The RBC Black History Month Student Essay Competition
December 7th, 2018
Michaëlle Jean: A Phenomenal Pioneer of Many Firsts
A wise Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti once said: "if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with secondly." Barghouti's words have a significant relevance with regards to black history month, given that society often mistakes the beginning and entirety of black history with slavery. It is important to understand that there is more to black people than bondage and misery. The entire concept of black history month should be founded based on the recognition of black individuals that contributed to historical and judicatory milestones, in spite of their oppression. Originated from Port-Au-Prince, Haïti, Michaëlle Jean is undoubtedly a contributor to Canadian black history as she defies the status quo and prospers in midst of marginalization.1 She demonstrates to the world that her worth is not defined by her skin pigmentation and gender, as she was the first black General Governor of Canada. Till this day, Michaëlle Jean uses her voice to lead social change in the hopes of a better Canada.
To begin, Jean immigrated to Canada with her family at the age of 11 in search of a better quality of life. From childhood, she witnessed domestic abuse with her mother being a victim, which in turn prompted her initiative to lead change. She then advocated for women’s rights and security by taking part in a variety of social initiatives for the battered woman suffering from domestic violence.2 In 1988, after going back to Haïti to experience the reality of her people, she acknowledged the power of narrative journalism and perceived it to be a civic responsibility to use her voice for justice.3 She began her career with Radio-Canada as the first person of Caribbean descent to host a variety of news and affairs on programs like Le Point. Over the years, with her perseverance and positive influence, Jean officially became the 27th Governor General and Commander-in-chief of Canada on September 27th, 2005.4 Her motto throughout her mandate was “breaking down solitudes” as she envisioned to; “unify forces across the country, to build bridges between provinces and territories, to show how we can bring down certain barriers, to expose realities that alienate and divide, to pay very close attention to citizen-based actions, to value the vital contributions of women and youth.”5 Contrary to her past counterparts, being the only black woman to uphold such power, Jean had the ability to comprehend the urgency of resolving past mistakes as well as social issues. In fact, she had an interpersonal approach in terms of her problems solving as she aimed to “redefine the role beyond its traditional formal functions” by not only acknowledging problems but by taking actions wholeheartedly.6 Above all, Jean often went beyond the surface in her solutions; she did not dwell on society’s injustices but rather use those inequalities to challenge the status quo. In 2006, Jean was the first General Governor to visit a prison to promote dialogue between inmates in aspiration of showing empathy towards society’s most marginalized groups and hearing their opinions.7 In addition, she relaunched the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission with determination to have “the opportunity to right a historical wrong”.8 In 2010, after leaving the office as General Governor, her journey prospered as “she became UNESCO's special envoy to Haiti and created the Michaëlle Jean Foundation to help underprivileged youth in rural and northern Canada.” Four years later, Jean is the first woman as well as the first Canadian to hold the position of secretary general of the International Organisation of La Francophonie.9
Much like the pioneers that are viewed as the first settlers of Canada’s heritage, Jean is a modern day pioneer and quintessential contributor to Canadian history. One can say with utmost certainty that her efforts and initiatives have notable results. This year, Canada commemorates Viola Desmond, a woman of colour on its ten-dollar bill. Having a black woman on the currency is not only a sign of acceptance and recognition of black people but also women in general. Canada can now be placed in a position to start a new story with the word “secondly” and continue adding to Canada’s history. Acknowledging the past and implementing change is a step towards an inclusive and better tomorrow.10
1 "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED Talk." 6 Oct. 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
2 "Noteworthy historical figures - Canada.ca." 8 Feb. 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/black-canadians.html. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
3 "Michaëlle Jean — Michaëlle Jean." 28 May. 2016, http://www.michaellejean.ca/mj-fil-de-ma-vie-1/. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
4 "Noteworthy historical figures - Canada.ca." 8 Feb. 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/black-canadians.html. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
5 "Michaëlle Jean — Michaëlle Jean." 28 May. 2016, http://www.michaellejean.ca/mj-fil-de-ma-vie-1/
6 "A Woman of Purpose — Michaëlle Jean." 28 May. 2016, http://www.michaellejean.ca/womanofpurpose/. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
7 "Michaëlle Jean: A life of 'many possibilities' | CBC News." 29 Sep. 2010, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/micha%C3%ABlle-jean-a-life-of-many-possibilities-1.910435. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
8 "GG relaunches Truth and Reconciliation Commission | CBC News." 15 Oct. 2009, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/gg-relaunches-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-1.805247. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
9 "Michaëlle Jean | The Canadian Encyclopedia." 15 Nov. 2010, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/michaelle-jean. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
10 "A Viola Desmond primer: Who's the woman on ... - The Globe and Mail." 19 Nov. 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-viola-desmond-10-bill-explainer/. Accessed 7 Dec. 2018.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Ted, Ted, July 2009, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-1110098. Accessed November 22nd 2018.
“A Viola Desmond Primer: Who's the Woman on Today's New Canadian $10 Bill?” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 19 Nov. 2018, www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-viola-desmond-10-bill-explainer. Accessed December 7th 2018.
Azzi, Stephen. "Michaëlle Jean". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 September 2017, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/michaelle-jean. Accessed November 22nd 2018.
“GG Relaunches Truth and Reconciliation Commission | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 16 Oct. 2009, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/gg-relaunches-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-1.805247. Accessed November 19th 2018.
Jean, Michaëlle. “The Thread of My Life.” Michaëlle Jean, www.michaellejean.ca/mj-fil-de-ma-vie-1/. Accessed November 19th 2018.
Lafond, Jean-Daniel. “A Woman of Purpose.” Michaëlle Jean, 2016, www.michaellejean.ca/womanofpurpose/. Accessed November 19th 2018.
“Michaëlle Jean: A Life of 'Many Possibilities' | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 30 Sept. 2010, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/micha%C3%ABlle-jean-a-life-of-many-possibilities-1.910435. Accessed November 19th 2018
“Noteworthy Historical Figures.” Canada.ca, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 8 Feb. 2018, www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/black-canadians.html. Accessed November 19th 2018.