This article first appeared in the January issue of the Anglican Journal.
Her Honour Dr. Mayann Elizabeth Francis has always gone wherever she felt God was calling her to go. That has made for an exceptionally varied journey that includes sociology, X-ray technology, law, public administration, theology and human rights. “I always say, ‘Go where God leads you. Be prepared to seize opportunities as they present themselves,’ ” says the 67-year-old Nova Scotian, who was the 31st lieutenant governor of her province-and the second black person in Canada and the first black person in Nova Scotia to hold the vice-regal office.
For the pioneering native of Sydney’s multi-ethnic working-class Whitney Pier neighbourhood, each career change led her closer to the lieutenant governorship. “When I look back, I see everything was building on the other,” says the devout Anglican and eucharistic minister at All Saints’ Cathedral in Halifax.
Francis was actually born into the African Orthodox Church, a protest offshoot of the U.S. Episcopal Church founded by West Indian immigrants. Her father, George, became African Orthodox archpriest at St. Phillip’s in Sydney. “But when I’m in the cathedral, I feel right at home. If I close my eyes, it’s very similar-the creeds, the communion, the prayers,” she says.
Church has always been and remains a focal point for Francis, who as a child attended morning service, Sunday school and vespers each Sunday with her six siblings. Her parents, both born in the Caribbean, relocated to Sydney in the early 1940s from New York City.
Francis herself headed to New York City after earning a sociology degree at St. Mary’s University and then a diploma in X-ray technology. “Dealing with people in the hospital who were sick gave me compassion and insight into human beings,” says Francis. Later, income from X-ray technology would finance her studies for a paralegal certificate and then a master’s degree in public administration at New York University.
Different insights came from five years on Wall Street, where she worked on million-dollar deals as a paralegal for major law firms specializing in real estate and banking. “That was really something for a Nova Scotia girl from Whitney Pier,” she says.
Returning to Canada after 16 years in the U.S., Francis held several senior public service positions, including director and chief executive officer of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and provincial ombudsman. In 2006, she was appointed lieutenant governor-fittingly, by Canada’s Haitian-born governor general, Michaëlle Jean and held the post until 2012.
Equally fittingly, in 2010 Francis invoked royal prerogative and granted Canada’s first posthumous pardon to Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian who, in 1946, insisted on sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Desmond was arrested and ludicrously charged with ticket-related tax fraud, a battle she lost in court. (This was nine years before U.S. civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on an Alabama bus.)
As a daughter of racially tense Nova Scotia, Francis early on became committed to diversity, equality and human rights. Her first job in social equality was an undergraduate summer stint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, which she would later head.
Of the current state of racism in Canada, Francis says: “While I believe racial discrimination still exists here and elsewhere, we can learn from the mistakes of the past and celebrate the gains we have made. At the same time, we must acknowledge and understand that there is still work to be done.”
For Francis, being a trailblazer requires help. “I always rely on my faith, prayer and Christian teachings,” she says. “You have to have something to give you that strength and that courage and that energy to keep moving.” Prayer is the fuel that keeps her going. “I pray to God to let me see where he is leading me. I ask for wisdom and understanding and I give thanks.”
Her famous energy is still very much in evidence as Francis negotiates a demanding post-governorship life of public speaking, fundraising, consulting and volunteering. Twice a year, she brings in a woman with an extraordinary story to speak motivationally to the “Circle of Women” gathering at her condominium in Halifax. And she is always ready to give advice to those who need it. “I’ve been blessed to have this great journey and I should not keep it to myself.”
Diana Swift is a contributing writer to the Anglican Journal.