying to manage and survive 2010. We lost 300,000 people. Personally it was a decade that started with challenges; after that it made place for togetherness. The government accepted to help us out and people were able to welcome their loved ones sooner. For the first time I felt like I was a part of the human race.

In these hard times, it wasn’t a question of being black or white. It was a question of being sisters and brothers helping each other.

GN: How were you hoping things might shape up in your community over the past decade?

FC: I was hoping my community would be stronger and recover from the devastating earthquake. I was hoping we would get back up on our feet and foster hope. I was hoping Haiti could be rebuilt, but it was hard to believe. I kept telling myself how could we ever go back to what we were before the earthquake? I was hoping the Haitian government would step up for the people following the tragedy.

GN: Were you right or wrong? If you were wrong, how so?

FC: I was right in a sense that things got better, especially for the Haitians here in Canada — we were brought closer together. I was very happily surprised to see Haitian communities pick themselves up and rebuild the next day; they moved forward with their lives. But at the same time, it was such a big tragedy that it’s normal they could not do it all, they did what they could.

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Haitians are not blessed with a good government, which makes it hard because corruption is very high there. In that sense, it was very disappointing, I had more hope in the government. I was hoping politicians would not, for once, simply get involved just to get rich or steal money from the people, because the people are already on their knees.

I was completely wrong. Politicians took the opportunity to get richer instead of helping the community. But I was so proud of the people because they remained resilient and strong.

Click to play video 'Montreal conference tackles issues of diversity' Montreal conference tackles issues of diversity
Montreal conference tackles issues of diversity

GN: What is the single biggest change that has happened in your line of work over the past 10 years that has been a game changer?

FC: The biggest game changer has to be when we expanded the Haitian Film Festival into the Montreal International Black Film Festival. We expanded the platform, which allowed us to accept films from all over the world and that deal with all Black realities. I believe that was the great shift in my line of work over the past 10 years. It definitely set the tone for everything else that would happen later on. That shift opened up so many doors that I never expected.

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GN: What has been your biggest win?

FC: My biggest win was to move to Montreal! When I moved here I wanted to work as an actress — that’s all I wanted to do, but in Montreal there was no space, there was no work for me as an actress because I was just considered a Black young woman immigrant with an accent in both languages. There was no space for me in that ecosystem of cinema and television in Montreal. So people were telling me to study law, medicine, engineering and I didn’t want to. I took this, I took my anger and frustration and I used it to push me forward to create a new world and environment so other artists don’t have to live what I’ve gone through.

GN: What has been your biggest disappointment or miss? What did you learn from it?

FC: The fact that I have to still convince some people that diversity and inclusion is real and important and they need to invest in that, and [that] it cannot just be on the side and something that they aim to do but don’t actually do it. The fact that I still have this conversation with powerful people today that do not take action or invest in it or have a budget for it.
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That’s why we’re committed to closing that gap and change things. They’re losing in the end, because things are going at a rapid pace. The time to invest in diversity is now.

GN: What was the biggest news story of the last decade for your community? Why?

The biggest news story of the decade for my community is when the government announced that Black businesswoman and activist Viola Desmond would be on the $10.00 Canadian banknote. She became the very first woman, besides the Queen, and the first woman of colour to ever be on a Canadian dollar bill. That is historic and it gave me a great sense of pride as a woman of colour.

READ MORE: Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop holds annual Vision Celebration Gala

GN: How has the makeup of Montreal and the community you served changed over the last decade? How does this drive your decisions?

FC: Montreal became a more diversity-driven city; there are more people of colour than ever. There’s more languages spoken on the streets, there’s more open-mindedness everywhere and people love Montreal because when you go out on the street it’s like the meeting of so many cultures.

Montreal is even richer, cooler and nicer than it used to be. We have so many more initiatives geared towards diversity which helps create better cohesion and it helps foster togetherness — that’s something we didn’t have 10 years ago. Montreal’s strength is diversity, but we are nowhere close to where we should be.

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Now it’s a matter of going further. It has driven my decisions every day since I got here. The diversity of this city is the reason I chose it over any other in the world because I wanted to move to California back in the day but I fell in love with Montreal.

GN: What’s your biggest hope for Montreal for 2020-2030?

FC: Where do I start? My biggest hope for this beautiful, amazing, warm city is that we invest more in everything that can foster togetherness and diversity because that’s our DNA, that’s what makes us stronger and that’s what makes us the envy of the world. We’re not perfect but we do it well here.

GN: What is the biggest challenge your community will have to face in the next decade?

FC: I think the biggest challenge in the Haitian community and the Black community is that we have a high rate of unemployment. But they and we need to understand that we need to create our own opportunities, too.

I think the next thing is to encourage entrepreneurship in my community. We need to carve our own paths to success and not wait around for more jobs to get created. I want people to understand that they can’t stand there and wait for their dream job to happen — go create it. I hope the government puts more measures towards entrepreneurship.

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GN: And just for good measure, do you think the Habs will win the Stanley Cup in the next decade?

FC: I so hope that the Montreal Canadiens will win a Stanley Cup in the next decade, but if this was in the stock market, I don’t think I would bet on them!