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At the Convergence of Histories, Seeing Obama Again

Blog

The blog space of Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean.

At the Convergence of Histories, Seeing Obama Again

Philippe Duhamel

 

Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in November 2008. As is customary, his first visit to a foreign country was in Canada. February 2009. At the time, pictures of the two of us on the tarmac of the Ottawa airport were broadcast around the world. People have often asked me about the smile on our faces. 

Ottawa, February 19, 2009 — Their Excellencies the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, and Jean-Daniel Lafond, welcome The Honourable Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America, upon his arrival in Ottawa for a day of official meetings.

Ottawa, February 19, 2009 — Their Excellencies the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, and Jean-Daniel Lafond, welcome The Honourable Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America, upon his arrival in Ottawa for a day of official meetings.

First, we are instantly struck by the salient reality: “Who would have thought that one day the Commander in chief of Canada and the Commander in chief of the United States would both be of African descent, and in office at the same time?! Let us rejoice!” 

I felt that the highly symbolic value of that moment wouldn’t be lost on anyone. Yes, a new chapter in the histories of civilizations was being written right under our eyes. As we strolled down the red carpet into the hangar, I reminded the President how much Canadians loved him and followed his run for office, some even crossing the border to volunteer for his election.

He responded with humour, “Well that’s wonderful. So if my time in office doesn’t work well for me in the US, at least I can come to Canada, where I know I have some great friends!”

That moment of hilarity was followed by serious work. Our half-hour dialogue focused on matters of importance to both our countries, and international affairs. Then President Obama asked me about my native land, Haiti.

I was just home from an official visit over there, to assess damage from a violent hurricane in the northern parts of the country. As I addressed a crowd of mostly young people gathered at the foot of a statue of hero Toussaint Louverture, in Port-au-Prince, a young woman stepped forward and shouted:  “Remember!,” she said. “You owe it to them! You owe it to our heroes. If it weren’t for what they did, you, today, wouldn’t be Governor General of Canada. If it weren’t for their courage”, she said “their struggles, their victory, Barack Obama wouldn’t be President of the United States either. You tell him! Tell him that everything got started here, in Haiti! We are poor, but we are proud!”, she said.

“That girl, wasn’t she right?”, I asked President Obama.

“It’s so true. She’s so right”, he kept repeating, obviously quite moved, nodding his head in approval. 

Headquarters of the United Nations, New York City, September 20, 2016 — The President of the United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama, shakes hands with the Secretary General of La Francophonie, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, at the State Luncheon for the Heads of Delegation to the seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly, hosted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Headquarters of the United Nations, New York City, September 20, 2016 — The President of the United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama, shakes hands with the Secretary General of La Francophonie, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, at the State Luncheon for the Heads of Delegation to the seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly, hosted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

September 2016, New York City. I attend the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations, where I delivered an address. Seven years after our first encounter, I find President Obama now nearing his last term. I was just listening attentively to his last address before the UN as President of the United States. I was struck by our convergent themes: the same urgent call for a change in direction, if the human vessel is to avoid foundering into the abyss; our common humanity, as the antidote to walls and barbed wire that mangle and strangle. 

In our reunion, this instant, I see how time has passed, the work accomplished all these years, some major progress, but also the challenges of Himalayan proportions that remain.

And once again, I hear the echo of the young woman’s voice in Port-au-Prince, reminding us of the courage and sacrifices that have taken us where we are, of the importance, the urgency of action along the same lines, as part of the same lineage. 

To unite beyond clans and each-man-for-himself. To always remind ourselves of our shared destiny. To transform through hope in action. Yes, we can. Always. 

Time flies. History hasn’t said its final word. Meanwhile, the peoples of the world, like so many rivers, continue to converge.

— Michaëlle Jean


“Beyond our sorrow as we look to legions of the forcibly displaced, the disenfranchised and unaccounted for, it remains—yes!—our shared responsibility to struggle tirelessly, to overcome so much suffering, indifference, and the idea that everyone is out for themselves, and that everyone should go "back where they belong". This idea has become such an illusion and a delusion in a world without borders. Rather, now is the time to rekindle fellowship and solidarity, to revive old traditions around welcoming, getting to know each other, the willingness to understand our differences. 

It is our shared responsibility also to combat most vigorously hate speech, xenophobic prejudice, extreme movements that feed on populism and ultranationalism, that prey upon fear of the other, and exploit the rejection of foreigners for political gain.

It is our shared responsibility, finally, to think short-term, but also long-term, about a migration policy based on consensus building, international co-operation and win-win deliberations.
Instead of erecting walls and raising barbed wire, what if we invested in sustainable economic human development?” 

—Michaëlle Jean, Secretary General of La Francophonie,
Address in New York, September 19, 2016, to the High-Level Summit to Address Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

Read the full address (in French).


“In order to move forward, though, we do have to acknowledge that the existing path to global integration requires a course correction. As too often, those trumpeting the benefits of globalization have ignored inequality within and among nations; have ignored the enduring appeal of ethnic and sectarian identities; have left international institutions ill-equipped, underfunded, under-resourced, in order to handle transnational challenges.

And as these real problems have been neglected, alternative visions of the world have pressed forward both in the wealthiest countries and in the poorest: Religious fundamentalism; the politics of ethnicity, or tribe, or sect; aggressive nationalism; a crude populism—sometimes from the far left, but more often from the far right—which seeks to restore what they believe was a better, simpler age free of outside contamination.

We cannot dismiss these visions. They are powerful. They reflect dissatisfaction among too many of our citizens. I do not believe those visions can deliver security or prosperity over the long term, but I do believe that these visions fail to recognize, at a very basic level, our common humanity. Moreover, I believe that the acceleration of travel and technology and telecommunications—together with a global economy that depends on a global supply chain—makes it self-defeating ultimately for those who seek to reverse this progress. 

Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself.”

—Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America,
Address to the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly,
September 20, 2016, New York.

Read the full address