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Meet Jean-Daniel Lafond, the Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation (FMJF). He is also a Senior Scholar at Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. We had the pleasure of spending some time with M. Lafond, who is also a creative filmmaker and philosopher, last year while launching Generation Art with EQ3. This innovative national arts initiative gives young Canadians an unparalleled national platform to raise awareness about social issues that matter to them. We sat down with M. Lafond ahead of 2014 Generation Art planning and asked him a couple of questions on life, art and what’s important to him. Inspiration lives here.

You’ve found yourself wearing many hats throughout your career from philosopher, filmmaker, to philanthropist. What ‘job’ have you found most fulfilling?

Every “hat” I have worn has fit perfectly! As a young man, in post-WWII France, philosophy enabled me to question and make sense of the changing world around me, a world in which the hierarchies of the past were dissolving, as a new generation of thinkers, artists, and social activists were redefining what it meant to be French, European and citizens of the world. It was a moment of euphoria, as we believed that the sky was the limit, anything was possible. Philosophy offered me a certain amount of detachment but also critical awareness of the key issues of the day, which were to radically reshape French society and its place in the world.

I often liken filmmaking to philosophy, because it is a way to sharpen the ‘mind’s eye,’ to use Plato’s beautiful phrase, in order to hone in on or magnify particular facets of reality. In that way, my engagement in filmmaking was a natural extension of my penchant for ideas, for debate, for philosophy. It simply brought a multifaceted instrument to bear my love of and search for wisdom, which from, at least the time of Pythagoras, has been the true vocation of the philosopher. That is why I like to say that filmmaking has enabled me to go where I would never have gone, discovered new people and experiences and been able to share all of that with my audience. Like philosophy, the art of filmmaking is a basic tool of resistance against the almost monotone ‘truths’ spewed by the pressure of conformity that offers an effective instrument of good living for citizens of the city. In other words, documentary filmmaking is democracy in action!

As for philanthropy, I am not sure I would consider myself a philanthropist, with all that it entails or connotes. Rather, I see myself as a citizen among citizens who recognizes a deep ethical responsibility as a member of a society. In our national debates about citizenship, we tend to forget that alongside the rights conferred by the privilege of living in one of the best societies in the world, comes fundamental duties to each other and to the rest of the world. That is what solidarity orfraternité, as we say in France, and fellowship are all about. So by offering my full time support to the charitable organization, my wife, the 27th Governor General of Canada, and I founded, the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, I am not only giving back, but also living citizenship in its fullest sense. I draw great joy from this lived civic experience.

Why is art so important to our Canadian youth? Or why should it be?

Across Canada, young Canadians are redefining their sense and experience of citizenship through the arts. For them, tackling serious issues like substance abuse, gang violence, suicide, and social exclusion is inextricably linked to taping into the power of the arts for social change. Over the last seven years, tens of thousands of young Canadians have shown my wife and me the ways in which they are using all artistic disciplines as tools to gain confidence in their own capacities, to overcome mental illness, to galvanize their peers to take their community back from criminals, and even to build bridges between the generations and people of different backgrounds. They are demonstrating to the world that the arts are weapons of mass construction! And their sheer creativity and impact deserves all of our support. Next September 27 to 29, 2013, we will be inviting Canadians from all over the country to join us in Ottawa, to highlight the transformative power of the arts at the first ever Power of the Arts National Forum: Advancing Social Change, organized in partnership with Carleton University. Policymakers, youth, artists, legal experts, health experts and many more will gather to develop a blueprint for using the power of the arts in communities across Canada.

What is your favorite place in the world?

The world is my favorite place! I have travelled to and worked extensively in almost every continent and been enriched by what I have discovered. It is impossible for me to say that I have a favourite place!

What item or thing do you treasure most? (tangible or intangible)

Freedom.

Best advice you’ve ever received?

Become who you are. – Friedrich Nietzsche

What inspired you and Mme. Jean to launch the FMJF?

My wife and I heard, on so many occasions, as we visited young people in community centres, homes for street-involved youth, soup kitchens, recreation centers, and even prisons, that the arts, as an emotional and spiritual experience, can save lives. How many times did we hear, for example, former gang members tell us, “Excellencies: the arts saved my life. They taught me how to replace violence and anger with words and poetry. They taught me how to channel my frustrations into dance. They taught me the value of becoming civically engaged in my community, and giving back to the new generation.”

That is why there is strength and value in seeing all sectors collaborate around using the arts as tools to create more vibrant communities. To offer tangible and meaningful alternatives to distress, crime and destruction. To alleviate and offer solutions to some of the deepest challenges facing our neighbourhoods and municipalities across Canada.

It was based on testimonies like those I described that my wife and I chose, at their request, to do our part in promoting a spirit of collaboration around the arts, by dedicating my legacy, the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, to supporting young people who use the arts to tackle social issues, to identify solutions, to empower communities and to implement innovative strategies and actions for a better and more compassionate Canada.

Words to live by?

L’humanité pour patrie’. Humanity as homeland.

Dream dinner guests?

An open discourse with God and Freud over a hearty meal.

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