CANADIAN GET THEIR VERY OWN OPRAH
Michaëlle Jean is either hopelessly naive or the most ambitious politician we have
“WE DON’T WANT THINGS to be uptight. The Governor General likes to have a hype vibe.”
On a small stage in the basement of an Ottawa art gallery, a round, middle-aged white guy wearing a goatee and an Adidas track suit and a black woman in traditional African colours—self-described as the godmother of slam poetry—are explaining the rules.
The crowd is mostly black and mostly young, save for a cluster of white politicians and dignitaries, all invited guests at this “urban arts forum.” People are packed in front
of the stage and into a second room. “The Governor General is here to listen,” the hosts continue. “So if you’ve got a political axe to grind, this is not the place.” Furthermore, there will be no “dissing.” The aforementioned godmother leads everyone in a chant and the crowd is admonished when it proves timid. “Ifyou’re not more hype than this, the Governor General will not be coming out.”
A short while later though, Michaëlle Jean arrives, her audience suitably hype. The Governor General finds her way to the stage, smiling in all directions. When the noise diminishes, a female fan seizes the opportunity. “We love you!” she yells.
Jean sits back in her chair, beaming. She is presented with flowers, and then one of her guards approaches the lectern and lays out her speech. “I am here today because I believe in your capacity to make a difference. I believe in your unique message of hope,” Jean says in her breathy, deliberate, accented delivery. “I also believe that the arts—whether it is rap,
multimedia, sculpture, spoken word, poetry, graffiti, painting, theatre, locking or popping—have a major role to play in bringing us together.”
There is the same deferential silence that fills a room whenever Jean speaks. Deference, though, is not to be confused with intimidation. For the next two hours, the Governor General sits, mostly quiet, as a series of teenagers and twentysomethings air their grievances. Jean takes notes as a b-girl laments Ottawa’s stodginess. An angry young man rants against racial profiling. The city councillors fidget and hang their heads as he vents.
The setting is hardly royal. A young girl is nearly jeered from the room when she takes too long with a rambling review of her life. But Jean never sits back, never stops nodding, never seems the least bit uncomfortable. Nor
does she seem the least bit out of place. “She loves people and people love her,” says Oni, the poet. “And I really feel she’s speaking for the people.”
Says Jean: “I like people who make sometimes the impossible come true. I like people who are thought-provoking. I like people who are very audacious. I like people who have an idea about making a difference and bringing about change around them.”
MUCH OF THE GOVERNOR General’s business is conducted in Rideau Ffall’s main ballroom, below a 12,000-piece crystal chandelier. Two massive paintings bookend the room. In one, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, the monarchy seem distant from Canada and estranged from each other. At the opposite end of the room, in a painting entitled Charlottetown Revisited, the Fathers of Confederation appear vampiric in
stovepipe hats. Two years into her reign, Michaëlle Jean is equally of this place and resolutely beyond it. “When I was approached with this idea of me becoming governor general, I didn’t answer right away,” she says. “My first reaction was to propose names. I came up with 30 right away and they said, ‘No, we took care of that. We had a committee, you know, but the idea was to ask you.’ So I took about four weeks and I knew that to have a person like me becoming governor general would actually provoke a lot of hope in so many people. I knew that. I knew it. And just for that reason it was worth considering.”
Now 50, she walks lightly, but with a slight swagger. She smiles and nods and looks every visitor in the eye, but her brow seems incapable of furrowing. Where her husband squirms through ceremonial proceedings, Jean is ever conscious that she is being watched. When particularly humbled, her hand reflexively covers her heart. Speaking underneath that chandelier to a gathering of accomplished and powerful women, she is Oprah-like. She nods on syllables, leans on the lectern and stretches out the vowels in words like hope and pride. She ventures that a woman’s first risk is “accepting her unique voice.” She explains her purpose: “I never wanted to be someone other than who I was.” And she asks the assembled to “defeat those who want to poison our lives with those fears.” She leaves to extended applause.
