Michaëlle Jean: A life of 'many possibilities'

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean is profiled, from her birth in Haiti to the end of her appointment as the Queen's representative in Canada.

Major events, from her birth in Haiti to end of her appointment as Queen's representative in Canada

Michaelle Jean waves as she leaves her final official event as governor general at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Sept. 30, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

(This profile of Michaëlle Jean was first published in September 2010 as she finished her term as Canada's Governor General.)

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean has described Canada as "a country of so many possibilities." Her own story is proof of that.

Canada's 27th Governor General was born in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 6, 1957, during the era of the Duvalier dictatorships in Haiti.

Her parents, Roger and Luce, were teachers.

In 1965, Roger Jean was abducted by Duvalier henchmen. Days later he was dumped outside the family home, barely recognizable from the torture he endured. Two years later, he fled to Canada. (Luce's brother, René Depestre, a famous Haitian poet, had gone into exile in Cuba in 1959.)

Fled Haiti to Quebec

In 1968, Luce and daughters Michaëlle and Nadege joined Roger. Thetford Mines, Que., was their new home.

Roger got a teaching job, but by this time he was a "broken man," daughter Michaëlle later recalled.

She also remembers children touching her black skin to see if it was real.

Roger and Luce's marriage soon fell apart. Luce and the daughters moved to Montreal. To pay the rent on their basement apartment, Luce worked in a clothing factory and then a psychiatric hospital.

Jean stands with her six-year-old daughter Marie-Eden and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, during a news conference outside the Senate chambers on Aug. 4, 2005. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Michaëlle Jean completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Montreal, earning a degree in Spanish and Italian language and literature. She taught Italian at the university while pursuing a master's degree in comparative literature.

She went on to study Italian language, culture and literature at universities in Florence, Milan and Perugia, Italy, between 1982 and 1985. By then, she was fluent in five languages: French, English, Italian, Spanish and Haitian Creole. She could also read Portuguese.

While completing her university studies, Michaëlle Jean was also deeply involved with helping women and children who were the victims of domestic violence. Her own mother had been such a victim.

Jean co-ordinated a groundbreaking study — published in 1987 — that looked at abusive relationships in which women were the victims of sexual violence at the hands of their spouses.

Jean's journalist years

Jean first returned to Haiti in 1986 when she and a friend were there to interview Haitian women for a Quebec feminist journal. That was also the year the final Duvalier dictatorship fell.

That project helped Jean land another trip to Haiti the next year as a documentary researcher.

And that assignment led her to Radio-Canada, the French-language half of the CBC. She was a reporter for the program, Actuel, the first black reporter on French TV news in Canada.

From 1991 to 1992, she hosted Virages. And for three years, starting in 1992, she appeared on the national and international news program Le Point.

In 1995, Jean began working as a host/reporter on many RDI programs such as Le Monde ce soir, L'Édition québécoise, Horizons francophones, le Journal RDI and RDI à l'écoute. In 2004 she began hosting her own show, a current affairs program on RDI named Michaëlle.

She also dealt with challenging themes such as the Roman Catholic Church in a four-day debate titled Le Pape en France, pedophilia in L'enfance volée and Chinese politics in La rétrocession de Hong Kong à la Chine.

George Stroumboulopoulos, Host of CBC's The Hour, interviews Jean in a Toronto studio on June 9, 2009. (Master Cpl. Jean-François Néron/Rideau Hall)

She won many awards for her journalism, including a Gemini in 2001. She also received awards from the Human Rights League, Amnesty International, CBC, the City of Montreal and the Canadian Association of Cable Television Providers.

In 2003 she received France's Médaille de l'Ordre des Chevaliers de La Pléiade des Parlementaires de la Francophonie for promoting francophone culture.

In 1991 Jean went to the Caribbean to work on a documentary about Martinique poet Aimé Césaire and his influence on the Quebec independence movement. She fell in love with the film's French-born director, Jean-Daniel Lafond, and they married the next year.

That documentary,La manière nègre, would come back to haunt her in 2005 after Prime Minister Paul Martin named her Canada's next governor general. In the film, in a scene in which she is seated next to Pierre Vallières, the former Front de liberation du Quebec separatist leader, Jean says, "In general, yes, independence is not something that is given - it is something that is taken."

Jean continued to pursue her passion for making documentary films. She also worked with her husband on: Tropique nord (1994) about being black in Quebec; the Hot Docs award-winning Haiti dans tous nos rêves (1995); and L'heure de Cuba (1999), about the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

Beginning in 1999, Jean also hosted CBC Newsworld's documentary programs The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts. She also hosted RDI's documentary program, Grands Reportages.

In 1999, Jean and Lafond adopted a baby from Haiti, Marie-Éden.

