Michaëlle Jean, (born September 6, 1957, Port-au-Prince, Haiti) is the African Canadian journalist and documentarian who was Canada’s 27th governor-general (2005–10) and the first person of African heritage to hold that post. She later became the first woman to serve as secretary-general of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (2015– ).
Jean’s early years were spent in a middle-class neighbourhood in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, where her father was principal and teacher of philosophy at an elite, Protestant preparatory school. She was educated at home because her parents, Roger and Luce, did not want her to attend school, where she would have to swear allegiance to François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In 1965, her father was arrested and tortured. In 1967 he fled to Canada; his wife and two daughters joined him the next year.
Jean was a refugee from Haiti—coming to Canada in 1968—and was raised in the town of Thetford Mines, Quebec. Jean attended the Université de Montréal, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Italian and Spanish. She began a master’s degree in comparative literature at the Université de Montréal, taught Italian at that institution, and won scholarships that allowed her to make several trips to Italy to study at universities in Perugia, Florence, and Milan. She became fluent in five languages (French, Haitian Creole, English, Italian, and Spanish). She was also an activist on the issue of domestic violence, working with shelters for battered women and coordinating a government-funded study on spousal abuse during her time in university. Jean worked as a journalist and broadcaster for Radio-Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
In 1986, Jean returned to Haiti with a friend to conduct research for an article on the island’s women. The two arrived to witness the ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s dictator and son of the man whose regime Jean’s family had fled. Jean’s work caught the eye of a National Film Board producer, who invited her to return to Haiti as a researcher and interviewer for a film on the 1987 Haitian elections, shown on Le Point, a news magazine program on Radio-Canada, the French language arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
When Radio-Canada subsequently hired Jean, she became the first black person on French television news in Canada. She worked as a reporter or host for several of the network’s programs, including Actuel, Montréal ce soir, and Virages. In the mid-1990s, she moved to RDI, Radio-Canada’s all-news network, becoming host of le Journal RDI and other programs, winning many awards along the way, including a Gemini. By 2004, she was well enough known among Francophone Canadians to launch her own current affairs show on RDI, entitled Michaëlle. In English Canada, she was familiar to viewers of CBC Newsworld’s documentary programs The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts, both of which she had hosted since 1999.
Jean has won numerous awards for her journalism, including the Amnesty International Journalism Award. With her husband, French-born Canadian filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, she also made several acclaimed documentaries, most notably Haïti dans tous nos rêves (1995; “Haiti in All Our Dreams”).
On Sept. 27, 2005, Jean was officially installed as Canada’s governor-general. She was the first black person and the first Haitian immigrant to hold the prestigious but mainly ceremonial post as the British monarch’s viceregal representative in Canada.
As governor-general, Jean called for increased communication between the Francophone and Anglophone communities in Canada, as well as between all the country’s cultural groups. She denied speculation that she had any leanings toward a sovereign Quebec by renouncing the dual French citizenship she had gained on marrying Lafond, a French national. Though governor-generals are expected to avoid taking an active role in politics, in December 2008 Jean briefly suspended Parliament in order to save Prime Minister Stephen Harper from a no-confidence vote spurred by his government’s reaction to the international economic downturn. In 2010 she completed her term as governor-general and was succeeded by David Johnston. She has won numerous awards for her journalism, including the Amnesty International Journalism Award. With her husband, French-born Canadian filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, she also made several acclaimed documentaries, most notably Haïti dans tous nos rêves (1995; “Haiti in All Our Dreams”). She became UNESCO’s special envoy to Haiti and created the Michaëlle Jean Foundation to help underprivileged youth in rural and northern Canada.
Jean was named chairperson of the board of directors for the Institut Québécois des hautes études internationales (Québec Institute for International Studies) at Université Laval in October 2010; she became the chancellor of the University of Ottawa in February 2012.
On 30 November 2014, she was appointed secretary general of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (International Organisation of La Francophonie) during the15th summit of French-speaking nations in Dakar, Senegal. She is the first woman and the first Canadian to hold the position.
Her four-year mandate began January 5, 2015, and she has since promoted democratic procedures particularly in respect to elections in the Central African Republic, Niger, Comoros, and Benin and the rights of women.