Governor General of Canada

Governor General of Canada

September 12, 2007 14:24 ET

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaelle Jean, Speech on the Occasion of a Luncheon With Management for the Desjardins Group Levis, Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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LEVIS, QUEBEC--(Marketwire - Sept. 12, 2007) -

I am pleased to be in the company of those who are striving to continue the work of Alphonse Desjardins and keep his vision alive.

Earlier this morning, while visiting the Maison historique Alphonse Desjardins, I thought that one of the most fascinating aspects of its history was how one man's dream was able to change the course of history and the lives of so many people.

We must not forget that at the turn of the 20th Century, most women and men in Quebec were what we would now call at risk or living in poverty. Just listen to a senior citizen talk about their childhood: an orange in their stocking at Christmas was an extravagance!

It was not so long ago that I arrived in Quebec, and I remember someone using an expression-probably dating back to that time in our history-that basically said we were born to be second-class. That shocked me. There was something irreversible, irrevocable in those words, as though we had no choice but to accept our fate.

And it was precisely this fatalistic attitude that Alphonse Desjardins fought against. He also grew up in a modest home, but was convinced that Quebec society was not born to be second-class, that it had everything it needed to prosper.

He knew that, if given the means, farmers, labourers, and artisans would be able to improve their living conditions and take control of their own destiny.

It only took one speech by the member for Montreal-Saint-Anne, Michael Quinn, to spur Alphonse Desjardins into action. The member was denouncing usurious policies preventing low-wage earners from borrowing money.

And a book by Henry Wolff, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, showed him the way.

That was the start of a great adventure. Desjardins knew that he needed to make credit accessible and to promote savings, and now he was certain there was an effective way of achieving this goal: the co-operative.

Alphonse Desjardins was excellent with money, but he must also have been very persuasive, as people from all over Quebec, Canada and even the United States agreed to take part in this adventure. It started with ordinary people, small investors. It could not have been an easy task, as money and jobs were scarce at the beginning of the 20th century.

For Alphonse Desjardins, the well-being of the working classes depended on everyone pooling their strengths and their assets, and the ideas he advocated did not fall on deaf ears. One of my predecessors, Lord Grey, enthusiastically answered the call.

Lord Grey shared Desjardins' vision well before he became governor general of Canada. He had seen the ravages of ferocious industrialization and also believed that society should rely on co-operation. It was therefore with great pleasure and willingness that he accepted Desjardins' invitation and agreed to become an honorary member of the credit union.

I would have loved to have followed in the tradition as 27th governor general of Canada and become a member of the Desjardins Credit Union, but that already happened a long time ago. So my husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, and I thought we'd open an account for our daughter, Marie-Eden, so that she could become a part of the movement, like 15 million other people in Canada.

In so doing, we are handing down a piece of our collective heritage to my daughter. The co-operative movement is part of who we are, our way of seeing and shaping the world.

And this movement finds its strength in the same values and principles on which this country was founded and which we hold dear to our hearts: equality, helping one another, solidarity, and social engagement.

It is a movement I consider all the more important in today's world, as it gives globalization a human face.

Even at the beginning of the last century, Alphonse Desjardins was outward-looking. He imported the concept of saving and credit co-operatives from Europe, and earned an enviable reputation in the international co-operative movement.

One hundred years later, that openness to the world is still part of the Desjardins philosophy. You want to share your knowledge about co-operatives with developing countries.

In Haiti, where I was born, the movement supports about sixty well-established community-owned financial institutions.

In Mali, where I made a State visit last year-in Bamako specifically-I met with members of the Commune 6 savings and credit union, a project in which Developpement international Desjardins plays an important.

I had the pleasure of speaking with three women who shared their experience with me, and I was greatly impressed by the determination with which they worked to improve their daily lives and the lives of their families.

Each one of them told me that they did not have the necessary collateral to secure a loan from a traditional bank. Without micro-credits, none of them would have been able to succeed.

Wherever it is used, micro-finance is an indispensable tool in the fight against poverty. It is an incentive to all those whose hard work and courage often becomes the driving force in the local economy.

The success of the co-operative movement-at home and abroad-is proof that Alphonse Desjardins was a man of his time and ahead of his time. He gave people the means to think and dream big by relying on the strength of numbers, means that are just as effective and relevant today.

Faced with increased competition on the international market, the Desjardins Group must take on a huge challenge: to remain profitable while maintaining the values of sharing, community support and inclusion on which it was founded.

If the past is a promise for the future, I am certain that you will lead the way, just like Alphonse Desjardins, father of the co-operative movement in Canada.

I hope that you will continue to make the Desjardins name synonymous with solidarity, commitment and compassion.

Thank you.

Contact Information

  • Rideau Hall Press Office
    Marie-Paule Thorn
    Agent d'information, Distinctions honorifiques