The Oprah comparison is easy, but not entirely without merit. Yes, she is a black
woman in a powerful position and one with some celebrity. But Oprah’s primary gift is an ability to appeal intimately on an emotional level. To feel publicly and deeply. And there is some of this in Jean. “I come from a culture where we can be physically very close to people. I think people sense that,” she says. “At every ceremony, every occasion, people say, ‘You make me feel comfortable.’ ”
A few weeks later, she is in that same room to bestow honours upon our finest soldiers. Before an audience of parents, siblings, girlfriends and spouses, young men are marched one by one to the front of the room where
TT IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR ME TO JUMP INTO THE ARENA, BECOME PART OF THE NOISE,’ SHE SAYS. T SIT OUTSIDE THE NOISE.’
they stand rigid and emotionless in front of her. Jean stands opposite each of them, nodding, as their stories of bravery are read aloud. At the end of each testimonial she crooks her head and smiles, taking the soldier’s right hand with both of hers. She touches each on the arm and offers a quiet thank you. “I’m so proud of you,” she appears to say.
Eventually a widow is called on to accept a posthumous medal. Approaching the Governor General, she immediately reaches out and takes Jean’s hands. Both teary-eyed, they stand holding on to each other as the deceased soldier is celebrated. Where most of the men seemed eager to be done with their moment, the woman lingers, Jean stroking her arms and talking softly. Eventually, the widow abandons all decorum and throws her arms around the Governor General.
It is easy in moments like this to forget how unembraced this Governor General once was.
How her very loyalty to the country was questioned, she and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, accused of harbouring separatist sympathies and questioned over their French citizenship. “I think from the very beginning, it wasn’t me they were talking about. They were talking about themselves,” she says, distancing herself from this country’s decades of identity crisis. “I couldn’t relate to those accusations. Because I know who I am. I know what I stand for. I profoundly believe in citizenship. And I know what citizenship is about. And I could say the same for my husband.” In a 45-minute interview, it’s the only topic that seems to shake her lofty optimism. “This is something that you have to learn at a very young age. And especially when you are different, okay? This is something that you have to learn pretty fast. What belongs to you and what doesn’t belong to you. What you can associate with and what you can’t associate with. It’s about keeping your own dignity.
WE FORGET SHE WASN’T EMBRACED AT FIRST, HER LOYALTY TO CANADA WAS QUESTIONED. IT'S ONE SUBJECT THAT SHAKES HER OPTIMISM.
Being focused on the kind of vision that you share and what you want to achieve. What is essential and what isn’t. There are things that I cannot change in this country. This debate is not mine. It does not belong to me. I prefer to stay outside the debate and this position is exactly that. You stay outside politics. And you represent a moral authority.”
Never mind how unnatural this is: to place oneself between the competing forces of servitude and leadership. “I think the difficult part of this was, in my nature, I fight back. I think in a different position I would’ve fought back. I would’ve answered back. In my position as Governor General I couldn’t. I couldn’t. Because it was not appropriate for me to jump into the arena, become part of the noise,” she says. “I sit outside the noise.”
FOLLOWING A RECENT Order of Canada ceremony, a reception was held in Rideau’s well-appointed Tent Room. Off to one side, a crowd gathered around the Governor General. Her aides say this happens wherever she goes—people rush to her side, to see her, touch her, talk to and with her. While Jean chats with one person, a mother poses two children beside her as if she were a statue.
Asked later, Jean does as she is prone toseparating and elevating herself from the moment. “It’s not about me. It’s about them. There was one occasion where I was invited by a school and the kids had worked on a play about me. It can become an embarrassing situation because you want to stay humble. But what was very moving was that the whole play was about them. It was about how they could relate to my experience. What they were talking about were their own dreams, their own aspirations, their own struggles, their reality. I cried because I could sense that.”
Those around her praise her intellect and her work ethic. You’ll hear how she learned Portuguese for a visit to Brazil (in addition to already speaking English, French, Spanish, Italian and Creole). “She never realizes her limits,” says Sébastien Barangé, an adviser who followed her from Radio-Canada. “People think she’s fragile. But she’s strong.”
Her critics, though, are not assuaged. The perception of a strained relationship with the Prime Minister persists. In September, Tom Flanagan, once the Prime Minister’s top adviser, questioned her partisan loyalties. He later apologized and corrected himself after speaking with “several well-informed people.” Her revolutionary predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, who brought sudden prominence to the position, was maligned for too
lavishly traversing the globe. Jean has travelled to Europe, South America and Africa, but is now criticized for venturing overseas too rarely.
