SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Governor General Michaelle Jean, a “daughter” of the island of Hispaniola, offered Canada’s thanks to the Dominican Republic on Wednesday for helping to facilitate relief efforts after the cataclysmic earthquake that shattered its Haitian neighbour.
Jean followed two days of visits in the broken country of her birth with a diplomatic stop in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, where she met with President Leonel Fernandez and members of his cabinet at the presidential palace.
“Canada was very impressed by the work of the Dominican Republic in disaster efforts,” Jean said, describing herself as “a daughter of this island” who was impressed by the resilience of the Haitian survivors she met during her trip.
She was equally impressed with the willingness of countries like the Dominican to step up and lend a hand, she added.
“The message to them is that they are not alone.”
Jean also stressed the Canadian government’s message that the Dominican will be a strategic partner as Canada focuses on Latin America as a foreign-policy priority. She cited the combined efforts of the two countries following the quake as a prime example.
“The Dominican Republic is a key actor in the region,” she said in Spanish. “The catastrophe that occurred in Haiti gives us the chance to reinforce the links between Canada and the Dominican Republic.”
Jean, a champion of women’s rights also met with a women’s group, where she learned of the violence and health threats faced by Dominican women, thanks in part to a lack of abortion rights. As a result, 90 per cent of pregnancy-related deaths are the result of abortion complications.
Some 30 per cent of the Dominican people earn less than $2 a day, despite having a significantly higher GDP, better living conditions and literacy rates than their Haitian neighbours, she was told.
“What I heard expressed around the table reminded me of battles we fight in Canada,” she said later, describing how she got involved in the women’s movement in the 1970s, helping to create a network of 150 shelters for battered women in Quebec.
They only started making progress on the violence issue when they began convincing people in positions of power — police and firemen, judges, lawyers — that it was their issue, too.
“(We told them), ’When you see something in your building, in the neighbourhood where you live, you have a responsibility.”’
Jean cited the spirit of the women in Haiti, 2,000 of whom — despite their obvious challenges — still found the energy and the time to attend a local rally during her visit.
“They said, ’We are alive!”’ Jean said. “We have a responsibility to those who died, to keep up the fight.”’
One of the most critical battles remains the fight for women’s rights, and helping men to understand that to empower women is to empower the entire nation, she said.
It’s a line she’s used around the world, and it gets the same reaction every time — and can be effective in getting men to take an interest too, she noted.
In Canada, while there’s still a great deal of work to do, women have made progress, Jean said. “The issue is out of the closet. It is now a societal issue.”
Jean said she’s made women’s rights a key issue during her five-year term as Governor-General, which comes to an end this year.
“I have a lot of admiration for what you do,” she told the group. “I started this meeting still in pain. I had a hard time speaking to you … but you lifted my spirits.”