Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Speech on the Occasion of the Celebration of Black History Month at St. James United Church
Montréal, Sunday, February 12, 2006
What emotion and what pride I feel to stand before you today as Governor General of Canada for this celebration of Black History Month. For us, the Black people of this city, this country, this continent and the entire world, the legacy of slavery still holds a haunting place in our collective memory. And even today, the places that we have filled with our presence resonate with the echoes of our struggles against oppression. So, we cannot forget the paths charted by those who went before us and who—through their words, their deeds, their sufferings and their victories—enabled us and countless others to aspire to freedom and to envision a more just world. Even in the heart of our democracies, the challenges faced by many of our brothers and sisters clearly demonstrate that the battle is not over. You know as well as I do that we must persevere and remain vigilant. Black History Month gives us the opportunity to reflect on this fundamental lesson and to renew the vow so dear to Martin Luther King Junior that we will lift ourselves out of “the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” Because ours is a struggle not just of one race but of all women and men who demand respect and dignity.
Two key figures in the great adventure of our emancipation on this continent left us recently. Rosa Parks, mother of the civil rights movement in the United States, refused to give up her seat on a bus after a hard day’s work, and, in so doing, she made a tremendous contribution to the history of gaining recognition for our rights. Coretta Scott King, a tireless activist, passionately carried on the dream of her husband who so eloquently claimed our legitimate rights through the power of his words, which to him were far stronger than thundering weapons. Rosa and Coretta rekindled our yearning for a better world. They refused to bow their heads and instead looked towards a new horizon filled with hope. And so, it is before you I want to pay tribute to their achievements. These women will never cease to remind me, in the resounding words of the poet Aimé Césaire, that “my negritude is not a stone nor a deafness flung against the clamour of the day.”
Of course the road we have travelled together, difficult though it has been and may continue to be at times, deserves to be celebrated. We have crossed over so many pitfalls, so many misfortunes, so many injustices; and we have brought hope to our people, as well as to those who accompanied us in this long journey and who remain beside us in the struggle for justice and freedom. To recognize this, one has only to open the books of Dorothy Williams that retrace, closer to us, the contribution of Black people to the history of this city. This historian takes us on a “black” walking tour of many Montréal districts; it’s like flipping a map and letting the light shine on the other side. Open these books and learn that we are really and truly “on the map” of Montréal, and long have been. Regardless of all the conflicts of the city’s long history, whether ethnic or linguistic, we have been here and are proud of it. Let us rejoice at being the black ink on the page.
We have known the trials and tribulations of exclusion, and must work without pause to loosen the grip of prejudice. At stake is the present and the future of our young people, who must join us in this journey. I recently read in an article in the Montreal Gazette that, for lack of other visible role models, many young blacks identify with the images of poverty, violence and isolation projected by pop culture, and fail to see a viable alternative to a life full of despair. The statistics, unfortunately, bear them out. They indicate that blacks are less likely to be hired for a job that matches their skills or less likely to find suitable housing. They are also liable to being harassed or arrested for an act they did not commit. This discrimination sinks its insidious roots in the soil of ignorance and lack of understanding. It has no place in a society that prizes above all the values of respect, openness and sharing, which are paramount for me.
As I said just a few days ago in the Saint-Michel district, I firmly believe that the distress of young people and the violence to which it gives rise are the result of dialogues that never took place and never-launched debates about ideas. In our modern societies that day by day are becoming more diverse, there is an urgent need to lend an attentive ear to those who are excluded and without a voice. I want to meet your concerns head-on, however troubling they may be, and I want to hear about your dreams. To me, hope is a product of our ability to listen and to provide more space for intercultural and intergenerational dialogues. As governor general of Canada, and as a representative with a difference, I hope with all my heart that many of you will join me in this exciting adventure. Alone, I will accomplish far less than what I can achieve with you and with our combined strength. Together we must embody hope for humanity. This is our greatest responsibility today.
The dream of Martin Luther King lives on in us. He said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” And what could be stronger, and more beautiful, than Gospel songs to renew our faith in this dream? May they sound forth among us today to remind us that although these songs were composed in suffering and oppression, they have become rousing hymns to the victory of freedom over exclusion and despair. Let our hearts resound with their powerful message!
Thank you. And now let’s hear the People’s Gospel Choir!