Michaëlle Jean left Labrador more than a week ago, yet something of her lingers. Her grace, her beauty, her intelligence and wit and the warmth of her personality all left good impressions on the people who came out to see her, to hear her and sometimes to meet her and speak with her.
The Governor General’s job is not simple. As an inheritor of the powers, privileges and responsibilities of the British monarchy and as the head of a modern liberal democracy, Jean has to balance the interests of the nation or risk throwing the Constitution into crisis.
When she acts, she is meant to act for all Canadians. When she speaks, she speaks to us all and for us all — to and for every one of us without regard to language, origins, where we live, what we believe, or anything else that might differentiate us from each other.
However, when the Governor General of Canada performs the particular and various duties attached to her roles in the Canadian federal state, and in the British Commonwealth of Nations, she sometimes has to be different things to different Canadians.
In Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Jean was the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces. Her landing at the airbase in a massive Hercules transport and the honour guard that greeted her and submitted to her inspection on the tarmac helped to emphasize her military rank. She met with local civilian politicians, but when she addressed an audience at 5 Wing Goose Bay, her words were only for the soldiers: “We have so many reasons to be proud of you as you never cease to impress us with your rigour, your dedication and your devotion to the principles and missions that make Canada a global force for good.”
In North West River, Michaëlle Jean became First Citizen, in that she is the embodiment of all Canadians in all their rich diversity — including the aboriginal people who have inhabited Labrador since before Canada was born and whose cultures are on display at the Labrador Interpretation Centre.
When Jean and her husband toured the centre, they spoke with almost everyone they could. She met with the curator of the centre, with an artist whose works are exhibited on its wall, to town officials and to many elders who were invited to meet her and share a meal with her. Her message was clear: culture should unite people, not divide them.
In Sheshatshiu, the Governor General once again became the appointed representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Jean met formally with Innu elders and leaders, to whom she clearly declared her special responsibilities towards Canada’s First Nations. She heard grievances from many parties and, as her duty dictates, she promised to bring them back to the government in Ottawa and to urge they be acted upon. She played the role well and with dignity, earning herself many invitations to return.
At each stop on her tour, Jean saw and met new people. The only ones she encountered over and over again (aside from members of her own entourage and security detail) were the journalists who followed her around. Unfortunately, while she was eager to meet and speak with everyone else, on this trip she exercised her royal prerogative and chose to not hear or speak with reporters: no interviews, no press conferences.
Perhaps that was just as well. With the media, the Governor General takes on her starkly political role, becoming the head of state whose signature is needed before any bill becomes law, before any act of government becomes legal. Given the chance to ask her a question, only one matter comes to mind: Why, Your Excellency. Why did you grant Stephen Harper his first prorogation? Why go against the interests of Canadian democracy to serve the political whim of a minority prime minister?
Good thing those questions couldn’t be asked. They couldn’t have been answered, and would only have spoiled a nice trip.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.