Michaëlle Jean: From Refugee to Stateswoman

In celebration of Canada Day 2020, we take a look back at one of our country’s most diverse and celebrated leaders.

In 1968, a young Michaëlle Jean, along with her mother and sister, made the tumultuous journey from Haiti to Canada. They settled in a small mining town in Quebec. A few years later. Jean would excel at university, accumulating a number of impressive degrees and whetting her appetite for media, journalism and politics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jean’s life reads like a gripping underdog story set in the political arena. Her career is the gold standard for women of colour and Canadian politicians. Her push for social activism, community betterment and unifying Canada reverberates to this day.

Michaëlle was raised in a middle-class neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She was home-schooled by her parents as a measure designed to prevent their daughter from swearing allegiance to dictator Francois Duvalier. Her father, Roger, a preparatory school principal and teacher, was arrested in 1965 by the Duvalier regime. Shortly after his release, he fled to Canada, where he was eventually joined by his wife and two daughters.

The marriage of Michaëlle’s parents disintegrated under the pressure of building a new life and from the trauma of persecution they had experienced. They separated, which led to Jean’s move from rural Quebec to Montreal with her mother, who found work at a clothing factory and as a night orderly. During this time, and while battling the trauma of being uprooted, Jean attended the Université de Montréal.

Ironically, in 1986, Michaëlle returned to Haiti on a documentary assignment at the same time that Duvalier was being ousted from power. Her research efforts in Haiti drew the praise of a producer, which led to a job at the CBC and an award-winning journalism career. In 2004, she was the recipient of a Gemini, her first of many prestigious awards. That same year, she hosted her own current affairs show on RDI, entitled Michaëlle. In 1999, she was the face of two programs on CBC Newsworld for English-language viewers, The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts. As a journalist, Michaëlle never shied away from challenging subjects and controversy, evidenced by her determination to pursue stories about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Her tireless journalistic efforts and integrity led to her being handpicked by Prime Minister Paul Martin to be the 27th Governor General of Canada.

In September 2005, Jean was proudly sword in as Adrienne Clarkson’s successor, following in the footsteps of other journalists who rose to the position of Governor General, including Romeo Leblanc and Jeanne Sauvé. This was the first black person to serve in this vaunted position. Jean claims that the division took her four weeks to make, but she ultimately took the reins to pursue her mission of bringing Canadian politics closer to the realities of Canadians. Establishing her beliefs and political position from the onset, Jean sought to unify Canada into a singular identity, breaking the divide between French and English. She entered public office with the motto of “Breaking down Solitudes”.

In 2005, when Paul Martin announced Jean as his choice of Governor General, it was met with a wave of controversy due to her perceived support of the Quebec separatist movement. She denied these claims, and the controversy was eventually trumped by her body of work related to French Canada.

Her time in office was marked by a devotion to social justice, a support of the arts and drawing attention to issues in Northern Canada, while positively promoting Canadian ideals and politics abroad. Before Justin Trudeau gave the world a fresh and photogenic face for the prying eyes of the public, Michaëlle Jean was the face of Canada, often more synonymous with the country than the prime ministers she served. Her career highlights include being the first Governor General to visit a prison, where she spoke with young prisoners, meeting Pope Benedict XVI, visiting Canadian troops in Afghanistan, welcoming Barack Obama on his first visit to Canada as US President, opening the Olympic Games in Vancouver, and visiting Haiti shortly after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Her term ended in November 2010 when David Johnston took over the role.

Canadians will best remember one incident in Jean’s political career where her considerable power helped avert a simmering political disaster. In 2008, she returned from Europe at the eleventh hour when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government was on the precipice of being replaced by a coalition composed of members of the opposition. The survival was to prorogue Parliament before the vote passed. Since the Governor General held constitutional power, the prime minister had to request that she discontinue the session, effectively ending the uprising. Serving the best interest of Canadians, Jean saved the Harper government. It was a key moment in modern Canadian history, as the nation was hours from a toppled government, and a potential constitutional crisis. It was also when the average citizen realized the power that a Governor General holds and the importance of the position to Canada’s political fabric.

Somehow, Jean’s public profile increased post-Governor General. The Michaëlle Jean Foundation was created in 2009 with the aim of being “a national organization capable of supporting novel initiatives that allow youth from underprivileged communities to unite, share new ideas, and act positively in their communities.” The foundation works to develop changes in the lives of youth at risk and transform their environment through the arts in the face of issues like marginalization, criminality, and suicide. To this day, this continues to be her focus.

Since her time as Governor General ended, Michaëlle Jean has continued the advocacy work that marked her journalistic career and expanded during her time as Canada’s Commander-in-Chief. She continues to play an active role in her foundation, and in 2010 she began a four-year term as a special envoy to Haiti for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She was also the Chancellor of the University of Ottawa from 2012 to 2015.

The same year her tenure at the University of Ottawa ended, she began a four-year mandate as head of La Francophonie, the global body representing French-language countries. She was endorsed for the role by the Canadian federal government, as well as the provincial governments of Quebec and New Brunswick and the government of Haiti. Her priorities as secretary-general include promoting women’s rights and democracy in countries like Niger, Benin, Comoros and the Central African Republic.

Michaëlle Jean made history – and headlines – as Canada’s first black Governor-General. But more than that, she brought her passion for humanitarianism to her duties, and put her focus on issues like the plight of women victimized by violence. While she faced criticism during her tenure for being more overtly political in the role than many of her predecessors, Jean was often in the public eye, raising awareness for important issues and expanding the horizons of what many considered to be a largely ceremonial role.

Her true legacy, though, came from helping unite Canada while other nations were mired in divisive attitudes. She contributed to Canada’s image on the global stage and her diverse career is a blueprint for every person who comes to Canada hoping for a better life and to make a difference.

Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer


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