Michaëlle Jean becoming the new secretary general of La Francophonie opens a new era and a new realization for our place in the world.
On the world stage, she is a new face for Canada and a new face of the new Canada. And chances are it was not just Canada that was selected for the role but Michaëlle Jean herself, who she is and what she represents.
True, La Francophonie is not the United Nations, but it is a substantial network of 57 states plus other associates and observers and has a special place in relation to the history of Canada—it’s anglophone counterpart being the higher profile Commonwealth. And as the organization looks to become more relevant to its members, Jean can play an innovative role in its redefinition.
Jean’s predecessor was Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, and before him was former Egyptian foreign minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali who had also been UN Secretary General. So with a high bar, a head of state kind of person was needed for the role.
Wasn’t it handy that we have a former Governor General of Canada who is francophone and also born in Haiti, which made her more appealing to developed and developing countries of the alliance. She has considerable international stature now and has some pretty specific ideas around international development, diplomacy, and gender equality.
One shouldn’t forget to give former prime minister Paul Martin credit for boldly choosing her for the vice-regal position back in 2005, reminding Canadians then, and now again, that La Francophonie in Canada is quite diverse, and that this diversity is a benefit for Canada.
The online critics have been making much of the suggestion that Prime Minister Stephen Harper supported her in repayment for her having saved his government in the prorogation crisis of 2008. There may well be some truth to that, but it is worth remembering that, by tradition, the GG is most often required to go with the advice of the sitting Prime Minister in situations of controversy, unless the sitting Prime Minister is engaged in some criminal or clearly nefarious activities. The theory also assumes that there is always the next election to clarify things. Critics also suggest Harper has a lot more to gain in her selection, to help re-build his reputation both in Quebec and on the international stage, where he is all too often the outlier among nations. Not much argument there, but that would not be the reason for Jean not being a candidate.
The bottom line is, regardless of how one feels about a party in power, we should always be looking for ways and means for Canada to play a larger role on the international stage, especially because, as the Aga Khan famously said, “the world needs more Canada.” And to be clear—and Jean needs to be clear on this—she is not Stephen Harper’s representative on La Francophonie. She is not a Canadian ambassador, the way Gary Doer is ambassador to Washington, D.C., or Gordon Campbell is high commission to the Court of St. James (a.k.a. the United Kingdom). Yes, she or course comes from Canada and is Canadians but now she reports to an international body, just the way Ban Ki-moon reports to the members of the United Nations and not to president Park Geun-hye of South Korea.
The time will come when she will be scolding or pressuring the Canadian government on some important issue.
Canadians don’t get to head up major international bodies often, and the chances are getting scarcer. Former Liberal minister Donald Johnston was secretary general of the OECD from 1996 to 2006, the first non-European in that role, and there were others who have played key roles in international developments such as Lester B. Pearson who played a key role in the creation of the United Nations and then of course with the creation of UN Peacekeepers, John Humphrey on the International Charter of Human Rights, Lloyd Axworthy on the Land Mines Treaty, Sergio Marchi at the WTO, Louise Frechette as UN Deputy Secretary General and Richard Pound on substance abuse in sport.
Michaëlle Jean provides a new look for who we are as Canadians on the world stage. Not bad.
The Hill Times
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