DAKAR, Senegal – Canada’s outgoing Governor General laughed Thursday at the notion of a career in politics while the party that appointed Michaelle Jean five years ago refused to say if it might try to convince her to make a run.
An African journalist asked Jean, during the first full day of her state visit to Senegal, whether she might be contemplating a career in politics upon leaving Rideau Hall later this year.
That question came as new poll suggested she remained popular with Canadians: 56 per cent of respondents to a Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey said she had done a good or excellent job as Governor General, while only seven per cent called her performance poor.
Jean chuckled before answering.
There are many ways someone can make a difference in the world, she replied – and they’re not all exclusive to holders of public office.
“When you’re a woman of action like me, what you hope to do is to always use your energy wherever you can make a difference,” she said in French during a news conference at the presidential palace.
“And I don’t see any hierarchy in places where you can contribute.”
When asked whether the Liberal Party of Canada, which appointed Jean in 2005, might want to discuss with her the possibility of a political career, Leader Michael Ignatieff’s office replied: “The Governor General did and continues to do a great job, but it would be inappropriate for us to speculate on her future.”
At the news conference in Africa, Jean listed several ways people can make a difference outside of politics. She said she herself had worked to open battered women’s shelters in the 1970s, taught at university, and then worked in journalism before taking on her current role, she said.
“What will I do after? It will certainly be in that same spirit, motivated by the same values, elsewhere,” she said.
Given just two questions at a news conference with Jean and their president, Abdoulaye Wade, local journalists used one of them to quiz Canada’s viceroy about her future plans.
Several governors general have had political careers before their ceremonial posting, but none in Canada has done it the other way around. Ed Schreyer did seek, unsuccessfully, to return to politics after serving as Governor General.
But when Jean was appointed five years ago her friends suggested she had always expressed more interest in grassroots social activism than in political debates.
Indeed, throughout her term, she has generally used her visits – throughout Canada and abroad – to meet with non-government organizations to discuss issues like domestic violence, aboriginal poverty, and children’s rights.
In that same vein Thursday, she urged action in Senegal over what one leading international rights group has described as “slavery” in that country.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released Thursday, called on Senegal’s government to clamp down on Islamic schools that have subjected tens of thousands of children to forced begging and daily beatings.
Parents often send their children to traditional Qur’anic schools run by religious leaders called “marabouts,” because they hope their children will receive a religious education and because they are free.
But some marabouts have turned the schools into an exploitative industry, banking large profits by forcing children as young as four into the streets to beg for change, according to a report released by the New York-based group.
Children who return without enough money are often brutally beaten, the report concludes.
Jean will likely revisit the issue when she tours an old slave-trading post Friday off the coast of Senegal. A descendant of African slaves herself, Jean will use her visit there to argue that slavery remains a modern-day scourge that has yet to be defeated.
She began making that case Thursday at a news conference while standing next to the Senegalese president.
“That so many children would be subjected to such hardship, that we would exploit so much of their labour -the statistics are staggering, with children aged between five and 17 who exploited for so many hours, sometimes 35 hours (a week), all day long, often without pay – there’s a sad word for it. It’s called, ‘slavery,”‘ Jean told the news conference.
“Can we remain indifferent? No. These boys and girls are exposed to the worst danger, and we need to act.”
In Senegal, tiny boys can often be seen wandering barefoot in the capital, without adult supervision, swarming cars and passers-by. Often dressed in ragged, torn clothes, they beg long after midnight, returning to sleep 30 to a room in abandoned or half-constructed buildings that offer little protection from the elements, the report said.
Jean is on a 10-day trip to Africa, where she will also visit Rwanda and war-ravaged Congo.