Ottawa : Michaëlle Jean to receive key to the city on International Women’s Day

A woman with curly brown hair, wearing a pink blazer and a gold pendant, smiles at the camera.
Canada's 27th governor general, Michaëlle Jean, will receive the key to the City of Ottawa from Mayor Jim Watson on Tuesday. Photo by Michaëlle Jean Foundation.
Meara Belanger - CHUO - OttawaON | 07-03-2022
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On this years' International Women’s Day, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson will present the key to the city to the former governor-general, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean.

Watson will present the key to the 27th Governor-General on Tuesday at his annual International Women’s Day breakfast. According to a news release from the city, Jean is being given the award in recognition of her “illustrious and distinguished career” as a journalist, UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti, third Secretary-General of La Francophonie, and as a former representative of the Crown.

Receiving the key to the city is the highest civic honour in Ottawa, the seat of the federal government. Some of the recipients from previous years include Canadian figure skater Barbara Ann Scott in 1948, Queen Elizabeth - then Princess Elizabeth - in 1951, and former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1968. 

The key is awarded annually to residents and visitors of Ottawa who are seen as “distinguished persons and honoured guests.” Its roots are steeped in Medieval tradition, when cities were difficult to enter because of their high walls and heavily guarded gates. Historically, the literal key was given as a symbol of trust, but it also functioned as a way for the elite to pass through a given city without fear of reproach.

Jean was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1957 - under the dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. In 1967, Jean’s father was forced to flee to Canada after being arrested and tortured. Jean, her mother, and her sister joined him the following year, settling together in Thetford Mines, QC.

Jean’s father was deeply scarred from his time in prison, which eventually caused her parents’ marriage to collapse. The family moved to Montréal soon after, where Jean obtained her Bachelor's degree in Italian and Spanish from the Université de Montréal.

She went on to study for her Master’s degree, eventually becoming fluent in five languages, including French and Haitian Creole.

In 1986, Jean started working as a journalist in Haiti for the Canadian French-language news program, Le Point. After being hired by Radio-Canada - the French-language division of CBC - Jean became the first Black Canadian to work in French television news. She worked as a reporter on numerous Francophone news programs, until eventually launching her own current affairs show - Michaëlle - in 2004.

Jean was sworn in as Governor-General in Sept. 2005 and was the first Black person to hold the office. As the formal head of state, Jean advocated for human rights and the rights of Black Canadians and immigrants to Canada, and sought to dissolve historical tensions between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians.

During her swearing-in, Jean encouraged Canadians to come together in the name of freedom and unity.

“From Signal Hill, to Vancouver Island; from Boston Lander to Thetford Mines; the freedom that is ours unites us all,” said Jean.

In her role as Governor-General, Jean was the subject of scrutiny for some Canadians due to her dual French and Canadian citizenship, which she later renounced. 

Another controversy swept over Jean in 2008, when she permitted then-prime minister Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament for seven weeks, which spared him from being replaced by the Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion.

She served as Governor-General until 2010, when she was replaced and became the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) special envoy to Haiti. In her role at UNESCO, Jean worked to help Haitians to recover following the catastrophic earthquake of 2012, which hit just kilometers away from Port-au-Prince.

Ever a unifying voice, Jean expressed her gratitude to Canadians for their “outpouring of support” for the Haitian people at the time.

“What brings me back to life and gives me hope are all the messages that have reached me,” said Jean. “Expressions of sympathy and solidarity with the families in mourning, those who have been devastated, anguished and overwhelmed by the slaughtering of human lives.”

An influential figure in the international Francophone community, Jean was appointed secretary-general of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie in 2014.

In her acceptance speech, Jean expressed optimism for French-speaking African nations, which have displayed a higher degree of international unity since the creation of the African Union in 2001.

“This is what is happening right now,” said Jean. “I see it happening in Africa, I see it happening everywhere. Countries are coming together, and in that space that we call La Francophonie, there are so many strengths.”

The first woman - and the first Canadian - to hold the position, Jean remained in her role until 2018.

Jean’s advocacy work has continued throughout her life. In 2010, she created the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, which brings arts to underprivileged youth in rural and northern communities. 

From 2011 to 2014, Jean served as chancellor of the University of Ottawa, where there is a building named after her.

Jean will receive the key to Ottawa at 9 am on Tuesday, during an online celebration hosted by Watson and Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, the city’s Liaison for Women and Gender Equity. Residents can watch the ceremony online on the city’s YouTube channel.