Michaëlle Jean: Nurturer-in-chief

Her tenure as governor general had real drama—the seal heart, prorogation—but that’s not what we’ll remember


Blair Gable/Reuters

One month before she left Rideau Hall, Michaëlle Jean visited Montreal north, the scene two years earlier of a police shooting and a subsequent night of rioting, to listen to the hopes and fears of the neighbourhood’s young people. She wanted to know what was happening and what might be done. She wanted to hear their ideas and solutions. She sat and listened as they variously explained, ranted and pleaded. And she called on them to move forward with the belief that together they could effect change.

Her five years were otherwise defined by so much else—from a constitutional crisis on Parliament Hill, a war in Afghanistan and her tears for Haiti to her fashion sense and hairstyle. Her selection to the vice-regal position was as scorned as it was heralded—her loyalty, and her husband’s, to the country were questioned even while she was celebrated as the personification of all that this country promised. In granting Stephen Harper a prorogation of Parliament when the government seemed set to topple, she presided over one of the most substantive decisions a governor general has ever made in this country. She comforted the families of fallen soldiers and donned a military uniform as commander-in-chief to salute  the troops. She sampled seal heart to demonstrate solidarity with the North.

Through it all she was always the subject of speculation and suspicion, variously deemed too outspoken and not substantive enough to hold such high office. Innuendo and rumour seemed a constant. Indeed, in an oddly fitting end to her term, her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, was compelled this summer to refute anonymous allegations he had quibbled with the official sleeping arrangements for the Queen’s visit to Ottawa.

But in a tenure with no shortage of drama and intrigue, so laden with symbolism and precedent, moments like the ones in that Montreal neighbourhood were maybe the most meaningful. Michaëlle Jean pledged that her term would be about “breaking down solitudes,” and in less-celebrated moments, she convened citizens, often young people, to talk and to listen. A few days before reading the newly re-elected government’s Throne Speech in November 2008, for instance, she visited a centre for street kids in downtown Ottawa, mere blocks from Parliament Hill, and asked them to tell her their stories. She prodded them to find answers and work together. Someone said she had made them feel important. “You’ve given me a lot today too,” Jean countered. “You’ve given me validation. You’ve energized me. You’ve encouraged me to continue.”

Perhaps there were times she seemed too earnest. Surely she could sound like a New Age guru, preaching empowerment and the power of the human spirit, talking about the need to find “synergies.” Her excellency’s Twitter feed came to resemble inspirational found poetry, interspersed with phrases like “We must honour the values of solidarity and compassion that we cherish.” Maybe it was all a bit touchy-feely. But maybe we needed that. Amid the pitched partisan warfare of these last five years, she preached compassion and community. And while many agonize over the state of our national discourse, she practised democracy at its most basic and intimate. “I strongly encourage all of you to create more opportunities to talk to Canadians, whose generosity, creativity and ingenuity will never cease to amaze me,” she told MPs and senators during a farewell reception on Parliament Hill. “The people of this country want to be part of the solutions, and God knows how often they have told me this.”

Six days before she was in Montreal, she was in Winnipeg. Three years earlier she held a forum in the North Point Douglas neighbourhood and she had returned to celebrate how citizens, government and police had worked together to turn a troubled area into a national story about a community that took on gangs, crime and drugs. So when she came to Montreal north, she told them about North Point Douglas. “They have turned the tide and are so proud of what they have accomplished with the priceless help and impetus of youth,” she said. And if it could happen there, maybe it could happen here.

That night in Montreal more than two dozen people stood to explain how things were and how they should be. The borough mayor stood up and promised to continue the dialogue. “I think you nourished my conviction that it’s all worthwhile,” Jean said in closing. The crowd gathered in the lobby for snacks. After a while she appeared and, as always, the crowd pressed in around her. As always, she lingered, talking with as many as time would allow. If her excellency felt validated in such moments, the feeling seemed very much to be mutual.

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