Michaelle Jean Rocks the Global Youth Assembly

Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Friday night at the Global Youth Assembly featured a special appearance by Canada’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean. The Governor General appeared in Edmonton as part of her Youth Dialogues series. She spoke, listened to the crowd, and then finished by showing off her dance moves (video provided later in this post). I was impressed with her speech, and find a lot of characteristics in her that I can learn from and draw inspiration from.

Canada's Governor General dances as People's Poets perform.

Canada's Governor General dances as People's Poets perform.

Her ability to connect with an audience is readily apparent. She took the stage while the local Edmonton hip-hop group People’s Poets performed, dancing alongside them through the performance. She then spoke for about 10 minutes, focusing on the importance of supporting youth and giving them opportunities, as well as the importance of the arts, particularly how she has seen people “find hope, resilience, self-affirmation and healing in the arts – especially hip-hop”. She also talked about how youth are finding hope in the urban arts, such as rap, sculpture, and graffiti, and how they ‘act as an instrument to raise awareness about serious social ills’. Later in her speech, in relation to hip-hop, she talked about the importance of how you use the power you have, saying gangsta rap, and it’s tendency to encourage homophobia, misogyny, and gang culture, should be a cause for alarm. She stressed that despite this, we must stand in solidarity with the artists contributing to the community, and gave a nod to Edmonton for naming Cadence Weapon as its Poet Laureate.

Following this, she finished by focusing on youth. Some of the highlights including statements like “one child in the clutches of crime is one too many”, and “every time we fail a child, we fail as society. We cannot be indifferent to their plight”. She implored us to stay involved, since Canadians are “good at fighting indifference”, and closed by once again stressing the power of the arts and other tools to lead to positive outcomes in people’s lives. I especially liked the note of “other tools”. It’s important to remember that there isn’t a single avenue or tool that will resonate with everyone. The arts can be a powerful channel for people, but others will identify (better) with things like sport, work, or volunteering, for example. The arts are merely one part of the solution.

Michaelle Jean sits in the crowd and listens to the youth dialogue at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Michaelle Jean sits in the crowd and listens to the youth dialogue at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Jean then took a seat front-row centre and turned the event over to the audience and the hip-hop panel on stage. While this produced a good dialogue, I felt like the tagline for the event was misleading; it was a speech from the Governor General followed by a dialogue with hip-hop activists and the audience, not a dialogue with the Governor General. I think it’s great that a public official is willing to sit and listen, it just would have been nice had it been advertised as such.

This was the first time I heard our Governor General speak in person. What impressed me most, as I mentioned at the outset, is her ability to connect with people, largely through her willingness to relate to their culture and habits. In her speech she referenced her “journey of solidarity with the north”, leading to activities such as eating a seal heart that have received criticism in some circles. She showed a willingness to relate to youth culture as well, dancing on stage alongside two hip-hop activists at the end of the panel discussion.

I was also impressed with her willingness to talk about social issues, and some of the challenges faced by youth, especially in at-risk and remote communities. It was the kind of speech you rarely if ever hear from elected officials. It’s not the type of subject that’s necessarily going to win a lot of votes, nor will it necessarily produce quick results. Nor do elected officials constantly facing the specter of non-confidence votes and elections have a lot of ability to plan for the long-term. But they are incredibly important, and it is necessary for the health of our country that prominent figures like our Governor General raise awareness and advocate for them.

Finally, I want to talk about the value of symbolism. The position of Governor General is often dismissed as merely being a figurehead or a symbol; I think Jean proves that an active, passionate Governor General is anything but. Nevertheless, there is incredible power in a symbol. Beyond all the good work she is doing, the symbolic value of a visible minority and former refugee rising to be Canada’s de facto head of state is very powerful – and I imagine it’s especially true for marginalized and minority groups. Bringing inspiration to anyone, especially at-risk and vulnerable populations who need it the most is invaluable. Her term is a little more than a year away from ending, but in her time she has made a big impact on our country. I worry that she’ll be remembered in history for agreeing to prorogue parliament in December 2008. We need to ensure that, like with any person, her truly valuable contributions are remembered and celebrated. Her willingness and ability to connect with different cultures and to advocate for at-risk, vulnerable, and isolated communities – those who need a champion the most – should be celebrated. The more citizens we have willing to do this, the stronger our country will be.

More GYA: Craig Kielburger; Apathy is Boring, Politics is Not

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