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UNDER FIRE: Race, Nationhood and Symbolism at Rideau Hall

27 Nov 2005

I''m marching to the beat of the bagpipes again. Yes, it''s another scorching-heat summer day in Ottawa. Another hour standing at the gates of the Governor General''s residence at Rideau Hall. About two more minutes of marching and I''ll see them again at the gates. The crowds of tourists from around the world gathering eagerly to get a glimpse of Canada''s royal heritage. Through the thick bearskin hair that covers my eyes, I can already see those little kids again. "Mommy, mommy ... look! A black guard!" I slightly shake into place that tall bearskin hat on my head and take my post. As the sound of the bagpipes dims away back to the residence, I''ll stand there motionless for my second of three one-hour shifts for the day, and bear silent witness to the race and monarchy debate. To some, something was wrong with this picture. Not only one, but two black men were standing guard by the Governor General''s residence wearing the traditional British red guard tunic and bearskin hat. Talk about the new global village! To others, it was a "cool" picture to take. While others just didn''t seem to care and were much more concerned with trying to make me laugh ... some women even resorting to flashing. I stare at my usual spot towards the gate of 24 Sussex and I get in the zone, oblivious to the distractions around me. I''ll wait for the returning sound of the bagpipes to snap out of it.

That same summer, there was a big controversy in Buckingham Palace around some black British soldiers from my mother regiment of the Grenadier Guards who denounced how non-white soldiers were being barred from performing those public ceremonial duties of the Changing of the Guard at the royal palace. Through the military grapevines, we heard that it wasn''t a "race" issue per se, but more a matter of historical and cultural "continuity". There weren''t any of "us" at the Battle of Waterloo. I guess Canada was messing with royal protocol. Actually, some tourists at Rideau Hall had complained about the unusually high number of black guards (about 4 out of 10 that day) during that summer of 1990 at the Governor General''s residence. When I returned for guard duty the next year, there were definitely a lot fewer of us.

While I enjoyed my two years as a ceremonial guard soldier on Parliament Hill and at the Governor General''s residence, I must say that it was quite a crash course on the politics of race and national symbolism. If people have trouble simply perceiving of a black Mountie or black guard as "genuinely Canadian", then what are we to say about a Governor General? As history meets with modernity, should we be concerned about drawing the line anywhere? Is there a way to bring forth a transformed version of the vestiges and symbols of the past into a new multi-cultural future?

To the staunch royalists, this post of Governor General represents one of Canada''s last and most representative symbols of this country''s British heritage. If the savages get a hold of that too, then what''s left?

Hence, I believe, the suddenly incessant debate about the "relevance" of this post since Prime Minister Paul Martin recently announced that Michaëlle Jean, a black Haitian-born woman, would become the next Governor General in just a few weeks. What''s happening to the viceregal title since Adrienne Clarkson? Has it become the new affirmation action race-horse some ask? Cultural "continuity" has sure been taking a hit.

In addition to the debate about the relevance of the post, Ms Jean''s commitment to Canada is being questioned. Perhaps in an ironically encouraging sign of how she can bring the country together, Quebec separatists and conservative right-wingers are coming together to dig "separatist" dirt from Ms Jean''s past.

The bone of contention is a 1991 documentary, La manière nègre, by Michaëlle Jean''s film-maker husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, in which she is seen discussing matters of national sovereignty with former leader of Quebec''s FLQ (Front de libération du Québec), Pierre Vallières. In it, Jean states: "No more dominated people". The discussion revolves around the independence movements in French Martinique in particular and in Quebec. In light of those past comments, Jean and her husband are accused by some in the press of being "closet separatists about to take over Rideau Hall." Michaëlle Jean vehemently denies the allegations, She issued a statement saying: "Both he [her husband] and I are proud to be Canadians and that we have the greatest of respect for the institutions of our country. We are fully committed to Canada. I would not have accepted this position otherwise."

Reading some of the editorials from the leading newspapers taking on varying sides of the controversy, I couldn''t help but fear the "Bushwacking" of the Canadian political landscape. I''m referring to the last U.S. election campaign where the multi-faced and intelligent way in which John Kerry displayed his analysis of the post-9-11 world sharply contrasted with George W. Bush''s defiantly more pragmatic and "black and white" perspective. As we all know, the simplistic vision of the right wing won out.

Michaëlle Jean''s experience is one of immigration, struggle and, ultimately, pride in achievement. Her cultural background equips her with a valuable double-consciousness which embraces both her pride for her adopted country and a recognition of the rich history, plight and promise of her native homeland. Isn''t that what the Canadian experience is all about? This commitment to the Canadian ideal of a fair and pluralistic society as a model for other struggling peoples of the world was made evident in a CBC documentary she did featuring her famous uncle, legendary Haitian writer René Dépestre a few years ago.

For us young first and second-generation Haitians who grew up in Quebec, Michaëlle Jean is surely no stranger. As a respected CBC journalist for years, I can name more than a few of my black female classmates in high-school who cited her in the class year-book as an inspiration for their own future endeavors. I''m glad that black youth in general from around the country will now be able to do the same.

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