I always loved Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s new Governor-General. No later than this spring and summer, when she hadn’t yet been appointed GG and was still working as a broadcast journalist for the CBC and Radio-Canada, I—a gay guy!—would almost swoon every time I saw a promo for her show. Warm, intelligent, engaging, extremely articulate… I, for one, couldn’t help but fall for her charm. And I was floored when I visited cbc.ca on August 4th to find that Prime Minister Paul Martin had appointed her to the post of GG.
Before I go any further, I should give a bit of context. As representative of the Queen in Canada, the Governor-General is de facto the country’s head of state. But just like the Queen’s, the GG’s role is ceremonial, not political, just like the president’s role is in some republics where the prime minister is the actual head of government. At one point, Michaëlle Jean’s predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, came under fire for her office’s expenses, particularly for the entourage she brought along with her on what was called a circumpolar northern identity tour. However, I, personally, didn’t get what the controversy was about. For the longest time, the GG’s office has been criticized for not being relevant, but Clarkson got shot down for the fact that making the office relevant can’t be done without a price. As a French Canadian, I don’t have any particular attachment to the Queen; however, I do see the GG as our head goodwill ambassador, both within and without the country, who is almost always detached from the political process. (I say “almost always” because in the event of an inconclusive election, the GG is the one who officially must determine which party should be called to form the government.) In short, I think that, because of the largely ceremonial nature of the post, some people don’t see the value of having it. But when you have a head of state like the American president, who is also connected to the political process, it’s nearly impossible to discern the difference between the country and its policies—hence why some American citizens (at any time, not just currently) feel the need to distance themselves from the office.
Now back to our regular (non-didactic) programming… 🙂
It wasn’t long after Michaëlle Jean’s nomination that controversy erupted. Many claimed that she and her French-born filmmaker husband had been—if not still are—favorable to the notion of a Quebec separate from Canada. She denied such sympathies, but a veil remained right up to her swearing in in late-September. But at her swearing in, she won everyone over, including the press core, by making clear (so everyone thought) her allegiance to a united, federal Canada. Henceafter, the focus shifted to how she embodies the modern country Canada is. She is the youngest GG in recent memory; she is a Haitian immigrée; she’s the first Black person to occupy the post and only the third woman; and, she has hinted that she may use her new position to take more activist stances on some social matters.
Then came the parliamentary press gallery dinner in late October which, until recent years, was held away from the glare of media cameras. Traditionally, this event has been a kind of celebrity roast where the “big wigs” are expected to make entertaining speeches by poking fun at themselves and each other. The day after the dinner, the media gave a lot of play to Michaëlle Jean’s musing as to why Prime Minister Martin chose her to become GG: “…not because I’m a woman or because I’m an immigrant or because I’m black,” she explained. “He gave it to me because I’m hot!” Just reading that comment might sound like she’s conceited, but if you would hear her delivery, you’d get that it was in fact very funny. And, frankly, who the hell can’t see that she IS hot!
Alas for her, weeks later, other parts of her speech came back to haunt her. Her own sister, an avowed Quebec separatist, published a very critical open letter in Montreal’s La Presse, because of remarks she made about André Boisclair, the headrunner in the (provincial) Parti Québécois leadership race. In the course of the race, Boisclair has had to admit that he used cocaine while he was a cabinet minister in the previous PQ government. And in her satirical speech at the press dinner, Michaëlle Jean said, “We can have sandwiches and Coke. Well, should André Boisclair be there, it will be coke for sure,” adding that she knows he “always follows the party line.” This prompted her sister Nadeje to ask, “Wasn’t making fun of those who want to make Quebec a sovereign country a thinly-veiled political statement? Is this how you hope to break down the ‘two solitudes’?”
Was it a “thinly-veiled political statement” or was it poking fun at someone who happens to “want to make Quebec a sovereign country” and has admitted to using cocaine? Or was it both? Does a statement like that imply that all Quebec separatists are shady, criminal cokeheads? I find that’s quite a leap to make.
From there, what I find absolutely fascinating is the fact that in today’s Quebec, Boisclair’s admitted poor judgement has become a huge issue that has put into question his suitability as leader (for what other skeletons does he have in his closet), while the fact he is openly gay doesn’t register on the radar …or does it now? The phrase “other skeletons in his closet” makes me think that some members of the PQ fear that a new account of bawdry (but of sexual nature) might come out in the middle of an election campaign or referendum on sovereignty. Indeed, I wonder which is a more “thinly-veiled” statement?
As for Michaëlle Jean, I, unlike the few veterans who turned their back at her at yesterday’s Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa when she placed a wreath at the national cenotaph, am satisfied with her pledge of allegiance to Canada. I just wish that if she ever did have separatist sympathies, she wouldn’t lie and deny them. People have the right to change their mind. As for those veterans, initially I thought their act bordered on puerile. But then, when one of them was quoted in the news as saying that one of the things he fought for in the War was the protection of freedom of speech, a right he was availing himself with his silent protest, I changed my mind.
And somehow, that brings us back full circle to the value of the ceremonial nature of the GG’s office. In today’s Canada, their protest was a noted but minor incident. Under the current administration in today’s United States, these protestors most likely would have been screened out and kept far away from the head of state. So, in my mind, this speaks well for the health of Canada’s democracy, chaotic as it is.