Governor General Michaëlle Jean is smart enough to know that gutting a freshly-killed seal and then eating a piece of its raw heart on the first day of her visit to Nunavut was likely to generate headlines. After all, how often are two such contentious Canadian bickering points—the seal hunt and the GG—served up in such a delectable package? So it was a surprise that the weirdest salvo came not from Canadian media but from south of the border. And brutish it was: “Meet Michëalle Jean, the Sarah Palin of Canada” read the headline on Gawker.com, a New York City-based media website known for its snark.
Its familiarity with the big landmass to its north is another matter. Clearly there was no clue that likening the cosmopolitan GG with the Annie Oakley of the GOP is like comparing former governor general Adrienne Clarkson to Roseanne Barr. Or George Clooney to Tom Green. In fairness to Gawker, which did take the time to scan Jean’s Wikipedia entry before posting, similarities between the two women exist—aside from the fact the word “governor” is in both their titles. Both share a taste for sexy librarian glasses. Both are former journalists. And had Gawker spent another two minutes in research mode, it might have discovered both women were dragged into semi-scandals as a result of their husbands’ “separatist” proclivities (Todd Palin was once a member of the Alaskan Independence Party; Jean’s husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, has been accused of supporting Quebec separatism). And (even more shockingly!) both have committed geography faux pas—Palin boasted she could see Russia from her front porch, Jean told a group of schoolchildren last February that the Rockies could be viewed from Vancouver.
What is most amusing about Gawker’s bogus compare and contrast, though, is its blithe ignorance about the comedian-spewing country to its north—which is responsible for the stunning disparities between the two women. Jean, who fled Haiti with her family as a refugee at age 11, speaks fluent French, English, Spanish, Italian, and Haitian Creole. Palin, on the other hand, is most fluent in front of a teleprompter. And it defeats the imagination to imagine Palin ever having a conversation with Barack Obama, let alone hitting it off with him, as did the Governor General during his visit to Ottawa in February. Jean, who greeted him, used the opportunity to discuss the current plight of Haiti; Obama was so impressed he invited her to visit Washington, an offer he didn’t extend to the prime minister.
The most obvious similarity between the two women that Gawker failed to note is, ironically, at root of their greatest difference. Both Palin and Jean arrived on their national political stages as tokens. When named John McCain’s VP running mate, Palin was touted as a brash political change agent—a promise decidedly unfulfilled. Yet Jean, literally a token figurehead with no political power, has stealthily become an agent for change—in suspending parliament, in forging alliances with the President and now expressing unambiguous support for sealers at a time when they’re under cultural and economic assault. Just this month, the European Union banned their sale. Chewing bloody seal muscle (which Jean reported tastes “like sushi”) won’t win her friends among the European—or Canadian—chattering classes. Not that she can admit to political motive. When asked if the gesture was in solidarity with the Inuit hunters she was appropriately oblique: “Take from that what you will,” she said. That would be Canadian for “You betcha!”