The 27th Governor General

U.S. President Barack Obama is welcomed by Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean at Ottawa International Airport on Feb. 19, 2009. (Sgt. Serge Gouin/Rideau Hall)

Jean said she took four weeks to make up her mind whether to accept the viceregal post. Her goal was to bring extra relevance and meaning to the institution and to bring it, "closer to our Canadian realities," she told the CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos on The Hour.

She adopted "Breaking down solitudes" as her motto.

After she was named the next governor general, David Mitchell, vice-rector at the University of Ottawa, called Jean's appointment "politically inspired."

"She will be a voice for Canada in Quebec and she will represent the new Quebec to the rest of Canada very effectively," Mitchell said. "She has that potential and that sense, this is an inspired choice."

In Quebec, the province where the monarchy is least popular, a Leger Marketing poll found three-quarters of the respondents supported the Queen's appointment of Jean.

Jean was the third journalist in a row to be appointed to the viceregal post. Adrienne Clarkson, the 26th governor general, also worked for the CBC. Clarkson's predecessor, Roméo Leblanc, worked as a journalist for Radio-Canada in the '60s before going into politics. (Jeanne Sauvé — the first female governor general — had a 20-year career at the CBC before she entered politics in 1972.)

Michaëlle Jean succeeded Clarkson on Sept. 27, 2005.

Getting to know Michaëlle Jean

Jean opens the Winter Olympics in Vancouver on Feb. 12, 2010. ((Sgt. Serge Gouin/Rideau Hall/Office of the secretary to the Governor General) )

She quickly began to let Canadians get to know her, and win them over.

At her installation speech she said, "I know how precious that freedom is.... I whose ancestors were slaves, who was born into a civilization long reduced to whispers and cries of pain, know something about its price, and I know too what a treasure it is for us all."

At a Black History Month event in Montreal a few months later, she spoke about racial discrimination.

"It has no place in a society that prizes above all the values of respect, openness and sharing, which are paramount for me," she told the audience.

Political powers

Historians will probably best remember Jean for her political role, something for which very few past governors general are remembered.

In 2008 she cut short a trip to Europe because of a political crisis in Ottawa. The opposition parties were threatening to defeat Stephen Harper's minority government and replace it with their own coalition. Harper wanted her to prorogue Parliament before the opposition could pass a non-confidence motion.

Historians will probably best remember Jean for her political role, something for which very few past governors general are remembered.

Harper went to see Jean at Rideau Hall, uncertain she would grant his request, although he considered it a routine matter. In Canada, ultimate constitutional authority formally rests with the governor general.

In a June 9, 2009, interview on The Hour, she said, "It wasn't an easy decision." She consulted constitutional experts and she kept the prime minister waiting for over two hours while she decided.

"I was in a position where I could have said no. The decision in my mind had to be in the best interests of the country," she told Stroumboulopoulos. "And I have no regrets," she added. Parliament was prorogued and Harper's government was saved.

According to University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman, that was when, "many Canadians woke up to realize that the Governor General might wield real power."

Jean also faced two other significant political issues during her five-year appointment.

Despite the Canadian government having a new fixed-date election law in place, in 2008 Harper asked Jean to call an election over a year ahead of time. And in December 2009 Harper again asked Jean to prorogue parliament.


Other highlights of Jean's five years in the post include:

Feb. 15, 2006: the first visit by a governor general to a prison. Jean went to the Bordeaux penitentiary in Quebec, where she "spent two intense hours, in a reflective dialogue on personal responsibility, dignity and freedom, during which young inmates shared their deepest fears and aspirations with me."

February 2006: Jean's first international trip as governor general, which included the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and meeting Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

May 4, 2006: the first address by a governor general to the Alberta legislature.

May 14, 2006: Jean attends the inauguration of René Préval as president of Haiti for his second time. The trip includes a visit to Jacmel, her mother's hometown, whether Jean spent several summers during her childhood.

March 8, 2007: Jean visits Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

Feb. 19, 2009: Jean welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama to Canada on the first foreign visit of his presidency. (Photo gallery: Barack Obama in Ottawa )

May 25, 2009: In Nunavut, Jean eats a piece of heart from a seal that had just been gutted during a traditional Inuit seal feast. (Photo gallery below) )

Feb. 12, 2010: Jean opens the Winter Olympics in Vancouver (and opens the Paralympics  on March 12).

March 2010: Jean visits Haiti for the first time since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Shortly after the quake, Jean gave a tearful speech thanking the country and the government for its quick response. Wiseman opined that Jean "at times sounded more like that country's ambassador to Canada than Canada's viceregal representative." (Photo gallery: Haiti's Jacmel)

Sept. 30, 2010: Jean steps down as Governor General. She officially becomes UNESCO's special envoy in Haiti on Nov. 8, 2010.