As a woman in politics and a representative of royalty, there has always been a fascination with Michaëlle Jean’s attire. Often glamorous, the Governor General has hardly shied from the subject. It was with some justification then that Peter Mansbridge, anchoring the CBC’s coverage of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa, ventured a review of Jean’s appearance. “She seems to look pretty striking, and I think most Canadians have agreed with this position, in almost any outfit she chooses to wear,” he declared.
This, though, was different. Standing beside Prince Charles, Jean appeared in uniform. Mansbridge deemed her “resplendent.” Whatever the adjective, this was something more than fashion. This was Michaëlle Jean, commander-in-chief.
“Part of the role of the Governor General is to express as a person our feelings and sentiments,” says Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto. “And though we’re all divided about the war in Afghanistan, we’re not divided about our support for the men and women who are serving there. I think that’s why we had such a splendid turnout on Remembrance Day. Her being there in that uniform, I thought, was just terrific.”
The title of commander-in-chief was officially bestowed upon the governor general in 1947. And even though Jean appeared publicly in uniform earlier this year, this was perhaps the first time she fully inhabited the role before the nation. It was also, in keeping with a Governor General who has sought an emotional connection with Canadians, an intensely personal gesture—one arrived at after a military officer on leave at Rideau Hall encouraged her to consider wearing a uniform in tribute to those who serve. “It was the right suggestion at the right time,” says Marthe Blouin, Jean’s press secretary.
Jean subsequently debuted in a navy uniform during a ceremony in Halifax this June. “I would like to begin by confiding something to you,” she told members of the navy there. “I grew up under the yoke of a ruthless dictatorship, where the military uniform came to symbolize the brutal repression of the people, tyranny and massacres. Since becoming commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, I have had the opportunity to work alongside you—the women and men of this country who don the uniform. You can see how far I have come.”
The young Haitian girl is now the ceremonial head of state. And the Governor General now finds herself the commander-in-chief of a military embroiled in its deadliest mission in decades. When she addressed the country for the first time as Governor General four years ago this fall—before Canada had suffered the vast majority of its current casualties—Afghanistan was not explicitly invoked. That speech laid out the ideals she has most famously pursued since: community, engagement and equality, with a special emphasis on connecting with young people. She has defined herself by the motto “briser les solitudes,” breaking down solitudes. Days before reading the Throne Speech last fall, for instance, she convened a meeting of street youth in downtown Ottawa. In May, while touring Nunavut, she famously ate raw seal heart in solidarity with the Inuit. In Edmonton this summer, she sang and danced and spoke hopefully of hip hop.
A month after that, Jean made her second trip to Afghanistan and delivered an emotional salute to their mission. “Know that your fellow Canadians are very proud of what you are accomplishing here and are very much aware of the sacrifices you are making,” she said. Days later, with the death of another soldier, Jean deviated from her traditional statements of mourning to reflect at length. “The people of Afghanistan support progress, democracy, the reconstruction of peace, the rebuilding of their country, the respect of rights and freedoms, the equality of women, education and development,” she wrote, “and Canada, in turn, supports their efforts and initiatives to promote viable Afghan solutions to Afghan problems.”
A number of governors general donned a military uniform, but not since the Korean War in the 1950s has Canada been engaged as it is now, so rarely in recent years has the commander-in-chief been put in this position. Adrienne Clarkson, Jean’s immediate predecessor, twice spent New Year’s in Afghanistan—John Ralston Saul, her husband, rang in 2004 with a platoon, hiking up a muddy mountain near Kabul. In 2002, she was in Germany to meet the bodies of Canadians killed in an infamous friendly fire accident and was hailed as a hero when she left the job. “It is not by accident that as the Canadian Forces started looking past a decade of darkness, past a long period of insecurity and past a lingering feeling of shame, that you were our commander-in-chief,” said Gen. Rick Hiller, then chief of the defence staff.
Jean has been to Afghanistan twice and regularly attends repatriation ceremonies at the Canadian Forces base in Trenton, Ont., where the dead from Afghanistan arrive home. “Many of you have shared your pain with me,” she told recipients and family members this month at the inaugural presentation of Sacrifice Medals. “You also proudly told me about loved ones you lost in Afghanistan and know that Canadians share this pain and this pride with you. You are not alone.”
That is perhaps not among the solitudes she intended to break down, but the chasm between Canada and its understanding of itself at war may rival any other divide. And the closing of that gap may coincide with a new relevance for the governor general’s office. In Clarkson and Jean—both originally greeted as outsiders—the position has found new prominence, and not only because minority Parliaments have forced political consequence upon the viceregal.
“I think they were more conscious than other governors general in their job to help Canadians better understand their country,” Russell says. “That they have a real mission to help Canadians identify with Canada. And for a lot of people that needs a person, and these two people, partly because they didn’t have political backgrounds, they transcended politics. They were people of great warmth and charm.” Should the person appear in uniform it would seem only to lend greater meaning to both.