On September 27th, 2005, in front of a seldom-full Senate of Canada, a plainly-dressed Haitian-Canadian stepped to the podium, quoting Queen Elizabeth II as her deliberately-spoken, slightly accented words filled living rooms across Canada—no longer as a journalist, but as our country’s highest official and commander-in-chief.
John Ibbotson remarked in the next day’s Globe and Mail that “there [was] this… young Canadian of Haitian birth, with a smile that makes you catch your breath, and a daughter who literally personifies our future… yes… this is the Canada that Canada wants to be.”
Yes, Michaëlle Jean really did personify to me everything there was to love about being this country.
Here was a Haitian refugee, coming to Canada to fulfill the Canadian Dream, who came with nothing yet throughout her life gave back to the community as a journalist drawing attentions to the causes that would come to define her vice-regal career.
Here was a woman of colour, her father having been tortured in a land “draped in barbed wire from head to toe.”
Her story, in her own words “a lesson in learning to be free,” is one that makes me so proud to call Canada home.
Despite being the “little girl who watched her parents… grappling with the horrors of a ruthless dictatorship,” Jean began a new life in Canada as a reporter and broadcaster. She became outspoken on women’s, immigrants’, and First Nations’ issues, and a spokeswoman whose warmth and passion pervaded the nation a mari usque ad mare.
But, as with any figure in public life, life has not all been smooth sailing for the 27th Governor General, who left office yesterday at the end of a traditional five-year mandate.
She entered office with a flurry of questions dogging her. Most notably, documentary footage revealed immediately after her appointment showed her raising a glass, toasting that “independence can’t be given, it must be taken.” She even had to dispel allegations that she and her husband were former members of the terrorist FLQ.
But I find it hard to believe that Canadians will remember Jean for the storm that ushered her into office, or even her momentous, precedent-setting decision to allow Prime Minister Harper to prorogue Parliament last year while he was staring down defeat in the House.
I believe she will be remembered for her empathy, emotion, and impassioned defence of the values she holds dear. I believe she will be remembered for personifying everything that it is to be Canadian.
Of her forty-odd international tours as Canada’s highest official, her visit to Haiti after its devastating earthquake will resonate most.
The tears flowed freely, the resolve in her voice was palpable, and she opened her arms—and Canada’s arms—to the plight of millions who had their lives destroyed overnight. And from coast to coast, we fell in love with the charismatic Michaëlle Jean again, five years after she was sworn into office.
The Governor General in Haiti that day in March was the microcosm of every feel-good Canadian story.
So say what you want about our country’s allegiance to the Crown, about how the office of the Governor General spends taxpayer money, or about how Jean has given precedent for the Prime Minister to evade his Parliament—these are fair points worth discussing.
But no one could ever dispute that the story of the young refugee from Haiti who transformed her life in a big-hearted country before giving back to her community will always be an enduring example of Canadian identity.
“Everything is possible in this country and my own adventure represents for me and for others a spark of hope that I want kept alive,” Jean said in the Senate at her investiture.
Truer words could have never been spoken by a truer Canadian.