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For the first time in Canadian history, a female Governor General would be replaced, not by a male Governor General, but another female Governor General.
Such was the case in 2005 when Michaelle Jean replaced Adrienne Clarkson, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Michaelle Jean had been born in Haiti on Sept. 6, 1957, which made her the first Governor General to be born after Queen Elizabeth II was coronated. Her grandmother had been a seamstress who worked long hours to put her children through school following the death of her husband.
Living in Haiti’s capital, Jean lived in a middle-class neighbourhood where her father worked as a teacher of philosophy at a prep school. Jean would not attend that school, but was instead educated by her parents as they did not want her to attend the school where she would have to swear allegiance to the ruler of Haiti at the time.
She would say decades later quote:
“In Haiti, when you grow up under a regime of dictatorship, you really need to believe that you can fight the system. You believe in the importance of speaking out. You believe in the importance of taking risks because this is what fighting for freedom is about.”
In 1965, Jean’s father was arrested and tortured. His family did not know if he was alive until he was dumped on the street outside their home. His head was so swollen they could barely recognize him. Two years later he fled to Canada using underground channels and friends. He would be joined by his wife, Jean and another daughter the next year.
Jean would say years later quote:
“I remember my last day in my native land. The day of uprooting seemed to us the Day of Judgement. The day that we buried our old life.”
The family would settle at Thetford Mines, a mining town in Quebec, where Jean’s father worked at a local college. Her father was never the same though, and she would describe him as a broken man who was often prone to violence. Before long, the marriage of her parent’s fell apart and Jean, her sister and mother moved into a basement apartment where her mother made money working at a clothing factory, and then as a night orderly in a psychiatric hospital.
Jean would say quote:
“Miserable little jobs that my mother accepted without losing her pride. A few cents to make ends meet.”
After graduating from high school, Jean would attend Montreal University and earned a degree in Italian and Spanish. She then pursued a master’s degree in comparative literature at Montreal University, while also teaching Italian there. By her early-20s, Jean was fluent in French, Haitian, English, Spanish and Italian. She was also becoming more involved in activism, especially in helping women who were victims of domestic violence. She would work in shelters from 1979 to 1987, and help co-ordinate a government-funded study on spousal abuse.
During this time, she also helped immigrants obtain entry to Canada, and worked with Employment and Immigration Canada to help them.
She would also marry Jean-Daniel Lafond, and the couple would adopt a daughter, who had been orphaned in Haiti.
In 1986, Jean, for the first time in 20 years, returned to Haiti where she began to conduct research for an article about the women on the island. They arrived in time to see the fall of the government and the ousting of the dictator ruler.
In 1987, as Haiti began elections, she was invited by the National Film Board to return to Haiti to research and interview people in the election.
This led to Jean being hired by Radio-Canada where she became the first Black Canadian to appear on French television news in Canada. She began to work as a host and reporter for various television news magazines and by the mid-1990s, she was hosting le Journal RDI, which earned her a Gemini Award.
Throughout the 1990s, with her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond, she made documentaries about the Black experience in Quebec.
Her star had risen enough by 2004 that she was given her own current affairs show on RDI called Michaelle. She would also appear in English-language news shows such as Rough Cuts and The Passionate Eye, eventually hosting both.
In August 2005, Jean was appointed as the Governor General of Canada by Prime Minister Paul Martin.
He would say she was quote:
“a woman of talent and achievement. Her personal story is nothing short of extraordinary. And extraordinary is precisely what we seen in a governor generalship, who after all must represent all of Canada to all Canadians and to the rest of the world as well.”
It was not an easy decision for Jean, who said in 2008 quote:
“When I was approached with this idea of me becoming Governor General, I didn’t answer right away. My first reaction was to propose names. I came up with 30 right away and they said, no we took care of that. We had a committee you know, but the idea was to ask you. So I took about four weeks and I knew that to have a person like me becoming Governor General would actually provoke a lot of hope in so many people.”
Almost immediately, this created controversy as it was suggested that both Jean and her husband had supported the separatist movement in Quebec. Specifically, it was that her husband had supported Quebec separatism and been close with the FLQ. In a 1991 documentary, both he and Jean are seen raising toasts with Quebec separatists. In a book about the film he wrote quote:
“So, a sovereign Quebec? An independent Quebec. Yes, I applaud with both hands.”
Quickly, the federal government began to assure Canadians that the Governor General did not support separatism. It would also be noted that it was hard to determine the politics of her husband, as he had been born in France in 1944, came to Canada in 1974, became a Canadian citizen in 1981 and married Jean in 1990.
