Michaëlle Jean, the 27th Governor General of Canada, shares her family’s experience and challenges of adapting to life in Canada. As Haitian refugees they had a tougher path than most, but it didn’t stop Madame Jean from excelling in journalism, serving as the third Secretary-General of La Francophonie, and leading her own legacy project, the Michaëlle Jean Foundation.

Mediaplanet: Why did you and your family move to Canada?

Michaëlle Jean: Like thousands of Haitian families, my family was forced to flee the merciless brutality of the Duvalier dictatorship in the late 1960s. It was a life-and-death situation, an everyday reality for those who resisted the regime. I was a child, but I remember how friends and neighbours were being persecuted, and how some disappeared. My father was arrested and tortured. I remember how his mangled, bloodied body was dropped on our doorstep, like a warning to everyone. We had to leave the country for our own survival, so my father applied for asylum, and we were granted refugee status by Canada. 

What were some of the struggles you faced while adapting to life in Canada?

We arrived in Canada and settled in Thetford Mines, Quebec. Our challenges were many. Luckily, we found people who opened their hearts and welcomed us. I remember a primary school teacher who gave me my greatest chance. I was in a state of trauma, very silent and withdrawn. She asked me to share my experience with my classmates. When she did so, she gave me a voice that helped me unpack some very troublesome and painful memories. As I was the only black girl in my class, a refugee and an immigrant, she helped me realize that difference was wealth. Her generous attitude changed my life. 

How did you find so much success personally and professionally?

What is success? Let’s call it confidence in who I am, where I come from, in everything that shaped me and made me the woman that I am. Our family’s history, our struggles fostered in me a culture of resistance, along with a capacity for empathy. From my ancestors’ struggles, I learned the spirit of resistance. They were slaves, they were oppressed, and gave their life for emancipation, to free us all from slavery, barbarism and dictatorship. When I remember what they sacrificed, I find the courage to never let myself be intimidated or discouraged. You may feel despondent or downtrodden, but then you pick yourself up and keep going.

Michaëlle Jean says of her mother, Mme Luce Depestre: "The courage of my mother and her love gave me the self-confidence to face the unknown, and the resolve to keep my poise.

I also learned very early in life that indifference to the plight of others is not an option. Empathy and solidarity are indomitable sources of strength. Every chapter in my life is one of commitment to serve these values and principles. As a feminist activist, teacher, journalist, Governor General, international diplomat, it was always about serving something greater than myself.

What are you involved in presently?

My life’s mission is encapsulated in the work that we carry out, my husband and I, through my legacy project as 27th Governor General, the Michaëlle Jean Foundation. We work with marginalized youth across Canada using Arts, Culture and Education as conduits to reach out to each other and the wider society, to revitalize their communities, and to save lives, literally. These courageous young visionaries carry out deeply creative, innovative transformative work. It is a labour of love and prevention, a form of social change work. Along with our very dynamic team, our partners and stakeholders, we are totally devoted to supporting hundreds of young people.

I’m also involved in national and international diplomatic work, maintaining relationships around the world to build global initiatives that promote human rights, sustainable development, peace and security, the fundamental values of our shared humanity.

Do you think Canada is prepared and has the resources to be welcoming more than 300,000 newcomers this year?

Well over 300,000 newcomers were welcomed to Canada just last year, in 2018. We did prove that we have the collective capacity last year, didn’t we? The most innovative, economically driven and culturally dynamic areas of the country are those that greet with open arms the cultural and economic wealth and the inspiring entrepreneurship that immigration brings. Of course, more resources should be devoted to support newcomers, help them get settled, and build a life here with all of us.

"What worries me is the language of fear and rejection that peddlers of hate use to manipulate people into thinking that newcomers are the source of our problems."

What worries me is the language of fear and rejection that peddlers of hate use to manipulate people into thinking that newcomers are the source of our problems. Immigration is the primary issue they use as a wedge to divide us, and to conquer power for themselves. We cannot let such demagoguery undermine Canada’s hard-won humanistic values.

What can newcomers do to ease their transition to life in Canada?

When newcomers ask me how they can succeed in this country, I tell them that Canada is a country of unbound opportunities. There’s an opening for each and every one of them. I tell them to go for it.

Learning Canada’s official languages, talking to as many people as possible, and getting involved in the community, secure in the knowledge that you have something to contribute, are some of the ways that transition and integration can be eased and hastened.

How can fellow Canadians help newcomers in this transition?

Fellow Canadians already do a lot to help newcomers integrate the breathing fabric of Canadian society. There are many examples of great community integration projects all over the country.

Fear of the unknown is understandable. If meeting new people may be uncomfortable in the first few minutes for some, soon you find surprising commonalities and uncover extraordinary life lessons that make us all better human beings.

I say go ahead, reach out, and be curious. The whole world is within reach. It needs a hand and you too will be enriched.