Excerpts taken from “To Be Consumed in Service in a World on Fire: Working for Positive Change in the 21st Century,” The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean’s speech from her visit to Ridley in January 2020 for the MGI Gordon Speaker Series.
“All over the world, that’s how change usually comes about—through young people … Without them, there is little hope to find long-lasting solutions to the challenges we face.”
Terar Dum Prosim. It’s our school’s motto, proudly displayed around campus, taken to heart and deed by Ridleians for more than a century. But what does it mean, in today’s world, to be consumed in service? It was the question posed to young audience members by Michaëlle Jean—Canada’s 27th Governor General and Commander-in-Chief—on her visit to Ridley this past January for the MGI Gordon Speaker Series.
And as she stood at the podium, illuminated by the light of the Mandeville Theatre, Madame Jean spoke of what’s increasingly at stake: from civil discourse, to the plight of the disenfranchised, to the health of our planet. She implored students to consider how best to channel their passions, and showed them, through the power of storytelling, how their “most precious asset”—the stories of our collective past—can be used to move forward, together:
“Beyond words and the local idiom, there is something even more powerful we can call the ‘shared language of our universal and shared humanity.’ Expressing the ideas and thoughts that speak to our common experience helps us to re-imagine and re-shape the world as a space where we can share solidarity, cooperation, fundamental rights and freedom, dignity, global justice, inclusive and responsible development, environmental sustainability, and creativity—embracing our cultural diversity and the richness of our perspectives as part of the human journey.
We are all bound together by a shared history that has shaped our past, and therefore shapes our present. But we need to come to terms with an inescapable fact: colonial violence, destruction, war, many crimes and mistakes are also part of our shared history. The same way we are also entwined by shared experiences that have lifted and connected us, exacting but successful struggles have shaped and built our communities.
“Holding on to diversity and difference, in the midst of intense pressures toward conformity and uniformity, is an act of brave resistance and creative vitality.”
Let us remember that millions of people from every corner of the earth left darkness and despair behind, to land here with nothing but their nightmares and their dreams, their struggle for survival and their hope for a new life.
We can’t see very far into the future, but a long view of the past is possible; memory is our guide. In the big boat of history, that is why we row forward looking back. Facing our past helps us steer clear of old wanderings and errancies, while a glance above the shoulders allows us to stay the course.
That is my invitation to you today: to row together as hard as we can in the present moment, facing the past to maintain correct direction, moving resolutely forward, toward a better future.“
Madame Jean is certainly no stranger to overcoming adversity. After fleeing Haiti with her parents in 1968, she slowly pieced together a life in Quebec, earning the degrees and scholarships which would allow her to study around the world. Fluent in five languages, an award-winning journalist, staunch supporter of the Quebec women’s movement, and UNESCO Special Envoy to her home country of Haiti, her many successes over the years were the result of courage, resiliency and a firm commitment to supporting democracy and human rights. In 2010, the stateswoman and her husband, (filmmaker, essayist and philosopher, Jean-Daniel Lafond) founded the Michaëlle Jean Foundation which, through art and culture, supports civic initiatives alongside some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised youth in Canada.
“At the core of what I do,” she shared with the room, “what is closest to my heart, is the calling to serve and accompany thousands of young people in their professional development; the emergence of their talents; their desire to create, reinvent, innovate, build, contribute to the common good; to serve and produce freely and to the fullest extent of their abilities.”
“The action of young people changes everything, because it has always been the most luminous source of engagement in the world … Young people constitute human capital in which we must invest the most—but unfortunately invest the least.”
Madame Jean’s stories were both far-reaching and immediate. She told the little-known story of Niagara’s Richard Pierpoint—a former slave and black Loyalist who fought with the British and finally became a property owner in 1822 at age 78. The black communities “Captain Dick” helped establish contributed to the region becoming home to many African American refugees, the final stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves reaching Canada.
She gave voice to the determined young women who struggled to find their place when they first came to Ridley in the 1970s. She spoke of her own experiences dealing with adversity: as a refugee, as a woman, and in the many professional roles in organizations where she was the first of African descent—teacher, journalist, anchor, Secretary General of the International Organization of La Francophonie, and as Canada’s third female Governor General.
“Our shared history is our guide; our shared responsibility is to ensure the past doesn’t repeat itself. To remember our covenant with nature, with each other.”
“I can relate to these stories of hardship when, as a group and as an individual, you find yourself defending your intrinsic dignity and human worth, expressing and simply exercising your rights and equality,” she explained thoughtfully. “These hold lessons for all of us, about what service means, and what it costs.”
She looked back at the daunting swell of history—Europe, Canada, the roots we have planted here in St. Catharines, and to her own journey which led her to the podium that day—and then looked out at the audience before her. And as the poignant stories filled the intimate theatre space, her earlier invitation hung unspoken: And you? What will you do when you are called?
“Now more than ever, we need leaders willing to put themselves on the line to serve society, willing to make sacrifices for the common good, to advance our shared destiny as humans, around a commitment, for instance, to safeguard the global commons—the oceans, the land, the remaining forests and wilderness, the Arctic, the Earth’s atmosphere.
That must now include a commitment to keeping a healthy atmosphere of dialogue, and a sane climate where disagreement is possible, and debate desirable.”
It’s a challenge to which we must all rise, as the world we know shifts shape into something new. Whatever our beliefs or our politics, finding sustainable, positive solutions to today’s concerns require each of us to learn, to listen, to be bold, and to seek guidance from those among us who are experienced, wise and good.
“We must strive to bring most everyone, all generations on board,” Madame Jean continued in earnest. “With smart strategies that seek to unify, rather than needlessly polarize. With spirited, informed and well-designed tactics. With art and creativity. With guts and gusto. Building people power, mass momentum. Holding on tight to what being a citizen truly means. Through peaceful social power. With dignity, dignity for everyone as a core value. And a fierce dedication to be the change we want to see.”
As the night drew to a close, students gathered around her, and Madam Jean took the time to speak with each one in turn, sharing, smiling, and listening to what they had to say. It is this compassion, this genuine interest in people which makes people gravitate to her, and which has made her one of the country’s most inspirational figures.
And you? How will you rise to the challenges we face in today’s world? To be consumed in service to a greater cause? “Nothing will happen without this generation—you, the student generation—being activated,” Madame Jean told them.
“That is where I pin my hopes.”
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from our summer issue.