Michaëlle Jean in conversation

On proroguing Parliament, her critics, and why she thinks Canadians felt a connection to her

In proroguing Parliament, her critics, and why she thinks Canadians felt a connection to herMichaëlle Jean’s term as governor general ends this week with the instalment of her successor, David Johnston. In one of her final interviews as the Queen’s representative, Jean reflects on what was at turns an inspiring, controversial and consequential five years in office and looks forward to her building the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, dedicated to continuing her outreach with young people, and her work with the United Nations as a special envoy to Haiti.

Q: You came into this job specifically set on “breaking down solitudes.” How do you look back on the last five years by that understanding of what the job was?
A: I think it was a call for action and a plan of action. When I was approached, it took me four weeks before I gave my answer. And I thought about it and the idea was, “What can you do with such an institution, with that kind of institutional space?” I wanted to make it a space where voices could be heard, where people could really feel comfortable and a place for conversation, dialogues, not specifically in this house, but across Canada. It’s been a concern for a long time, how indifference is actually creating more and more solitudes, how people are isolated. So breaking down the solitudes was about that. Engaging with people, validating their actions, listening to the social realities of Canada. And knowing perfectly that wherever you go as governor general, you bring visibility to what is happening.

So have I succeeded? I think I have created many opportunities for people to speak about challenges, but also to speak about solutions. What I’ve worked carefully on was putting decision makers, ordinary citizens, philanthropists, people from the Order of Canada, people from every imaginable field in situations where they would be confronted by realities, hear what people had to say and feel a part of their stories. And it created synergies that were quite amazing. And that started for me a whole reflection about inclusive governance. And the more I started doing it, the more I realized that people were also craving that. Right now, in Canada, this is what I hear over and over and over again. “We know the realities, we know what the problems are, we would like to feel part of the solutions, we need to be heard.”

Q: Some months ago, a newspaper columnist described you as the “empathizer-in-chief.” And this does seem to be a recurring idea, that you visibly displayed your emotions and you engaged with people on an emotional level. Even one of the speakers today, at your farewell reception on Parliament Hill, talked about your “closeness” with the people. Are you comfortable with that as your legacy?
A: I remember a gathering, young people from across the country, here at one event we had. They felt very comfortable to share their stories with me, because I listen. I actually take that time and I think it’s important. And I pay attention to every single person because each person is unique. And at the end of the dialogue, a few of them came to me and they said, “You know, you are a person of such compassion.” You know, these are words that go beyond the word itself. It’s about opening your heart to others and not being indifferent. And what we need to cultivate in Canada is that capacity we have for caring.

As I travelled across the country I was much more interested in what people from one province to the other, one territory to the other have in common, more than our differences. Beause we have this ability to celebrate our diversity and our differences, but I don’t think we take the time really to realize how much we have in common. I know that there are words that I use that some people, because of a lot of cynicism, don’t want to hear about anymore. When you say compassion, when you say solidarity, when you say fraternity, when you say togetherness, people go, “Okay, okay.”

But I believe that it’s at the core of humanity. If we lose this, if we lose that necessary openness to the other, we’re going to be a shell. I’ve even read some people criticizing me. If tears come, I don’t hide them. It’s there. I mean, I’m a human being. And some people even said, “You know, a governor general shouldn’t be emotional.” What is this? Some people even criticize me for smiling. [Laughs] When I smile, I respond to smiles. And when I cry, I respond also to tears. And people respond to my tears. It’s a way of engaging with each other. And I think it’s healthy, actually.

Q: From the moment you were appointed to this job, you were subject to suspicion, questions and scrutiny. That carried on these five years. Were you prepared for that level of scrutiny?
A: I was very disappointed actually with the way the media acted because there are things that are still being said about me and about my husband that have never been confirmed. Things that some journalists read and took for granted, never really inquired, and continued repeating. Even now. So at first, yes, it was difficult. Especially because I was advised never to answer. Was that the right advice? I don’t know. But I was advised never to answer. Now, I stay very focused. And I know it’s going to stick there, I’m going to die with it, what can I do? And there were things said about me that have nothing, nothing to do with the person I am.

Q: How hard was it to not respond?
A: Oh, difficult. It made me very angry at times. But I remember one thing that the former president of the Republic of France, François Mitterrand, once said. You have to give time to time. So time really takes care of circumstances in life. And he’s so right.

Q: I suppose it’s a question that comes up with every governor general: what exactly is the role of this position? And it was definitely a subject of debate during your time. Have you tried to live a certain definition of it?
A: I think traditions are there to evolve. I think that every governor general, from governor general Massey to me today and Mr. Johnston in a few days, has come to the office with a vision, being very true to who they are, and it’s been an added value to the institution. I never tried to do as my predecessors had done, but I am certainly convinced that we are in a continuum, where the institution is more and more ignited by Canadian values. And something that I know very well is the potential of this institution. This institution can be very creative. You come with a vision and you’ll find a team of people who will make that vision happen. And that vision is your contribution to the country. That vision is your desire also to embrace this country and to embrace the people. And they just embrace you too. They give back to you. People in Canada are very, very grateful to whoever is there for them, listening, validating, recognizing. And as you’re doing that, you’re empowering. I think that the greatest potential of this institution is that you can empower people. It’s amazing. And there’s nothing I like more than that: empowering people, just making them better citizens, recognizing their value, their merit, their sense of excellence, their generosity. And I did the same in my position as commander-in-chief. I thought it was very, very important to bring it to a human scale. And the soldiers responded so positively to that.

