Activist, educator, mentor, friend. Born May 8, 1931, Gonaïves, Haiti. Died Feb. 10, 2012, in Liancourt, France, of complications of diabetes, aged 80.
Michel Saint-Louis was forced into exile when, as a young man, his political activities against the regime of dictator François Duvalier (aka Papa Doc) threatened his life. After doctorate studies in international public law and political science in Paris, he taught in Algeria for five years before coming to Moncton to take a teaching position at the recently established French-language Université de Moncton.
It was here, at Canada’s largest French university outside Quebec, that Michel settled into a new community and a country that welcomed him, his wife Françoise, and daughters Virginie and Nathalie. He was at the forefront of the creation of the political science department, became its first director and was an active researcher and editor. But by far his most significant impact was on the hundreds of students who, over the course of 25 years, attended one or several of his classes.
In the early 1970s, young Acadians were just beginning to grasp the myriad complexities of international politics and varied political systems. Stimulated by their eager minds, Michel challenged students, forced them to think critically and obliged them to read voraciously, while expecting well-written papers with depth of thought and analysis.
Today, many former students claim Michel was “their” professor. This attachment isn’t attributable only to his teaching skills and knowledge. In a very real sense, he was part of the community. He took some students under his wing and would say, upon noticing that a particular student wasn’t in class: “I saw him playing cards in the student lounge. Go get him, please.” He became a regular visitor to several of his students’ families and was often offered the first strawberries or the first smelt of the season.
Michel was also very much the absent-minded professor, forgetting it was exam time or struggling to put his vest on when he had already buttoned up his winter coat. Never at ease with Canadian winters, a single snowflake would push him to abruptly close his books and order his students home. Decades later, his interest in his former students hadn’t waned: He was always eager to learn all about their accomplishments. In 2004, the Université de Moncton granted him an emeritus professor degree.
In 1996, Michel retired and returned to Haiti, embarking on a second career with the Department of Education at the post-secondary level. He worked tirelessly, amid very difficult conditions, to create new universities in various regions of Haiti. In 2007, he became the president of a regional university in Gonaïves.
For him, education was the tool par excellence to improve conditions in underdeveloped countries. He believed universities should serve the communities in which they are established, notably by providing literacy education to economically disadvantaged groups.
The legacy of Michel’s deep humanity, twinkling eyes and warm smile remains, both in Acadian New Brunswick and in Haiti.
Réjeanne Blais and Yvon Fontaine are friends and former students of Michel.