Macleans would write quote:
“The questions swirl around what views Lafond acquired on Quebec’s place in Canada during his many years as a Montreal academic, filmmaker and radio commentator. You’d think he’d have said something definite on the subject. The absence of hard evidence didn’t stop hardcore separatists from sparking a debate about the couple’s convictions.”
Throughout Canada, there were those who decided to make it something more than it likely was. Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein received phone calls from Prime Minister Martin asking them to essentially calm down over the matter. Klein would vow to check into how Jean voted in the 1995 referendum, while Premier Bernard Lord of New Brunswick demanded to know how Jean voted.
Prime Minister Martin would say quote:
“What is taking place here is nothing more complicated than a smear campaign by hardline separatists who see madame Jean’s appointment as a threat.”
Many would question the vetting process but Scott Reid, the press secretary to Martin would say quote:
“We have no intention about asking the future governor general, or her husband, about their former acquaintances and who they might have had dinner with 15 or 20 years ago. We are not going to disgrace either of these people or their office by asking them to turn out their underwear drawer and justify their allegiance to Queen and country. We do not live in Stalinist Russia.”
Jean chose not to respond to the accusations, but eventually stated that she never belonged to the separatist movement. She stated on Aug. 17, 2005 quote:
“I wish to tell you unequivocally that both my husband and I are proud to be Canadian and that we have the greatest respect for the institutions of our country. We are fully committed to Canada. I would not have accepted this position otherwise… [We] have never belonged to a political party or the separatist movement”
Years later she would say of Quebec separatism quote:
“I never saw Quebecers as being on bended knee, oppressed and colonized. We have plenty of power and are a rich society with a voice in the world.”
By the end of the week, most of the steam had gone out of the story and it was believed by most that Rene Boulanger, who had written an article stating that Lafond’s bookcase had been built by a former member of the FLQ with a false bottom to hide weapons, only wrote the article to create a backlash against Jean in English Canada to fuel the Quebec separatist movement.
He would say quote:
“The hatred of our liberty that will be revealed may suffice as much as any Meech Lake, to bond us in the same destiny, the Quebecers of the secular resistance.”
The Bloc Quebecois and Parti Quebecois would both come to her defense. Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois would say quote:
“She had the right to be one or the other. What does she think now? Did she change her mind? It is her right. How did she vote Oct. 30, 1995? We don’t need to know this. Does her husband think the same thing? Did he change his mind? He has the right.”
Louise Harel, interim leader of the Parti Quebecois would state quote:
“The position of Governor General is a symbol of a colonial past which we decline. However, the current campaign being run by certain persons towards Michaelle Jean to ascribe intentions does not distinguish between the function and the citizen who has the complete right to her opinions, regardless of what they are.”
An opinion poll soon found 79 per cent of Canadians approved of her appointment, with 89 per cent in Quebec approving of it.
By late August, support for Jean as Governor General had dropped by 20 per cent. The Haitian community in Canada, in response to this, voiced their support for her and held church services in her honour.
On Sept. 6, 2005, Jean and her family had an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, and were joined by Prince Philip and Prince Edward. It also coincided with her birthday and the Queen and Prince Philip performed the cooking and washing up. Jean would say it was the best birthday of her life.
There was also an issue over her dual citizenship as she was a citizen of both Canada and France, due to her marriage. She would renounce her French citizenship upon becoming Governor General.
Jean would say in 2008 quote:
“I couldn’t relate to those accusations because I know who I am. I know what I stand for. I profoundly believe in citizenship. And I know what citizenship is about. And I could say the same for my husband.”
On Sept. 27, 2005, Jean was sworn in as Governor General. Upon taking office, she became the first Black Canadian, the first person from the Caribbean and the first person in an interracial marriage to become Governor General. She was also the fourth-youngest Governor General at 33 years old, the fourth former journalist and the second person to not have a political or military background. Her appointment also meant Rideau Hall would have a child living in it for the first time since Edward Schreyer was Governor General from 1979 to 1984.
She would say in her first speech quote:
“The time for two solitudes that for too long described the character of this country is past. The narrow notion of every person for himself does not belong in today’s world, which demands that we learn to see beyond our wounds, beyond our differences for the good of all. Quite the contrary. We must eliminate the spectre of all the solitudes and promote solidarity among all the citizens who make up the Canada of today.”
