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The Sound of Their Voices


Translated by : Steven High, Nadine Mondestin, and Stéphane Martelly

« Tout déverrouiller en soi pour mieux ouvrir en nous le sanctuaire de l'humain, c'est notre liberté » (Patrick Chamoiseau)

Here at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling of Concordia University where I write and do research, we are surrounded by voices. Much of our work in recent years has focused on the histories of violence and displacement. It is through these recorded voices and these witnesses that we have gained access to stories from the four corners of the planet, so distant and yet so similar. Through our research and our reflections, we have sometimes learned to cross the disciplinary and political barriers that keep us at a distance from these voices. In contemplating the life stories of people who have seen first-hand the rise of fascism, of totalitarian regimes, of genocidal violence, we have gradually become witnesses ourselves, whether we have experienced these atrocities or not. We have become witnesses to the witnesses, guardians and archivists of their memory, indebted to their generosity and their courage.

This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of the words, actions, and laws of mounting intolerance in North America. Faced by the extreme acts of the current government of the United States, led by Donald Trump, that are affecting thousands of refugees and landed immigrants, faced with the terrorist attack on the mosque in the town of Sainte-Foy here in Quebec that has already led to the death of six people, serious injury and grief to many others, we cannot remain silent.

These voices that we have heard, untiringly, speak to us of family, of the childhood homelands, of connections and lineage, of the desire to find a home. Untiringly, beyond the trauma, they affirm our shared humanity.

They encourage us also to be vigilant and careful. Because organized violence is no one’s, no country’s sole prerogative. It does not only involve gas chambers, machetes or guns, but also the ordinary bureaucrat or the head of state, who closes borders and normalizes racist speech or xenophobia, who slowly distributes rejection and death at the point of their pen, or who, in the face of suffering of « others », simply turn away their eyes. When weapons are used, it is already too late: humanity has already been divided between those who are legitimate and those who are not, some lives are already more valuable than others, the names or categories have already been assigned, small aggressions or larger ones have already taken place.

While they come to us broken but still resistant, carrying with them a knowledge acquired at the expense of incurable wounds, these witnesses convey in their upright bodies stories of violence. They arrive in a territory that their dreams imagine better than it actually is, a land imagined to measure up to their ideals of peace, equality and freedom. They do not always notice right away the signs of violence present here that is polite and more or less hushed, that which is exercised in systemic racism or colonialism and that is, for sure, no less violent, and no less organized. But when, in a time of crisis, these discourses escalate in tone, when the future horizon is masked or uncertain, when irreparable actions take place, they have seen enough in their lives to warn us to be careful; they know enough to recognize what is unfolding before their eyes.

That we offer them something else: Striving to do justice to their memories and live up to their high hopes can only honor and elevate our lives together, social harmony and our democracy.

We, the witnesses of witnesses, therefore affirm with this declaration our solidarity with all refugees, all migrants, all Muslims, and all marginalized peoples who have borne the brunt of this violence. We amplify the voices of all those who have survived such violence, who have managed to escape from it, or have been forced into exile. On many occasions and in several languages, they have warned us of the dangers of hateful language and acts. We have heard you, we have seen you, and we stand by you in these days of defiance and resistance.


Stéphane Martelly
Montréal 2017
Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

Original French version published in Le Devoir.



Concordia University