Cultural diversity

Interview with Michèle Stanton-Jean

Michèle Stanton-Jean, Former Québec government representative within the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO.

Michèle Stanton-Jean, Former Québec government representative within the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO

Ms. Stanton-Jean has had a distinguished career like no other. This eclectic, passionate public servant has made her mark in several fields including women’s liberation, adult education, healthcare, and bioethics—always with a common purpose of making life better for all of humanity. Ms. Stanton-Jean holds a Ph.D. in applied social sciences with a specialization in bioethics and master’s degrees in adult education and history, and is known as a woman of action. Among her numerous awards and distinctions are the following:

  • 2014: Prix Émile-Ollivier, Institut de coopération pour l’éducation aux adultes; Medal, Faculty of Continuing Education, Université de Montréa
  • 2011: Chevalier, Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur de France
  • 2010: Women’s Y Foundation, Montréal, Women of Distinction Award, Advancement of Women
  • 2008: Order of Québec
  • 1995: Honorary LL.D., Concordia University, for her contribution to the advancement of adult education

Before serving as the Québec government representative within the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO (2011 to May 2014), Ms. Stanton-Jean built up solid UNESCO experience as head of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO from 2006 to 2010 and as president of the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee from 2002 to 2005.

Ms. Stanton-Jean continues to remain active in the academic community and contributes to the debate on bioethics and human rights. The team of the Québec Secretariat for Cultural Diversity was honored to meet with her at her office at Université de Montréal.

Question: We will soon be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 2005 Convention. Ten years in, what do you view as the main challenges facing the Convention, and what can we do to overcome them?

Answer: Among the chief challenges facing the Convention is the need to be more visible and more widely known. Other UNESCO conventions like the World Heritage Convention (1972) and the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) have an easier task. In the first case, World Heritage Sites receive a great deal of publicity from sources like travel agencies recommending them to their clients. And the 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention gets a visibility boost from the events and performances often held once a heritage item is officially recognized. One of the most basic challenges for the Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions is to make it more “exciting” so it will be promoted, funded, and examined by governments—because it is an extremely important agreement. We should note that the Québec government has been actively involved in getting the Convention off the ground and has made two contributions to the International Fund for Cultural Diversity totaling $200,000.

We have to be proactive and keep the Convention part of public discussions, to prevent it from becoming obsolete. To take one example, we are now in the digital age and the Québec government has worked hard to keep this item on the agenda for Convention initiatives, in order to ensure that digital issues are discussed in depth and assess what needs to be done to adapt its implementation to the digital era. This doesn’t mean we need to renegotiate the Convention! But it’s important to determine how the Convention can tangibly contribute to the protection of the diversity of cultural expressions in this new age marked by digital technologies. This is a very big issue, and work on it is underway. The Québec government has been very active, commissioning two reports from the International Network of Lawyers for the Diversity of Cultural Expressions known in French as le Réseau international des juristes pour la diversité des expressions culturelles (RIJDEC)1.

All these technology issues are important ones, especially in developing countries that haven’t necessarily made them a priority. In this context we must raise awareness of the importance of preserving cultural expressions and getting people involved in work related to the Convention. We made a serious commitment when we joined the Intergovernmental Committee, one that has informed our positions and guided our actions. We have been able to contribute our considerable expertise in culture, expertise UNESCO has recognized.

Another challenge facing the Convention is the current budget situation at UNESCO, which is quite alarming. This has meant we have to be vigilant, meticulous, and well-prepared, to make sure the Convention remains a UNESCO priority. For example, we worked to make sure the Convention budget was named in UNESCO’s Medium-Term Strategy (37C/4) and Programme and Budget for 2014–2017 (37C/5)2. And we will have to remain attentive and actively engaged, to make sure the Convention gets the resources it needs, even in the current economic situation.

Another challenge is making sure culture is protected in free-trade agreements. The Convention needs to be a tool that governments can use to make sure culture is protected.

Question: What, in your view, sets the 2005 Convention apart from other UNESCO conventions?

Answer: This is a very special convention because it has two important dimensions. First, it recognizes the dual nature of cultural goods and services: they help define our identities, determine our values, and create meaning, and they also have a commercial value. So while other cultural agreements may also have an economic component, the 2005 Convention is directly tied to all cultural sectors. The economic dimension it contains presupposes that it is governments’ job to create an environment where cultural production can thrive, and one way they can do this is by adopting policies that favor creativity, work toward freer national and international markets, and make cultural production accessible to larger audiences.

