The Zoomer List: Canada’s Top 45 Over 45: The Governor Generals: Michaelle Jean

4. Michaelle Jean, 53 – Canada’s 27th Governor General
Why? For bringing the governor general post into the 21st century.

Born in Haiti, black and fluent in five languages, the former CBC journalist filled Rideau Hall with the contemporary character of an increasingly diverse country. Her background, rooted in the refugee experience and nourished on a passion for human rights, could not help but inform her approach to her viceregal duties. Her “wealth of experience, dynamism and dedication” in journalism and advocacy was cited in june by Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) when she named Jean to her first post-regal assignment: special envoy for Haiti.

The 53-year-old was just 11 when her family fled the murderous regime of Haitian dictator François (papa Doc) Duvalier in 1968 and settled in Thetford mines, Que. Their new home, where they endured taunts because of their skin colour, was no picnic, but she soon embraced education as the path to freedom. She studied languages and literature in Canada and Italy, taught at the university of Montreal and worked with women’s shelters and immigrant groups before Radio-canada recruited her in 1988. She was the first black woman to work on air for the CBC’s French-language television network and served as a reporter and host of news, public affairs and documentary programs, including The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts, before her appointment as governor general.

Encouraging others to consider the plight of the oft-forgotten, in Canada and abroad, is a recurrent theme for Jean. It came to the fore after this year’s earthquake in Haiti put yet another exclamation mark on her birth country’s chronic problems with poverty and political dysfunction, and it will no doubt imbue her UNESCO mission. On Jan. 13, in another unprecedented moment for a governor general, Jean wept openly during a televised appeal for help in Haiti. “We know that every minute, every hour can make a difference,” she said, “and draw a line between life and death.”