Michaëlle Jean is a social activist, stateswoman, diplomat humanitarian, journalist and
documentary filmmaker, and was the 27 th Governor General, Commander-in-Chief of Canada,
from 2005 to 2010 – the first Black person and the first Haitian Canadian to hold this office. She
also Secretary General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie from 2014 to 2019
– the first woman to hold the position. She was also the first Black person on French television
news in Canada.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean immigrated to Canada with her family in 1968. The family
came to Canada as refugees, escaping the dictatorial regime of François Duvalier. They settled in
Thetford Mines, Quebec. However, Jean’s father experienced distress and became increasingly
violent. The marriage broke down, and Jean’s her mother moved with her children to Montréal.
There, she supported the family by herself, initially by working in a clothing factory and later, as
a night orderly in a psychiatric hospital.
Jean attended the Université de Montréal, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in modern literature
and languages (Italian and Spanish). While she studied toward her Master’s degree in
Comparative Literature, she taught Italian language and literature. Jean then won three
scholarships, toward her studies at the University of Perugia, the University of Florence and the
Catholic University of Milan. Jean is fluent in five languages: French, Haitian Creole, English,
Italian and Spanish; and she reads Portuguese.
As a young woman, Jean began what would become a lifelong commitment to gender equality,
dedicating herself over a 10-year period to the Quebec women’s movement. She contributed to
developing a network of hundreds of emergency shelters for women and their children escaping
domestic violence. The impact of this work grew throughout Quebec and into other regions of
Jean was the descendent of enslaved people. When she became Governor General in 2005, she
chose to emphasize freedom as a central part of the Canadian identity. From her perspective as
an immigrant, Jean argued it was time to end the idea of the two solitudes, French and English,
which have for so long dogged Canada’s history. Her other priorities as Governor General
included advancing human rights, supporting the arts, highlighting socio-economic issues in
the Canadian North, and promoting Canada abroad, particularly in Africa and Haiti. In 2006,
Jean became the first Governor General to address the Alberta legislature.
Jean had an outstanding career in journalism on the French and English networks of Canadian
public television. She earned several awards, including being named to the Ordre des Chevaliers
de La Pléiade by the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie. In the 1990s, she worked
with her husband, the filmmaker, essayist and philosopher, Jean-Daniel Lafond, producing film
documentaries. The government Cabinet announced the establishment the Michaëlle Jean
Foundation. Since 2010, Jean and Lafond have chaired the Foundation, which supports artistic
and cultural civic initiatives among vulnerable young people in Canada.
The list of Jean’s honours, honorary degrees and appointments is extensive. To name just a very
few: 2005 to 2010, Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Canada; 2012, Queen
Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal; 1989, the Human Rights League of Canada Media Award;
1997, City of Montréal Citizen of Honour; and close to 20 honorary degrees (to date) from
universities such as Ottawa, Alberta, Moncton, McGill, Guelph and Osgoode Hall Law School.
(Sources: The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.michaellejean.ca and Wikipedia)
Photo by Sgt. Éric Jolin, Courtesy Rideau Hall