Former governor general Michaëlle Jean gives a passionate International Women's Day talk at Nawapon on Wednesday. Photo credit: Kerry Slack

She watched her neighbours killed, and with her family, Michaëlle Jean fled Haiti to escape Duvalier’s regime, under which her father was arrested and tortured in 1965.

“Growing up in Haiti, indifference was not an option,” Jean, the former governor general of Canada, said in an impassioned presentation hosted by the Leadership Development for Women Group which started International Women’s Day in Algonquin College’s Nawapon on Wednesday.

Staff, students and online attendees packed the venue to hear Jean share her experiences growing up, in her career and in her current role fundraising for underrepresented youth.

“I’m excited,” Diane McCutcheon, vice-president of human resources said. “I’m so grateful to the Leadership Development for Women group for getting her to speak with us.”

Jean, connecting with her audience said: “Your energy re-enforces mine. I can’t wait to share my energy with you.”

That she did.

Jean reflected on and honoured gritty women who paved the way, such as: Agnes McPhail, the first woman elected to the House of Commons; Emily Murphy, a women’s rights activist and author; and, Mary Ann Shadd, an abolitionist.

“These women fought for us all,” Jean said. “They fought for every one of us in this room. I think that they fought for the greater good.”

A former journalist, broadcaster and filmmaker, Jean served as commander-in-chief of Canada from 2002 to 2010. She is the first black woman to reach the highest constitutional office in the country.

At the end of her mandate, the United Nations asked her to support reconstruction efforts in Haiti, which was devastated by a massive earthquake in 2010. She also served as chancellor of the University of Ottawa from 2011 to 2014.

Together with her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond, she co-chairs the Michaëlle Jean Foundation. Programs help support platforms and civic initiatives alongside some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised young people in Canada for action against exclusion.

The event saw attendees shed tears and through her innate ability to connect, Jean was able to bring the guests to laughter as well. She addressed sensitive subjects — the right to vote, the British North America Act, violence against women and the fast-growing numbers of cyber crimes against women — with confidence and infectious ease.

“She was able to educate us through her storytelling. She quoted history, and statistics, but also backed it all up with personal experience, her story,” said Emily Roberts, a student success specialist and coordinator of the bachelor of commerce program. “That to me is truly an art form.”

Diane McCutcheon, Emily Roberts, Edward Matwawana, and Michaëlle Jean talk ahead of the presentation.
Diane McCutcheon, Emily Roberts, Edward Matwawana, and Michaëlle Jean talk ahead of the presentation. Photo credit: Kerry Slack

Delving into more current realities, Jean focused heavily on exclusion.

“Exclusion takes lives,” Jean said, then paused for a few seconds, letting it sink in.

“A society that fails to include not only shirks its responsibility and fails to care for its people, it deprives itself of vital contributions,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to exclude.”

“Not being recognized undermines a person,” Jean said. “By not recognizing you they seek to make you invisible. Yet still, we are classified as visible minorities. Such torment can kill a person and it does. The facts are there.”

“We need to unite. Hand-to-hand, solidarity extended across life experiences, skin colour, gender identities and cultural backgrounds,” Jean said. “It is essential that all of us unite. Black, First Nations, Inuit and Metis people, white, Asian and humans of all stripes around our future. Around the sacredness of life.”

Wrapping up by highlighting the present disparities in women’s roles in the technologies and science sectors, Jean said she holds hope for the youth. She sees the youth today as creative and ready to speak up and challenge the system.

Saying thank you with a heart hand gesture.
Michaëlle Jean says thank you with a heart hand gesture. Photo credit: Kerry Slack

When asked how to make change, her answer was so simple. “Speak up, listen,” Jean said. “Take action. This provides other people with the space to do the same.”

“When you make space to listen, when people see that you get it, when you give space for people to understand, it’s a great way to serve,” Jean said.

Kara McNeil, the equity, diversity and inclusion coordinator, quietly said, “I love that.”

“I know,” Jean replied. “I can see it in your eyes.”