Q: Were those repatriation ceremonies the most difficult part of this job?
They were tough. You don’t get used to it. And thank God you don’t. It’s never routine. Each family is unique, each soldier is unique. And I never took it for granted. Each and every time I wondered, “What am I going to say to this mother? Her son was 20 years old. What am I going to say to these children?” I saw some children realizing what was actually happening, a rose in their hand, only on the tarmac, as the coffin came out. Little children who were wondering, “Why is mommy crying, why is she in pain?” I saw some young mothers with young children, totally devastated and totally drained. Grandparents, who could never imagine that their grandson or granddaughter would die before them. But these families always had the words, as if they had been prepared by their son or daughter who made that choice of engaging in the military with all the sacrifices and risks it involves. It’s not just what you see, the coffin coming out, it’s also the young [pallbearers]. Some of them are 17 years old, it’s their buddy. There’s this brotherhood. They are a family. A soldier has two families.

Q: What can you say at this point about the decision to prorogue Parliament in December 2008?
I think you know, by constitutional convention, I cannot go into details about the conversation with the Prime Minister. It has to be confidential. But I thought that it was quite interesting to see that this was a moment in our country to reflect on, “Okay, how does our system work?” I think it was a labour of raising awareness and raising also the responsibility of being well informed and of making the effort to learn about our political system. Because there’s going to be before and after. From now on, people realize that the governor general has a role. The governor general has to analyze, think, make a choice. My preoccupation was really to make the best decision in the interest of the country. What was best for the country.

Q: In terms of what informed or guided you, was it the best interests of the country, full stop?
History will judge. But I think that everything that I anticipated happened. And this was part of my thoughts.

Q: You’re probably not going to say much more than that, are you?

Q: Was there anything you felt you need to tell Mr. Johnston about this job?
Mr. Johnston was very much interested in my vision and how I carried out the duties and responsibilities. He’s a fine man, he’s a gentle man. Very warm. Both Mr. Johnston and Mrs. Johnston are very energetic, very excited. It’s the beginning of a great adventure for them. I don’t think they realize how much their life is going to change. [Laughs] And I thought it was quite sweet actually, you know, to see that, ‘Oh boy, they don’t really know what’s awaiting them.’ What most people don’t know is how much we work.

Q: It’s clear that you approached this job with a certain idea of being bold and active.
And a catalyst.

Q: And a catalyst. Whereas some people think of the governor general’s position as a sort of serene, ceremonial—
I’m very serene. [Laughs]

Q: But reserved. A reserved figure.
Oh, well, but you know, I think it’s their problem, it’s not mine. What you see is what you get. I’m the person I am and, you know what? Canadians have encouraged me to be who I am. And this has been inspirational for many people. “Oh, you’re so approachable, it’s wonderful.” Do you know what this means? It means that people see they can relate to the institution. They can relate to a person in a position like that, the highest institution in the country. The human engagement with people. As I travelled abroad I could have done just the ceremonial, the official: you arrive, you leave two days later, done, next. I made sure that I had programs that had a civil society component. I opened dialogues, forums, even in other countries. I worked abroad like I work here in Canada. I saw a lot of decision makers, politicians, who accompanied me and who keep saying to me every time I see them again: “My goodness, I discovered things about my country that I didn’t know about.” That’s why in Parliament today I encouraged our MPs and politicians to take their time. It’s about good governance. It has to be inclusive. You cannot be in your bubble. I feel very comfortable to say, “They don’t have all the answers, they have the powers to make the decisions, but they don’t have all the answers.” So they need to also look for answers that are coming from the citizens. And that’s the way you can achieve so much. When people feel that they are part of something, it creates a different state of mind. It creates trust and trust is essential.

Q: What now, both in terms of the foundation and in terms of Haiti?
My office, even my UNESCO office, is going to be in Ottawa. I have an office in Paris. I could have moved and gone to work in Paris—beautiful Paris! Who would say no to Paris? But when I saw how people responded in Canada to the situation in Haiti after the earthquake, the outpouring of generosity, I thought, “If I accept this responsibility of working as a special UN envoy with UNESCO, I must work from the Canadian perspective.” I know Canadians will be watching. They want results. And it is taking time. And I want results too. And when I want results, I can move mountains, but it is going to be a huge task.
And the University of Ottawa was also so generous to offer us offices that we are going to rent for the foundation. You cannot, after five years of such an intense tenure and mandate, say, “Okay, goodbye, it’s been wonderful, so long.” What comes with it is also a responsibility to be there, to continue the work. I think [the foundation] will be very good for the country because it’s about engaging young people from across the country to network, providing them also with space where they can share and have a conversation about their practices, their experiences, what works, what doesn’t work, and feeling a part of something that is bigger than them.