Michaëlle Jean became Canada's 27th Governor-General yesterday in a vibrant yet poignant ceremony that reflected her youthfulness and the country's growing diversity and spoke to a fresh approach to the usually staid viceregal post.
She confronted lingering questions about her commitment to Canada, declaring that she loved the country and that the "time of the two solitudes" is past.
Simply dressed in a white blouse, black jacket and long black skirt, Ms. Jean was accompanied by her filmmaker husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, and their six-year-old daughter, Marie-Eden, at the Parliament Hill festivities. She was at times emotional, nervous and clearly overjoyed.
Ms. Jean, 48, is the first black woman to serve as Canada's head of state and one of the youngest to hold the office. She is also one of the few governors-general who is not a member of the Canadian establishment, living until recently in a renovated home in a working class area of Montreal.
All of that -- her beauty and youthfulness, her energy, her early years in Haiti and her life in her adopted homeland -- was reflected in an installation ceremony that ran more than an hour over schedule and was remarkable for its common touch, enthusiasm and fun.
There was the usual pomp and circumstance -- the 21-gun salute, military bands and an honour guard -- but there was also a rollicking gospel choir from Montreal to which the new Governor-General danced and clapped, along with a beaming Prime Minister Paul Martin, who did so rather awkwardly. A step-dancing, fiddle-playing quintet from Cape Breton performed in the Centre Block's Hall of Honour as did circus performers.
The diverse crowd of more than 500 people packed into the Senate chamber included friends and relatives as well as Supreme Court judges, diplomats and many current and former MPs and senators.
Her father, Roger Anthony Jean, declared he was "very, very, very proud."
Never in "one million years" did he think he would be the father of the head of state of his adopted country, he said before bursting into hearty laughter. "During the ceremony, I cried. I said, 'I am maybe dreaming.' "
Ms. Jean's predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, was there, too. It is rare for a former governor-general to attend the swearing in of his or her successor. But Ms. Clarkson, and her husband, John Ralston Saul, received two sustained standing ovations and were thanked warmly by the Prime Minister. They hugged and kissed Ms. Jean and Mr. Lafond.
All of this was broadcast live on the CTV network, another departure from past practice. The CBC has locked out its employees, who set up information pickets at the entrances to Parliament Hill. Ms. Jean, a former Radio-Canada journalist gave picketers a thumbs-up when she passed by.
And then there was her speech -- subtly political but never crossing the line, hopeful and poignant.
"The time of the two solitudes that for too long described the character of this country is past," she said. "The narrow notion of every person for himself does not belong in today's world, which demands that we learn to see beyond our wounds, beyond our differences for the good of all," she said. "Quite the contrary: We must eliminate the spectre of all the solitudes and promote solidarity among all the citizens who make up the Canada of today."
Breaking the solitudes will be one of Ms. Jean's key objectives as Governor-General, her office said. Her new coat of arms includes the motto, "Briser Les Solitudes" (Breaking Down Solitudes) and features two black mermaids blowing conch shells. The mermaids are said to symbolize the role played by women in advancing social justice.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who sat with the other opposition leaders in the Senate, disagreed with Ms. Jean's analysis on Quebec. "I would say that most of the speech I share the same kind of values she offered to Canadians and Quebeckers concerning democracy, helping Third World countries, things like that," he said. "Concerning the two solitudes, I think the two solitudes will exist or are still existing."
Ms. Jean was clearly nervous as she entered the Parliament Buildings. She cried as singers Julie Massicotte and Lynda Thalie performed " à la beauté du monde," a hymn warning against killing the "beauty of the world" before her swearing-in ceremony.
Ms. Jean was composed when she entered the chamber with her husband. Their daughter sat in the front row with her tutor, Danielle Desmers, who will travel with her when Marie-Eden accompanies her parents on trips.
"Most of all, I want our young people to be our standard-bearers. I want them to dip into the enormous treasure trove that is Canada," Ms. Jean said. "I am the mother of a little girl whose story opened my eyes to certain very harsh realities that we must not ignore. My daughter Marie-Eden has changed my life. She has taught me that while all children are born equal, they don't have the same opportunities to flourish."
Marie-Eden was adopted from Ms. Jean's family's Haitian hometown of Jacmel.
Ms. Jean also spoke of her early years in Haiti, a country her family fled in 1968. "My own story begins as a young child in another country, one 'draped in barbed wire from head to toe,' in the powerful words of the Haitian poet in exile, René Depestre, who is also my uncle," she said.
"The story of that little girl, who watched her parents, her family and her friends grappling with the horrors of a ruthless dictatorship, who became the woman standing before you today is a lesson in learning to be free."
Excerpts from Michaëlle Jean's speech in Parliament yesterday
On her story
"My own story begins as a young child in another country, one 'draped in barbed wire from head to toe,' in the powerful words of the Haitian poet in exile, René Depestre, who is also my uncle. The story of that little girl, who watched her parents, her family, and her friends grappling with the horrors of a ruthless dictatorship, who became the woman standing before you today, is a lesson in learning to be free."
On her role
"I am determined that the position I occupy as of today will be more than ever a place where citizens' words will be heard, where the values of respect, tolerance, and sharing that are so essential to me and to all Canadians, will prevail. Those values, which are paramount for me, are linked inextricably with the Canada I love. Along with my husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, I hope to rally our creative forces around those values that unite us all and that are universal in scope. . . .
"I shall place special emphasis on the generosity that Canadians have shown throughout our history, from our veterans and our Canadian Forces, who have often sacrificed so much, to the many volunteers in humanitarian actions, who often work in the shadows in the name of a peaceful ideal of freedom and justice."
"The time of the two solitudes that for too long described the character of this country is past. The narrow notion of every person for himself does not belong in today's world, which demands that we learn to see beyond our wounds, beyond our differences for the good of all. Quite the contrary: we must eliminate the spectre of all the solitudes and promote solidarity among all the citizens who make up the Canada of today.
"As well, we must make good use of our prosperity and our influence wherever the hope that we represent offers the world an extra measure of harmony."
On young people
"I want our young people to be our standard-bearers. I want them to dip into the enormous treasure trove that is Canada. . . . While all children are born equal, they don't all have the same opportunities to flourish. This is as true for children here as it is for children in the Third World. . . .
"Nothing in today's society is more disgraceful than the marginalization of some young people who are driven to isolation and despair. We must not tolerate such disparities. . . .
"They are the promise of our future and we have a duty to encourage them to join us in this reinvention of the world. We must communicate to them the spirit of adventure that our ancestors, regardless of their origins, have passed on to us."
"I know how precious that freedom is, I know what a legacy it is for every child, for every citizen of this country. 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."
"As a journalist, the profession I practised with passion and resolve, I have been a privileged witness both of a good many upheavals and of an unprecedented opening onto the world. I pledge that I will go on listening and that my curiosity will remain keen. We are at a turning point in the history of civilization and more than ever before, our future rests on those who are forcing us to imagine the world of tomorrow. "Full text at globeandmail.com