By JOHN IBBITSON

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 Posted at 4:26 AM EDT

Ottawa — Her promise is the promise of what we almost are, of what we want to be. She is the becoming Canada.

There is a reason for the extraordinary attention paid yesterday to the investiture of Michaëlle Jean as Governor-General, and for the extraordinary controversy — from accusations of separatist sympathies to the indiscretions of a dress designer — that preceded it.

We are an entirely different country from the one reflected in the words and faces of those who lead us — old faces, old men, who nurse ancient animosities and scratch at phantom wounds.

So many Canadians just don’t care. They don’t understand solitudes, can’t comprehend the exquisitely nursed grudges of those who see the present only through the prism of an imagined past.

The millions — no, the many millions — who are in our land today having arrived from somewhere else can tell us of real wounds, real pain, a pain known to those who came here a quarter century ago from a ravaged Southeast Asia, or half a century ago from a ravaged Europe. Our new Governor-General knows this pain.

“The story of that little girl, who watched her parents, her family, and her friends grappling with the horrors of a ruthless dictatorship, who became the woman standing before you today, is a lesson in learning to be free,” she declared.

Those who came before can take life-fulfilling pride in knowing that they created the country that brought her here, and her brothers and sisters from Sri Lanka and Somalia and Lebanon and Guatemala. They created a place where she could be free because all are free.

Now a new Canada seeks to fashion a new kind of freedom, the freedom to renounce ethnic perimeters, the freedom for all to embrace all. Michaëlle Jean is their voice.

She is relatively young, slight in stature and slightly in awe of what has happened to her. But she is also clearly determined to master her mandate and to fulfill, even rejuvenate, the role of head of state in Canada. Adrienne Clarkson opened this door. Michaëlle Jean has burst right through it.

Canadians seem to be celebrating this appointment as though it really mattered, as though the Governor-General were something other than merely the Queen’s representative, the titular commander of the armed forces, a cutter of ribbons and a deliverer of clichéd speeches whose powers are held mostly in reserve. Why?

In part it is because she is not a politician. Her job, by definition, is to remain above the gritty, grubby business of governing this messy federation.

But there’s more to it. Not since the 1960s have our political leaders seemed so irrelevant, so disconnected. Then, it was a society of youth seeking to demolish outdated moral and social strictures. Today it is a society of immigrants seeking to create the world’s most cosmopolitan society. Then they turned to Pierre Trudeau. Today they turn to . . ..

There is no one to turn to.

But here is this beautiful young Canadian of Haitian birth, with a smile that makes you catch your breath, with a bemused older husband by her side, and a daughter who literally personifies our future, and you look at them and you think: Yes, this is our great achievement, this is the Canada that Canada wants to be.

And suddenly, the arguments of the nationalists and the sovereigntists and the fire-wallists, of the alienated and resentful and estranged, are so tired, so yesterday, that you just don’t want to have to listen to them any more.

“Today’s world . . . demands that we learn to see beyond our wounds, beyond our differences for the good of all,” our new Governor-General implored yesterday. “We must eliminate the spectre of all the solitudes.”

A few hours later, they were at it again in Question Period. But at least for a moment, you could believe.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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