Revolutionary in a gray suit and parka

May 30, 2009

Some of the dumber American bloggers have had a field day this week with comparisons between Michaelle Jean and Sarah Palin.

Animal rights activists are furious, Europeans are shocked and dismayed, and Canadians in the north now afford our Governor General the kind of adoration normally reserved for rock stars.  So what happened, and why is the holder of a staid, ceremonial role in a dull country suddenly such a polarizing force in world opinion?

Michaelle Jean attended an Innu banquet on Baffin Island as part of her official duties.  The main course consisted of several freshly killed seals lying on the floor on tarps.  Jean participated in the feast.  Using a traditional knife she sliced up a bit of the seal carcass, then ate a small piece of heart when it was passed to her.  With great fortitude she joined her husband and a red-haired woman in tasting the samples, then commented on the quality of the food.  She looked a little pale, but she held the food down and kept a coherent flow of polite words running for the camera.  This was clearly no thrill ride for her, but she toughed it out because she had a point to make and she was determined to do so.  She still managed to keep her outfit clean throughout the process.

What the film clip reminded me of was the scene in Ghandi where Ben Kingsley made salt from sea water in defiance of English rules, and it is to the life of Ghandi we must look for perspective on the decisive act of Michaelle Jean.  Ghandi jolted the British public with acts of polite defiance in which he showed that the vaunted principles of the British Empire did not match their practices in the treatment of Indian citizens of South Africa and India.

Ghandi’s well-publicized acts of civil disobedience directly led to Indian independence, because he correctly reasoned that the Western people had no stomach for their own hypocrisy, and would do what they needed to get these disturbing images and stories off the pages of their newspapers.

Jean’s very public act of respect for the Canadian Innu community undoubtedly shocked “civilized” Europeans and even some Canadians, but when this act is placed in context alongside fellow French citizen Brigitte Bardot’s visit to the seal hunt (when she fled to find a bathroom) or even the McCartney’s more recent photo-op, it should stand out as a defining moment in the consciousness of the environmental movement.

Up until now the anti-seal hunt movement has been about pictures of famous and glamorous people on ice floes with baby seals, and disgusting images of blood on the snow.  Michaelle Jean changed the game.  It’s now about the taste and smell of a mouthful of seal heart, and about the feel of blubber, bone and skin, and the humility of kneeling on a tarp on a floor to participate in an ancient, life-sustaining ritual.  Jean has announced to the world:  “This is Canada.  The seal hunt is a part of us. If you want to play in our league, you’d better get serious.”

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