The Commons: Far from here



Far from here

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.

“You’re assertive.”

“That’s a beautiful image.”

“Very encouraging.”

“Very powerful.”

“So confident.”

“You’re empowered.”




“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.


The Commons: Far from here

  1. Very and I mean one very classy lady and makes me very proud to have such as GG … and that’s for sure!

  2. “And quite unlike today’s work of ceremony and tradition, this day’s meeting ended with hugs.”

    But was either of it meaningful? Will anything come off of the GG’s dance with the street urchins, or was it just a photo-op?

    We know about the throne speech. It’ll pass into obscurity with the breathless coverage of Question Period tomorrow or Bob “Are you kdding me” Rae’s leadership announcement tomorrow.

    The markets dropped another few billion dollars today. In a quarter, two at most, two – possibly three – other provinces will announce that they’ll run deficits and the true enormity of the financial disaster will start to become apparent.

    Where will the GG be then? Will she be hugging the PM?

  3. Don’t you worry Anon, Harper will be giving a private group cuddle with all the oil barons later this week. And he’s no doubt sending out the pre-apocalypse new year’s calendars of all things Steve to ease your pain. And to think, when he screwed over the Income trusters, he really was just giving them a head start glimpse of the future!
    Back to the point, i’m in awe and agreement for once with wayne. MJ is awesome. and someone we need to emulate in our own small way.

  4. Aaron,

    I did see this on the local CBC news this week and was struck by the story – the GG truly did come off as interested and concerned.

    Your telling of the encounter is truly striking – bravo.

  5. Good for her. I remember not being impressed when Martin chose her but she has won me over since then.

  6. Jean interviewed me for a brief PSA years ago and she was fascinated by my little career. She’s always been impressive.

  7. I wonder if Harper would ask her to serve another term, and whether she would accept. She seems to have been an excellent choice.

  8. I can often be as jaded and cynical as most, but this kind of story really touches me with pride in our system and in our peoples. So, too, did Kady’s beautiful detailing of the selection of Speaker, along with the pictures before the Speech from the Throne. The flags and red carpet–beautiful.

    I have come around from being a strong supporter of our royalty to not really caring that much whether we have a monarch. But I absolutely want to keep a Governor General! I want to keep the pomp, the traditions and the ceremony.

    And I want our politicians to continue to select strong GGs, as Her Excellency has proved herself a good example.

    You may be right about the Throne Speech, anon, but I suspect many of those kids will have come away with a sense of worth and respect. And that’s something I bet they don’t have that much of. I’m fairly sure its easier to make changes in your life if you feel your life has some worth.

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