Michaëlle Jean was an outstanding governor general.
And not just because she kept Prime Minister Stephen Harper squirming — and answering lots of questions — for several hours when he wanted to prorogue Parliament in order to save his own political hide in December 2009.
I, like many Canadians, appreciated the relationship she established with our troops at a time when we were at war.
She charmed them just as she captivated the nation. She was without a doubt the “people’s GG.”
While she didn’t court controversy, neither did she fade into the background. She was her own woman — a woman with a big heart, who showed her emotions, her humanity. This was never a weakness, but rather a testament to her confidence. She was secure in who she was. She had principles, and beliefs and values and she did not shy from making them part of her mandate. She never shied from using her position to try to make a difference. She used her voice,
and her office, to promote equality between women and men.
She was, quite simply, brave.
And these should be some of the reasons Michaëlle Jean is remembered as an outstanding governor general.
Her commitments to advancing human rights and to gender equality were evident throughout her term and, indeed, were the subject of the Governor General’s Conference on Women and Security held in September this year — one of the last big official events she sponsored.
She was a strong and modern voice for women.
“The struggle for equality is not just a woman’s struggle,” she said numerous times. “It is the struggle of every person who demands respect, justice and dignity. I strongly believe we have everything to gain when we give women the means to change their lives for the better. Empower women and you will see a decrease in poverty, illiteracy, illness and violence.”
She spoke out, often, on the absolute need to eradicate violence against women; that such violence denied women security and their human rights. She argued that society loses out when half the population is excluded from the decision making. She believed Canada has much work to do on these fronts given our poor record of women in leadership, including political leadership.
She was also firm in her belief that the full recognition of women’s rights could not be waged without or against men. “If we are to succeed, it must be waged with them.”
“Denying more than half of the world’s population the most basic human rights, including the right to live in security, is the most flagrant form of subjugation and one of the worst scandals of our time,” she said in a speech in 2006. She added her voice to the incredible struggle faced by many aboriginal and immigrant women.
She spoke of the important work being waged by women’s groups across Canada, including shelters for abused women. She valued these advocates and front-line workers and the work they do, saying their efforts were critical to “reversing the trend of indifference” with respect to violence against women. “This is an issue that affects all of us because, to put it plainly, this is unacceptable in a country like ours, known for its commitment to rights and freedoms.”
You can just imagine how speeches like these must have rubbed the prime minister the wrong way — a man who has led a frontal attack on the advancement of women’s equality in Canada.
At the conclusion of the last conference she had gathered to discuss women and security, more than 120 participants (both women and men) issued a substantial declaration. The declaration called on the Canadian and provincial governments to renew their commitments to the full realization of women’s rights.
This was a political statement. This was Jean sending a message at the end of her term.
She was saying all is not well in Canada with respect to women’s equality.
After all, it has been documented just how much women have lost ground under the Harper Conservatives.
Some of the conclusions from the conference’s declaration included:
• That a strong social safety net is essential for the protection of the equality and security of the most vulnerable, the majority of whom are women and children.
• That there has been a serious erosion of basic social programs and services, such as social assistance and affordable housing, that are the foundations of a egalitarian society.
• That violence against women in Canada, especially aboriginal and other marginalized women, is an urgent and widespread problem and is a human rights violation.
• That women are not represented in formal positions of power and do not have equal influence or effective access to democratic engagement with their governments.
The conference participants also made a number of very important recommendations.
Jean, just by being who she is, was without a doubt a thorn in the prime minister’s side. She was a strong woman who stood up to him. And who, in the face of his glare and his disapproval, forged ahead.
She made her mark. I believe she made a difference. I believe she will continue to do so.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns Oct. 23.