Michaelle Jean: Canada's First Black Head Of State President Obama's made his first international trip in February, and it was north of the border. During his visit to Canada, he met with the nation's first black Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean. Gov. Jean talks about her own political journey and the similarities she shares with President Obama.
NPR logo

Michaelle Jean: Canada's First Black Head Of State

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102637814/102637808" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Michaelle Jean: Canada's First Black Head Of State

Michaelle Jean: Canada's First Black Head Of State

Michaelle Jean: Canada's First Black Head Of State

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102637814/102637808" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

President Obama's made his first international trip in February, and it was north of the border. During his visit to Canada, he met with the nation's first black Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean. Gov. Jean talks about her own political journey and the similarities she shares with President Obama.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Many of these outlets are billing Mr. Obama's appearance at the G-20 as his first foreign trip as president, but actually, his first international visit was closer to home. He traveled to Canada in February. While there, he visited with one of the country's most prominent figures, who also happens to be a person with a compelling personal biography, Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean. Appointed by the prime minister with the consent of the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, the governor general of Canada is the official representative of the queen.

It's a post that dates back four centuries to Canada's colonial origins, and Jean, who moved to Canada from Haiti as a child, is the first person of African descent to hold that post. And after the Obama's visit, she seems to have developed quite a following here in the U.S. Governor General Michaelle Jean joins us now from Ottawa. Thank you so much for being with us.

Governor General MICHAELLE JEAN (Canada): (French spoken)

MARTIN: Well, I'm not merely as fluent as you are, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …you just put me in my place right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Can you explain for an American audience what your duties are as governor general?

Gov. Gen JEAN: Well, in our political system, there's a prime minister who has the executive power, and there's a governor general who is the titular head of state of the country - so some would say the de facto head of state. And as governor general, I represent the Canadian people. I'm some kind of a moral authority. I'm also the commander-in-chief of Canada and of the Canadian Forces. And I also represent Canada abroad on state visits, official visits, working visits. It's a fascinating journey, I would say.

MARTIN: And speaking of fascinating, are you aware that there is this fascination with you in the United States, that there was this whole - how can I put it - this kind of Internet campaign to know more about you, that there is this fascination with you? Have you been made aware of this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. Gen. JEAN: Well, I was told, actually. But, you know, I think when President Obama chose to come to Canada on his first international visit, I think it was such an important and historic moment. When we met we connected in a second and the first thing we said to each other, who would have thought that the Commander in Chief of the United States and the Commander in Chief of Canada would be of African descent and at the same time. It is something extraordinary.

MARTIN: As you know there was tremendous interest in Barack Obama's background. Your own background is quite fascinating. You went to Canada, having fled Haiti in 1968 with your family, to escape the regime of dictator, Francois Duvalier, widely known for his human rights abuses. You became a successful journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I wanted to ask, is there similar fascination with your background in Canada? Has it taken on the kind of mythic dimensions of the Barack Obama story? Is it seen as kind of a narrative about Canada and where Canada is?

Gov. Gen. JEAN: I could totally relate to Mr. Obama's campaign when he really tried to focus on the necessity to really communicate that hope to the people. I even heard someone say here in Canada, a man who was interviewed the day he came to Ottawa and who was waiting impatiently to see him, and he said, you know, he's not a man, he's a message and that's very powerful. It means that he really spoke to people's minds and hearts in a very, very constructive way.

MARTIN: Excuse me, Excellency. Forgive me for interrupting. You know what's interesting to me is that I was asking about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you then started talking about Barack Obama. And the reason I'm curious is as a former journalist, I'm curious if you still are not comfortable being the subject of the story as opposed to the person covering the story?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. Gen. JEAN: That's very right but I think what we have in common, if I may, is really believing in the capacity of the grassroots and making sure that we maintain that connection with the grassroots in the country and really investing a lot in the social fabric of our society. It's something that I believe profoundly in. I think that what I like is bridging people and opening spaces for dialogue for people to express their ideas and to maybe, you know, consider working together and joining their strengths and their forces and their ideas to find solutions to many challenges and bring about change around them.

And that's what I call empowering people. That's what I call - you know, that yes we can message is about that. And it's something that I could totally relate to because it's something that I do cultivate also in my role as governor general in Canada. It's about opening those spaces for talk, for dialogue and it's about building a nation that is assertive, positive, and with a huge sense of civic responsibility and defining our citizenship.