Let’s not forget that the 2005 Convention reaffirms the sovereign right of states to “adopt measures and policies to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions within their territory,” a critical right in this era of proliferating free trade agreements. The aim is to prevent monopolies and ensure that every country can “avoid the worst and benefit from the best,” as we say in bioethics!

Cooperation is another aspect that makes the 2005 Convention different from other agreements: it encourages different forms of cooperation, even inciting developed countries to facilitate cultural exchanges with developing countries through preferential treatment of artists.

Question: How would you describe your experience at UNESCO?

Answer: It was a very positive experience. I already had a strong understanding of the organization itself, so that wasn’t where I had most to learn. I’ve been working my whole life in the culture and education sectors, and I was also familiar with the social sciences, thanks to my academic background. Communication is another one of my comfort zones, going all the way back to my beginnings as a journalist. I also focused on the natural sciences in response to the needs and requests of the Québec government, for which the environment is a major concern. Québec is at the table on this Convention because of our jurisdiction. The Québec–Canada agreement3 gives us the opportunity to work within our jurisdiction, particularly in the areas of education and culture. For example, education is particularly important this year, as we are coming to the end of the first UN Millennium Development Goals and in the process of defining new ones.

All this work has involved close cooperation between teams of professionals with the Québec and federal governments. I was supported by a team that included multiple ministries, a team with deep experience in every field of provincial jurisdiction, such as education and culture. Communication between Québec City, Ottawa, and Paris is excellent. I would also like to mention that the Québec government was blessed to have excellent interns within the 2005 Convention Secretariat, who helped us make progress and provided support to the Secretariat’s staff. I truly enjoyed my stay in Paris, and I think it is unfortunate that the general public knows very little about what goes on at UNESCO, and also in other international forums. Subjects like these don’t get much public attention, but I think this agreement is a real boon for Québec. My mandate gave me the opportunity to build up a network of diplomats from several countries. It was also easy for me to forge ties with the Québec Government Office in Paris. A good example of the type of projects we collaborated on was the exhibition to show the work of Manon Barbeau along with Wapikoni mobile4 part of last year’s UNESCO International Women’s Day. Three of her films were shown.

Question: On a more personal level, could you share a highlight of your tenure as Québec government representative within the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO?

Answer: There are so many special milestones, and I enjoyed them all. One that stands out was when we were successful in having the diversity of cultural expressions in the digital era added to the agenda of the Intergovernmental Committee—this was not an a given, and we had to fight hard to get it added.

More generally, every one of the many contributions and speeches at various commissions, meetings, and presentations were memorable moments. I deeply appreciated the great teamwork and chemistry that developed between our teams in Paris, Ottawa, and Québec City. Relations with the federal government were very good. We had a very successful relationship and were able to accomplish a great deal. The Québec government often spoke up, particularly at the last General Conference. We received guests, including the Minister of Education, who also spoke. Several countries noticed how we worked as a “pair” and found it highly interesting.

My term ended with a lovely surprise: the office of Director-General Irina Bokova5 phoned to invite me to lunch with her. It was a very special moment I enjoyed greatly. I was fortunate to be able to have a one-on-one discussion with her and touch on many timely issues.


1 The reports are available online at https://www.fd.ulaval.ca/rijdec and on the site of the Québec Secretariat for Cultural Diversity: http://diversite-culturelle.qc.ca/index.php?id=152&L=1.


2 Documents 37C/4 and 37C/5 refer to the UNESCO Medium-Term Strategy for 2014-2021 and to the Programme and Budget for 2014-2017, presented at the 37th Session of the UNESCO General Conference in November 2013. Note that UNESCO had to implement steep budget cuts, from US$658 million to US$512 million.


3 Ms. Stanton-Jean is referring to the May 5, 2006 Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of Québec concerning the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) - See more at: http://www.mrif.gouv.qc.ca/en/relations-du-quebec/organisations-et-forums/representation-unesco/accord-unesco.


4 To find out more about Wakiponi mobile, go to http://www.wapikoni.ca/http://www.wapikoni.ca/


5 Mrs. Irina Bokova was re-elected Director-General of UNESCO for a second term in October 2013.

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