She launched a website to facilitate dialogue with younger Canadians, but was questioned over her decision to let David Suzuki contribute. She’s entertained everyone from the Dalai Lama to George W. Bush, but is perhaps better known for making a joke during a press gallery dinner about a politician’s drug use. She tries to attend every repatriation ceremony for soldiers lost in Afghanistan (and calls family members when she cannot), but security concerns over her trip to that country were cause for debate on Parliament Hill. Recent controversy over recognition for a fallen police officer—bureaucratic deadlines preventing a proper medal—gave one columnist opportunity to question “the schoolgirlish way she sits on the throne.” Shortly thereafter, of course, Jean was nominated by readers
of the Globe and Mail as the “nation builder of the year” for bringing “a lot of class and dignity to the office.”
“This is a job that, I think it’s safe to say, is harder than it looks,” says historian David Mitchell, a vice-principal at Queen’s University. To some degree, the viceregal is bound by contradictory expectations. Carry yourself royally and you seem to be too enthusiastically embracing the position. Fail to read the Throne Speech with verve and you are demeaning the institution. In the case of Jean, the situation is complicated precisely by who she is—by that unabashed appeal to emotion (set the image of her hugging a widow against the Prime Minister shaking hands with his son, the moment that has has come to define Stephen Harper as a human being). And by what she says, the starry-eyed expressions of herself. “I think really working on reasons to believe and to hope in humanity’s possibilities is something that inspires me a lot. It’s something that I’ve had I think since a very
young age,” she says. “In Haiti, when you grow up under a regime of dictatorship, you really need to believe that you can fight the system. You believe in the importance of speaking out. You believe in the importance of taking risks. Because this is what fighting for freedom is about.”
All conflict involving Jean may come down to this—that she and her critics speak entirely different languages. “I think I reach out to people and I connect with people through ideas,” she says. “It can become emotional. But I’m not a preacher. I only convey people and I validate the power of ideas.”
This is all, in light of the cynicism that now passes for objectivity, rather ridiculous. No one of leadership in this country is inclined— or maybe even allowed—to speak like this. Ottawa is not a place of idealism. And those
PERCEPTIONS OF A STRAINED RELATIONSHIP WITH HARPER PERSIST, AND SHE’S BEEN CRITICIZED FOR NOT GOING ABROAD ENOUGH
who test this are inevitably eye-rolled off the stage. Modern politics does not reward principles as much as it strives for triangulatie n. This makes Jean one of two things. She is either hopelessly naive or admirably faithful. She is either perfectly suited to the symbolic position she holds or the prime minister we always say we want—open, empathetic, virtuous, idealistic and ambitious. “I believe in the power of ideas. I believe in empowering people. I like people. And I love connecting. It’s a communion of ideas. Of values. Of ideals. And it’s magic. And people crave for that.”
ONI, A FELLOW HAITIAN, took her children to see the Governor General inaugurated and met Jean shortly after. “We all encounter people in positions of power and usually they don’t listen,” she says. “She’s a refugee. She’s speaking to what’s happening now. And she
made her life over. She’s a true b-girl, man. She is. That’s gangsta.”
Jean remembers her doctor consulting her before a visit to Africa. He was worried about her health (she has suffered from fatigue related to a thyroid condition), and warned against unnecessary contact with the crowds that were sure to gather. “Of course, I embraced everyone,” she says. “And I never got sick. Other people were sick from day one to the end. That doctor came to me and said, ‘My goodness, you’re really a force of nature.’ And I said, ‘No, my nature is my force.’ ”
Which brings us back to that art gallery. After two hours of discussion, the Governor General retired to an adjacent room where space had been cleared for several performers. A young man rapped and several people, including that middle-aged white guy in the track suit, break-
danced. Jean sat in the first row, calling them on, clapping and bouncing in place. One of the dancers took her by the hand and convinced her to dance a few steps, Jean twirling and laughing. Delighted, the crowd chanted “Go GG,” while a particularly charming rapper asked, “You have a husband, right?” Her bodyguards looked on, bemused and perplexed.
Eventually the Governor General took her leave. Addressing the crowd, she sighed heavily. “I love you,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful evening.” She assured the audience that she is “breathing” with them. “Promise that what happened tonight will continue,” she instructed, then blew them a kiss. It took three staffers to extract her from the crowd that swarmed around her as she made her way toward the door. M
ON THE WEB: A gallery of Mlchaëlle Jean as GG www.macleans.ca/michaellejean