MARTIN: We have to take a short break. In a moment, we'll continue our conversation with Canada's governor general. We'll talk about some difficult days at the beginning of her tenure. That's in just a moment. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up a forum for free speech in a region that badly needs one - the Middle East. That's in just a few minutes. But first we're going to continue our conversation with the governor general of Canada, Michaelle Jean. Excellency, not to draw too many parallels because, of course, every situation is distinct, but one interesting parallel between your story and Barack Obama's that I saw was that during the presidential campaign here there were those who continued to question Barack Obama's loyalty to the United States.

They questioned that in part because of where he was born - even though he was born in Hawaii, which of course is a state - and he spent part of his childhood overseas. And the same thing happened when you were appointed to your post, not so much because of your Caribbean heritage, as I understand it, but rather due to the fact that your husband is from Quebec and you and he were accused, if I may use that word, of being supporters of the independence movement there and there were questions about your loyalty. I wanted to ask if that was painful for you.

Gov. Gen. JEAN: It was quite painful. But it had nothing to do with me or nothing to do with my husband really. It's a sensitive issue between the people who would like to see a separation of Quebec from Canada and people who believe in the federation. But, you know, I had really to take a distance from that whole discourse and really consider what I wanted to achieve, you know, as governor general.

And I knew exactly what it meant for someone like me, and let's say it very openly and candidly, for a black woman to be in that position and what it meant for so many people and for a country like Canada and the kind of signal also that it was sending to the whole world. So all of this tells you about what Canada is about. I mean, it tells you about the country that Canada is.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you just about a political story that got some attention here shortly after the election late in 2008, a little less than two months after the nation's conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper's reelection. The opposition called for a no confidence vote. Without going into too much detail about how the parliamentary system works, the parliament was asking that the government be replaced. As governor general, you had the final say in this matter. How did you decide?

Gov. Gen. JEAN: Well, I think it was - it's part of my constitutional duties. And I think that what the governor general has to ensure is continuity and the solid governance and so I had to examine all the possibilities and anticipate also the impact of my decision. It was like a learning experience also for Canadians to understand exactly the constitutional prerogatives of a governor general and…

MARTIN: So you did suspend the Parliament so that the no confidence vote would be delayed?

Gov. Gen. JEAN: I think that it was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

I think it was very important to provoke like a time of reflection for everyone, I mean, for all the political parties involved and also for the citizens. There was a need for reflection.

MARTIN: Would you consider standing for elective office yourself?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. Gen. JEAN: I think that I'm in - like a very interesting position as governor general. It's true I am not - I'm not elected. I'm appointed. I was appointed by the prime minister at the time and with the assent of the queen as tradition wants it to be and being, you know, in a symbolic position but a very meaningful one - substantial one, because it's a position of substance and it's also a position of moral authority. People knows that I'm not there to ask for anything.

MARTIN: Well…

Gov. Gen. JEAN: I'm there, you know, I'm really there to - as a catalyst.

MARTIN: Well but remember, First Lady Hillary Clinton, I mean, some liken the role of governor general to that of first lady even though you're not married to the prime minister as a head of state, a symbolic role with significant, as you said, moral authority. First Lady Hillary Clinton made quite an effective run for the presidency. She didn't win but she came rather close. So…

Gov. Gen. JEAN: Oh yes.

MARTIN: I realize…

Gov. Gen. JEAN: I understand that. And I encourage - I encourage young women also to consider…

MARTIN: But not you?

Gov. Gen. JEAN: To consider really engaging in political life. You know, there's nothing more exciting than bringing people together and bridging people and empowering people. It's something I like and people respond to it very positively and I can see the impact it has.

MARTIN: I think - I think you said no. I think what you're saying is no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I think you're saying no, I don't think so, thank you, but no.

Gov. Gen. JEAN: No, you know, what I'm saying - what I'm saying is I take very seriously my position and my role and how exciting and the kind of impact that it has. And I think that we should never underestimate, you know, a role like this one, may it be symbolic, but very, very efficient and that can produce also a lot of interesting result for a very healthy society an empowered society. It gives me a lot of freedom, I would say.

MARTIN: Final question, Excellency, your term ends as I understand it in September 2010, do I have that right?

Gov. Gen. JEAN: Yes. That's right.

MARTIN: What is next? What is next for you?

Gov. Gen. JEAN: Next is keeping that commitment and continuing really on that same path with those same values to provide as legacy a space where people can come together and work on solutions to the many challenges in our society. And I think that in my next life I'll be continuing, you know, with this belief that it's very important to stay active as a citizen and to work with others in that spirit of togetherness. I love it. I love it. So this is what I'm working on.

MARTIN: Michaelle Jean is the governor general of Canada. Her Excellency was kind enough to join us from the studios of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Ottawa. Governor General, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Gov. Gen. JEAN: Thank you, Michel. Au revoir.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.