Today, looking dignified and crisp in black and white, the Governor General sat upon her crushed-velvet and wood throne and read into the record this government’s intentions—its legislative agenda for these infinitely troubled times. Next week, she will depart for a series of state visits in Eastern Europe. There she will dine with the leadership of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. When she returns in December, someone will inevitably total up the cost to taxpayers and report it in breathless detail.
Such is the duty—the pomp and circumstance—of the vice-regal. None of which seems perhaps as significant—interesting? meaningful? relevant?—as what Michaelle Jean did of her own volition a few days ago.
A five-minute walk from Parliament Hill, past the impressive Chateau Laurier and the imposing condo tower that was reputedly once home to Belinda Stronach, is the Byward Market, at once the trendiest and crumbiest of the capital’s neighbourhoods—celebrated for both its expensive eateries and easily accessible crack. Just a block south of this, at a local community centre, the Governor General convened a meeting of what her office termed “street-involved youth.” Street kids, in less graceful parlance.
A banner welcoming Her Excellency hung from the ceiling, hand-painted on brown paper. Signs advertising help for various problems—emotional, sexual and narcotics-based—lined the walls. In keeping with new tradition there was singing and chanting as the crowd awaited Jean. After a short wait, she appeared, breaking into that full-face smile, and took her place at the head of an eclectic discussion group.
“It is important for me to see all the realities here in Ottawa,” she said. “Let us take the time. Let us take this time … Everything you share with me … I share with decision makers.”
She wore a black, pin-striped suit and spoke in the sort of breathy, new-agey, Oprah-ish tones that are typical of her. “As I’m here with you,” she said, “I feel comfortable. And I want to know what this means to you, this centre. Thank you for including me.”
The young people in her midst seemed, at first, to be completely baffled by her and this. Not daunted, but perplexed.
“What are you looking for?” begged the first speaker.
“What made a difference?” the governor general asked.
The microphone was passed around the room. There were rambling monologues, stories of homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, fraught families and the like. A single mother who hoped to complete high school. A 21-year-old girl who claimed to live on the steps of the congress centre. A girl overcome after recounting the murder of a friend. After the initial trepidation passed, the kids seemed eager, almost desperate, to talk with her. Or, rather, talk to her.
“There’s not much I can say,” offered one, “because there’s so much I have to say.”
She, in turn, prodded them with questions and effusive adjectives.
“That’s a beautiful image.”
“You’re a very beautiful person.”
The Governor General fixating on each speaker, nodding and smiling. “This centre has saved your life,” she told one, “but they couldn’t have done it without you.” She encouraged those who’d found success to mentor others. She pressed to hear solutions.
It was all completely lacking in irony. And it was all completely lacking in agenda. Accountable to no one and everyone at the same time, Jean came with nothing to sell and, seemingly, nothing to fear. She came and sat and, for an hour or so, listened and talked and asked. And while the relative social status of her audience cannot be ignored, the mere concept of free and open exchange was striking to see. That the participants didn’t at first know what to make of it perhaps only speaking to the novelty of direct and explicit engagement in our little democracy.
“I believe you made all these youth feel important today,” the Governor General was told.
“You’ve given me a lot today too,” the Governor General countered. “You’ve given me validation. You’ve energized me. You’ve encouraged me to continue. It’s very important for me to know this place exists.”
Then, speaking either of herself or her hosts or both: “This is what citizenship is about. It’s not just a word, it’s not just a concept.”
Shortly thereafter, she was finished. And quite unlike today’s work of ceremony and tradition, this day’s meeting ended with hugs.