The Globe and Mail would write of her quote:
“Here is this beautiful young Canadian of Haitian birth, with a smile that makes you catch your breath, with a bemused older husband by her side, and a daughter who literally personifies our future, and you look at them and you think: Yes, this is our great achievement, this is the Canada that Canada wants to be, this is the Canada that will ultimately make way for different cultural identities”
As a descendant of slaves, Jean would focus her time as Governor General on emphasizing freedom as a central part of the Canadian identity. She also worked to eliminate the divide that was present between French and English Canada.
On Nov. 11, 2005, Jean and her husband arrived at the National War Memorial for her first Remembrance Day ceremony. Veterans at the ceremony turned their backs on her to show contempt for what they felt were two people who wanted to break up the country.
Despite criticisms for her when she took office, she soon became celebrated for her passionate speaking ability, commitment to youth and Indigenous peoples, as well as the Armed Forces, and her photogenic presence. She would use her office to advance human rights issues, support the arts and bring attention to the socio-economic problems in the Canadian North.
She would travel extensively in Canada, visiting the provinces and territories. She would open the Toonik Tyme Festival in Nunavut, present the Grey Cup at the CFL championship game in Vancouver and became the first Governor General in history to address the Alberta Legislature, which she did on May 4, 2006.
In 2008, Macleans would say quote:
“She loves people and people love her.”
Jean would say quote:
“I like people who make sometimes the impossible come true. I like people who are thought provoking. I like people who are very audacious. I like people who have an idea about making a difference and bringing about change around them.”
In February 2006, Jean made her first international trip as vice-regal, attending the closing ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics, where she also met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.
From Nov. 18 to Dec. 11, 2006, she would visit five African countries, where she championed the cause of women’s rights. While her Africa visit only generated a few headlines in Canada, it was widely covered in Africa. She would urge Mali’s national parliament to enact a bill to let women own property and seek divorce, and she was compared by Mali media to Muhammad Ali and Pele as a symbol of Black pride.
She would say quote:
“I’d rather discuss with people what they can accomplish, about their own power over their own lives, instead of their powerlessness. To me, powerless is like a provocation. I like to defy it and that is what I felt throughout the Africa trip.”
Ironically, while Adrienne Clarkson was criticized for travelling too much, Jean was criticized for travelling too little.
While her approval numbers were low, she was always greeted by large crowds when she travelled. She would also visit Saskatchewan’s Government House in 2007 and had a private discussion with Indigenous female chiefs and elders, which was greatly praised in Canada.
On March 8, 2007, she made her first visit to the Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Her arrival was timed to coincide with International Women’s Day. She would state quote:
“The women of Afghanistan may face the most unbearable conditions, but they never stop fighting for survival. Of course, we, the rest of the women around the world, took too long to hear the cries of our Afghan sisters, but I am here to tell them that they are no longer alone. And neither are the people of Afghanistan.”
In December 2008, she was criticized for agreeing to allow Prime Minister Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament for seven weeks to avoid an election. Keeping with tradition, she, as Governor General, did not explain her reasons for agreeing to proroguing parliament.
On May 10, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands presented Jean with a new tulip named the Michaelle Jean tulip, which was designed to reflect her personal tastes.
By 2009, she was being applauded for her work as Governor General. Don Martin of the National Post would write on Dec. 4 of that year, quote:
“A stuffy role normally confined to state dinners, ambassador greetings and medal presentations went stellar on multiple fronts in 2009, a welcome change from what sources described as her mid-term crisis a couple years ago. There was her raw seal heart chowdown, a widely praised culinary tasting of cultural significant to her Inuit hosts.”
On Oct. 1, 2010, her term as Governor General came to an end as she was replaced by David Johnston. By the time her time as Governor General came to an end, she had seen her approval rating rise to 60 per cent. She was rated the highest in British Columbia and Ontario, and the lowest in Quebec.
On her final day as Governor General, Jean, along with her husband and daughter, planted a burr oak tree on the grounds of Rideau Hall.
While there were criticism at first, Jean would be regarded as having fulfilled her role in an admirable fashion. She had spent her time as Governor General using her charisma and speaking skills to promote Canada, freedom and human rights. She was also highly commended for her dedication to the arts, the Indigenous people, the Armed Forces and her outreach to Haiti, especially after the devastating earthquake.
After leaving her post as Governor General, Jean became UNESCO’s special envoy to Haiti and she would create the Michaelle Jean Foundation to help youth in poverty in rural and Northern Canada.
In February 2012, she became the chancellor of the University of Ottawa, but resigned in 2015 as her new role as the secretary general of La Francophonie was taking up too much of her time. She had taken on that role on Nov. 30, 2014, and was the first woman and first Canadian to hold the position.
She would serve in that role until January 2019.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Macleans, Wikipedia, National Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen,