It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Rideau Hall for this forum, organized in conjunction with the National Arts Centre, which will help us reflect on and recognize the role women play in culture and our society.
Since being appointed Governor General of Canada, I have wanted to make this residence and the institution I represent a place where people can speak out and ideas flow freely.
Today’s round table discussion on women and leadership is certainly in line with that goal, which is why I support this initiative.
I don’t think we talk about women enough. About our battles, our victories. About the effect we have on the world and our willingness to change it for the better.
Women’s rights—which we too often take for granted these days—are a relatively new development in history, and therefore still quite fragile.
Which is why we must keep the torch of equality burning brightly.
Let us continue to fuel the flame and ensure we pass it on, from woman to woman, mother to daughter— as well as mother to son—generation to generation, like we are doing here today.
Everywhere I have been—from the Arctic to Brazil, Africa to Haiti, and all the way to Afghanistan—I have met exceptional women.
Women of every background, of every allegiance, of every origin, and of all ages.
Energetic women whose everyday lives are a lesson in courage.
Outspoken women who dare to speak the truth, denounce what is wrong, and defend a cause they deem just, often at great risk to their lives.
Capable women in charge of companies, organizations and entire nations.
Kind women who help, comfort, treat and listen to others.
Cultured and knowledgeable women who are constantly pushing back the boundaries of the imagination and of progress.
And what all these women have in common is that they chose not to remain silent or to give up.
For a number of years, I also helped women who had suffered various forms of violence.
I saw these women, whose inner flame had been snuffed out, slowly find their spark once again.
We can only imagine the determination it takes to rebuild a life after years of abuse.
I have always been moved by the spirit of resistance and the resilience that we, as women, have.
Even in the most extreme situations, throughout history, we have continued to think, speak, act and fight.
I still have a clear picture in my mind of the Afghan women I met in March on International Women’s Day.
Those women face some very harsh realities and are trying to find a means of improving their lives, even those who appear to be lost under burkas.
Thanks to the micro-credit programs we support, some of these women are taking their first steps towards financial independence.
And we in the West know how important that is when seeking respect and freedom.
Other women—lawyers, educators, doctors and journalists—have come out of hiding to fight for a better means of speaking out, and we are seeing more and more radio and television programs in Afghanistan that reflect this reality.
Just a few months ago, two of these women, two journalists, paid for their audacity with their lives.
I have to say, the women—at home and abroad—who fought to end the cycle of violence and oppression, who challenged conventions, who broke through social barriers, who dared to dream big: all these women have been great sources of inspiration to me.
When I was offered the position of governor general of Canada, I thought about it for a long time. And I will never forget the day my daughter, Marie-Éden, told me how proud she was of me. It was then that I understood how important my decision was and how much hope it could inspire, even in a six-year-old.
And I think that is what we must instill in the hearts of women and girls. Pride. Confidence. The strong desire to be true to themselves. The desire to fight for their convictions. The desire to pursue their creative muses.
Women have always created. Anonymously. Under pseudonyms. Under the assumed name of a recognized artist. But they created nonetheless, and that is what we are celebrating here today.
Even now, in many areas of the world, people censor, gag and persecute women who write or paint, women who perform, women who recreate the world in images, all those women who dare to tell people loud and clear who they are and what they think.
Even in so-called open societies, women have not been creating out in the open for very long.
But despite all the difficult constraints and prejudices, women’s names have pierced the silence of history. These artists paved the way, they set the example.
They helped us understand that world could be different. That it was possible to change the world and open it to new voices, and that women’s voices were just as important.
They showed us that the emancipation of women was not a battle between the sexes but an attempt to win our inner freedom.
In a way, that is what Margaret Atwood was trying to illustrate in The Penelopiad: she deconstructed the image—symbolized by Penelope—of the perfect woman and faithful spouse, and turned her into a real, flesh-and-blood woman. A woman who suffers and fights adversity; a woman who steps out from the shadows, accepts her destiny, and finds her own voice.
The future of humanity and our hope for a better world rests on women’s shoulders. I saw it with my own eyes in Africa, where the future of an entire continent depends on the daily efforts made by women.
May their courage inspire us to reach our full potential, achieve our loftiest dreams and display our greatest talents.
It is up to us to create opportunities, not only for ourselves and those who are following in our footsteps, but for all of humanity.
Before letting them take the stage, I would like to thank Gail Asper, Zita Cobb and Marie Chouinard for coming here to discuss their careers and share their ideas about culture.
Jean, Michaëlle. 2007. "Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean - Speech on the Occasion of a Round Table Discussion on Women and Leadership: 'Leading by Example: Empowering the Next Generation of Canadian Women.'" The Governor General of Canada. https://www.gg.ca/en/media/news/2007/her-excellency-right-honourable-michaelle-jean-speech-occasion-round-table-discussion-women-and.