navigation main:
Bookmark and Share

People

Welcoming Governor General Michaëlle Jean

by Sierra Bacquie | September 29, 2005

I have come a long way. My ancestors were slaves. I was born in Haiti, the poorest country in our hemisphere. I am a daughter of exiles driven from their native land by a dictatorial regime.

— Michaëlle Jean, accepting her new appointment | August 4, 2005

That day, when Prime Minister Paul Martin announced he had selected 48-year-old Michaëlle Jean to succeed Adrienne Clarkson as Canada’s Governor General, he took a step that was inspired, historic and, at the time, controversial. Jean – a broadcast journalist from Quebec, whose family came to this country as refugees when she was ten – would become the first Black person and the first Black woman to hold the vice-regal position.

Much of the initial response to Jean’s appointment was overwhelmingly positive. Though not widely known outside of Quebec, she had been introduced to English Canada as the on-air host for CBC TV’s documentary program The Passionate Eye, as well as for CBC Newsworld’s Rough Cuts. She was a commanding presence.

The day after the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Toronto Star ran an editorial expressing enthusiastic support for the appointment. Applauding Martin for “resist[ing] the temptation of patronage,” the paper described Jean as an “impeccable candidate,” a woman of “intellect, experience and poise,” and someone who would “breathe new life into an institution that some say is outdated and a vestige of a colonial past.” She was destined, it said, to “unite and inspire” Canadians across the country.

She is also a Black, francophone, immigrant woman who worked for the country’s public broadcaster, which critics often attack as overly intellectual and elitist. Inevitably, gripes were heard in certain corners. A caller to one talk-radio program in Toronto didn’t like Jean’s appointment at all, asking “Why her” when people like former Ontario premiers Ernie Eves and Mike Harris, or former prime minister Joe Clark, could have been chosen instead.

A little more than a week after the announcement, controversy erupted over allegations that Jean and her French-born husband, filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, had separatist leanings. Newspaper articles demanded an investigation and a public declaration of how the couple voted in the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty. By August 26, support for Jean’s appointment had plummeted by more than 20 percentage points (from 59% to 38%). An estimated 250 protesters gathered on Parliament Hill to demand that Paul Martin rescind Jean’s appointment. The Citizens for a Canadian Republic called out for governors general to be elected rather than appointed – despite the fact that this nomination (and the one before it) had broken from the tradition of patronage appointments.

A Canadian Press reporter even wrote that Jean is “said to be fluent in five languages,” evidently refusing to believe all other reports and official biographies. And this from a Saskatchewan pastor named Michael on the National Post’s message board:

WHO??? Looks like the bar is being lowered once again ... next in line must be Rex Murphy ... Then Don Cherry ... Then the guy who runs the laundromat where Paul gets his suits done ...!

There’s a good argument for saying that the bar was raised with Michaëlle Jean’s appointment. Her accomplishments are impressive.

  • Jean is indeed fluent in five languages (French, English, Spanish, Italian and Haitian Creole), and has a reading knowledge of a sixth (Portuguese.)
  • She has a Bachelor of Arts in Italian and Hispanic languages and literature, and a Master of Arts in comparative literature.
  • She taught literature at the University of Montreal until the CBC’s French-language service lured her into the first of many on-air positions with the network.
  • Jean has hosted and produced many documentary programs such as Haïti dans tous nos rêves (Haiti in all Our Dreams) and won numerous awards, including Amnesty International journalism award in 1995 for a 15-part series on women.

In addition to her academic and professional accomplishments, Jean has also been active in her community.

  • She worked at a shelter for battered women for eight years while attending university.
  • Later, Jean helped establish a network of shelters within her home province and across the country.
  • She has worked in organizations that help new immigrants to Canada, and for the related departments of the federal government.

After her installation on Tuesday September 27, it appears that Michaëlle Jean may well be the right Governor General for the times. University of Windsor political scientist Heather MacIvor thinks it no accident that Jean is the second CBC journalist in a row to be appointed to the position. “These are people who know how to handle themselves in stressful situations ... and talk to people in a way that produces good results,” MacIvor told Canadian Press. “Journalists also tend to be non-partisan, essential for a governor general in such a charged environment, and a necessary change from past practice of appointing former politicians to Rideau Hall.”

Even Monarchist League of Canada Chairman John Aimers favours the appointment. “If the job is to continue to carry weight and credibility with Canadians, it has to change with the times, the experts say,” he said in an interview with the Canadian Press. “And change is what the Clarkson and Jean appointments suggest.”

One caller to a Montreal open-line show reportedly described Jean’s appointment as “a sign of change – of an era where Canadian Haitians could begin to occupy positions of power.”

There’s no denying the symbolic significance of Jean’s appointment. The Prime Minister and others have referred to Jean as “the new face of Canada.” The new Governor General embodies what is now possible for people of colour, immigrants, and those historically excluded from positions such as the one she now holds.

At the August press conference introducing the Governor General-designate to the country, a young white male reporter had asked Jean if her appointment was an act of tokenism. Jean responded in a poised and matter-of-fact manner that bespoke a lifetime of enduring the questioning resentment of those much less capable than herself.

“I have never been a token, sir. And will never be.”

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

features

  • Seasonal Feature

  • April 1994: the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women

    by Sierra Bacquie

    There was supposed to be a new approach to the Correctional Service of Canada’s relationship to female offenders, who were promised responsible choices, respect, dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility. But on the night of April 26, eight women experienced humiliation, degradation, raw fear and trauma at the hands of an all-male emergency team. How did this happen? What has changed since?  read more