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“Breaking down Solitudes”: Reflections on Michaëlle Jean’s term as Governor General of Canada

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Michaelle Jean Governer General of CanadaThis week on September 30th, 2010, Michaëlle Jean’s term as Governor General of Canada comes to a close. During her five year term, Jean has been tireless in both performing her official tasks and re-defining the role of her office, and with it, re-defining Canada. She has been renowned at home and on the international stage as a woman of strength, intellect, and grace. During her time as Governor General, Jean has renewed, maintained, and advanced the greatest ideals that Canada represents. During a Remembrance Day visit spent with our troops in Afghanistan, Jean made a concerted and deliberate effort to meet with women leaders in the various communities and areas where our soldiers are working.

Recently, Jean had the honour of being the first Canadian to welcome President Barack Obama on his first official visit to Canada, a moment which touched many with its symbolism of progress and hope.

Like many of Canada’s great citizens and office holders, Michaëlle Jean was not born in Canada, but immigrated to Canada at the age of nine as a refugee from Haiti. Fleeing from the threats visited upon her and her family from the Duvalier regime, her family came to Canada and settled in Thetford Mines, Quebec. She studied language and launched her academic studies at the Université de Montreal. She would go on to study in Florence, Perugia, and Milan.

During her studies, Jean worked at a shelter for abused women and assisted new immigrants as they came and settled in Canada. In 1988 she began to work at Radio Canada as a filmmaker and then television anchor. Soon, she was approached by the English language CBC to take on similar responsibilities.

Jean’s accomplishments as a student of language, as a journalist, and a citizen were all cited in her nomination for Governor General when first announced by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005. Her installation speech focused on Canadian freedom, and on renewing our understandings of the diverse contributions to Canadian civilization. The motto in her official coat of arms; “Briser Les Solitudes” or “Breaking down solitudes”, means to end the divisions between English and French Canada, and also to acknowledge the living legacy of Canadians who come from every other part of the world.

When the earthquake struck central Haiti this past January, all of Canada was moved by Jean’s stoic and graceful response. When her term as Governor General comes to a close, she will be returning to her native Haiti in the position of Special Envoy to Haiti with the United Nations.

It may take some time to fully measure and understand the impact of Michaëlle Jean’s legacy as Governor General of Canada. At this point, we can only imagine how much she will be able to accomplish, but we can be sure that however she devotes her time and attention, she will continue to make Canadians proud.

Photo: The Office of the Secretary to the Governor General