Michaëlle Jean represents England's Queen Elizabeth II as Canada's governor general, a position that remains the final legacy of Canada's colonial past as a possession of Britain. The post carries with it some extensive political rights, but these are rarely exercised, and Canada's government is permitted to function independently without interference from either the British monarch or his or her representative in Ottawa. Jean is the first black woman to serve as the vice-regal, and is an enormously popular public figure. Sometimes dubbed her country's version of Oprah Winfrey, she was born in Haiti and emigrated from there with her family as a child. In her historic installation speech in 2005, a transcript of which appeared on her official Web site, Jean noted that Canadians "are encouraged to believe that everything is possible in this country and my own adventure represents for me and for others a spark of hope that I want kept alive for the greatest number."
Jean was born in 1957 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. Her father, Roger, was a professor of philosophy and literature, and the family lived in Bois Verna, an affluent district of the city. In the same year she was born, Fra¸ois "Papa Doc" Duvalier won the presidency in a questionable election and began a dictatorial regime that endured until his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, was finally ousted during a period of civil unrest in 1986. The long Duvalier era included widespread human rights abuses and blatant corruption, with the family was later accused of bankrupting the nation while maintaining an opulent lifestyle that mimicked a royal court.
When Jean reached school age, her parents home-schooled her because at the time all schoolchildren in Haiti had to swear an oath of allegiance to the senior Duvalier. Her father was targeted as one of the intellectuals who posed a threat to the regime, and when the young Jean was ten years old her father was detained and tortured. Upon his release, the family fled, as many middle-class Haitians had already done. Her parents' marriage did not survive the transition to Quebec, and Jean lost touch with her father for many years.
The Jeans first settled in Thetford Mines, Quebec, a mining town that was likely a bleak and drastic departure from a Caribbean villa home, but they later moved to Montreal. Her mother, Luce, returned to work as a nurse to support Jean and her sister, Nadege. As a teenager, Jean earned top grades at École Marguerite-de Lajemmerais, a Montreal high school for the musically gifted. She went on to study Italian and Hispanic languages and literature at the University of Montreal, earning an undergraduate degree and then a graduate degree in comparative literature. Study-abroad stints in Italy further polished her fluency, and she taught Italian studies at the University of Montreal for a time. For nearly a decade she also worked at a domestic-violence shelter in the city.
Jean began considering a career move into journalism, and made a fortuitously timed visit to Haiti with a graduate student and budding filmmaker in February of 1986, just as Baby Doc Duvalier's regime was drawing to its violent close. In 1988 Jean was hired by Radio-Canada, the French-language national broadcasting service, as a reporter. She went on to a long career with that and other networks, appearing on or anchoring Montréal ce soir ("Montréal Tonight"), Le Point, Le Monde ce soir ("The World Tonight"), and Horizons francophones. After 1999 she served as host of the documentary-film showcases The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the English-broadcasting network. In 2004 she launched Michaëlle, her own in-depth news and interview program on Radio-Canada.
By then Jean was married to Jean-Daniel Lafond, a documentary filmmaker who had emigrated from France in the early 1970s. They lived in the Montreal quarter known as Little Burgundy, a predominantly black area, and worked together on a number of documentaries, including Haiti in All Our Dreams, in which Jean interviewed her well-known uncle, French-Haitian writer René Depestre.
One of her husband's projects became a topic of debate not long after Canadian prime minister Paul Martin put forth Jean's name to serve as the next governor general of Canada in August of 2005. The separation of the French-speaking province of Quebec from the rest of Canada has long been a contentious issue in Canada, and in her husband's 1991 documentary The Black Way, Jean makes a toast to independence—though it is unclear whether she is speaking about Quebec or the Caribbean island of Martinique. Her French citizenship—which she applied for and received after her marriage to the French Lafond—was also held up for criticism, and Francophone and Anglophone news outlets in Canada debated whether Jean possessed sufficient loyalty to the federal system.
Through public statements Jean reiterated her allegiance to an intact Canada, and she renounced her French citizenship shortly before she was sworn in as governor general on September 27, 2005. She became the first black Canadian to hold the post, and the twenty-seventh to serve in the post's history, which dates back to 1760. Jean's home and office is Rideau Hall, a small palace in Ottawa. She and her husband are parents to daughter Marie-Éden, who was adopted from Haiti.
At a Glance …
Born on September 6, 1957, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; daughter of Roger (a professor of philosophy and literature) and Luce (a nurse) Jean; married Jean-Daniel Lafond (a filmmaker); children: Marie-Éden. Education: University of Montreal, BA, Italian and Hispanic languages and literature, 1984(?), MA, comparative literature, 1986(?); further study at the universities of Florence and Perugia and the Catholic University of Milan.
Career: Worked at a domestic-violence shelter in Montreal, 1979-87; University of Montreal, instructor in Italian studies, 1984-86; Radio-Canada, reporter, after 1988, and host of several news and public-affairs programs; Réseau de l'information (RDI), anchor, after 1995; host of the documentary film programs The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) network; host of Michaëlle, a Radio-France news and interview program, 2004-05; governor general of Canada, 2005—.
Awards: Media Award, Human Rights League of Canada, 1989; Prix Mireille-Lanctôt, Fondation Mireille-Lanctôt, 1989; Anik Prize, CBC, 1994; Amnesty International Media Award, Amnesty International Canada, 1995; Women of Distinction Award, YWCA Canada, 1998; named a Woman of the Year, Elle Québec magazine, 1998; Gemini Award, Canadian Academy of Cinema and Television, 2001; Prix Raymond-Charette, Conseil de Langue Française du Québec, 2000; named chevalier, L'Ordre de la Pléiade, Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie.
Addresses: Office—Rideau Hall, 1 Sussex Dr., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0A1. Web—http://www.gg.ca/.
In the Canadian system the head of the political party with the majority in parliament is the head of government, while the British monarch serves as head of state. Jean was the vice-regal for Queen Elizabeth II, and her formal title was an impressive one: Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Canada, Chancellor and Commander of the Order of Military Merit, Chancellor and Commander of the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief in and over Canada. The governor general's duties are largely ceremonial, though her actual powers include the ability to appoint Supreme Court justices and call an assembly of the lower house of the Canadian parliament. These are rarely exercised, but as chief executive, the British monarch does hold reserve powers known as the Royal Prerogative and, theoretically at least, may direct the governor general to intervene in government affairs.
The bulk of Jean's duties, however, involved public appearances and representing Canada on goodwill visits abroad. She also delivered the annual Speech from the Throne, which marked the opening of the new parliamentary session. Her 2007 Speech from the Throne typically reiterated several fundamental goals of domestic and foreign policy, and concluded by noting that "Canadians can be proud of their country and its achievements. Working together we have built a nation that is prosperous and safe…. Like the North Star, Canada has been a guide to other nations; through difficult times, Canada has shone as an example of what a people joined in common purpose can achieve."
Globe & Mail (Toronto), August 5, 2005, p. A1; August 18, 2005, p. A1; March 23, 2007, p. A23.
Maclean's (Toronto), January 14, 2008, p. 20.
"Installation Speech," Governor General of Canada, September 27, 2005, http://www.gg.ca/media/doc.asp?lang=e&DocID=4574 (accessed August 25, 2008).
"Speech from the Throne: Strong Leadership. A Better Canada," Government of Canada, October 16, 2007, http://www.sft-ddt.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?id=1364 (accessed August 25, 2008).
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