The Haitian-born Michaelle Jean will make history on September 27th 2005. On that day, she will be invested as the first black Governor-General of Canada. The 48-year-old former TV journalist is the second immigrant in a row named to be Canada’s titular head of state. Her predecessor, Adrian Clarkson, also a journalist, was of Japanese heritage.
Ms. Jean’s selection continues the practice of alternating between governor-generals selected from English-speaking Canada and Quebec. Her selection continues the trend started with Ms. Clarkson’s appointment of choosing a person from outside of the traditional corridors of power.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Canadian system of government, it is what’s known as a constitutional monarchy. The sovereign, in this case the King or Queen of England, is a figurehead, while parliament and its leader run the country. In Canada, the Governor-General represents the Queen.
Until 1952, the representative of the British crown was appointed by the Queen and sent over from England. The first Canadians selected to the position were from, what would be considered, Canada’s version of elite families, people with connections politically and socially.
It wasn’t until the seventies, with the selection of Edward Schreyer, former premier of Manitoba, that the Governor-General began to reflect society. The back-to-back appointment of two immigrant women shows just how much our society has changed in the past thirty years.
What makes Ms. Jean’s selection even more unique is that for the first time a non-European francophone has been placed in a position of significant power. Canada is proving to be multicultural in both of its official languages. It will be interesting to see how Quebec nationalists respond to this change.
In a previous sovereignty referendum, Jacque Parizeau, leader of the nationalist Parti Quebecois, blamed what he called the immigrant vote for the rejection of Quebec independence. This was widely seen as an attack upon racial minorities such as Haitians who had settled in Quebec because it was francophone, but considered themselves Canadians first and Quebecois second.
Subsequent nationalist leaders have not aired this view in public since, but it must still be a matter of concern. As Quebec evolves into a multicultural francophone society, what effects will that have on the sovereignty movement? Will non-Quebec-born people, or even second-generation immigrants, share their compatriot’s ambition for independence?
According to today’s Globe and Mail the political finger pointing began at yesterday’s press conference announcing Ms. Jean’s appointment.
Responding to speculation that her appointment may have been a political manoeuvre designed to rally Liberal support in Quebec, Ms. Jean said. “I’ve never been a token, sir, and I never will be.”
Twenty-five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a woman of colour to be selected as Governor-General of Canada, let alone one whose husband had been previously married and is white. As the face of Canadian society changes, so should the symbols that are its representatives.
The office of Governor-General has always been symbolic, of the monarchy and our association with England and the Commonwealth. Now it reflects the face of the society it represents.
Michealle Jean’s appointment as Governor-General of Canada shows the world that Canada’s belief in equality is more than just words. The country still has a long way to go, but it is starting to walk its talk. In these days of unrest and fear, most countries seem to be pulling back from change. It’s nice to see one country at least make an effort in the opposite direction.