Were she still in her old job as a journalist, one wonders what type of story or documentary Michaëlle Jean would create about the nearly six months she has spent as Canada’s 27th Governor General.
Would it focus on the people she has met or places she has visited? Would it mention the controversy that greeted her appointed last summer? Perhaps a reflection on the priorities she set out to pursue while occupying the vice-regal post, and some thoughts about moments of inspiration – and of disappointment?

A comprehensive work of that nature will have to wait for another time, once Jean and her family have vacated the Governor General’s official Ottawa residence, Rideau Hall.

But in many – often refreshingly candid ways – she has already provided a glimpse of her thoughts and feelings on some of those points, and others.

Last month in Toronto, during her first official visit to Ontario, the 48-year-old, Haitian-born former Radio-Canada broadcaster underscored her interest in young people that she outlined in her first speech as Governor General last fall during a morning address at the provincial legislature.

“Nothing in today’s society is more disgraceful,” she said, “than the marginalization of some young people who are driven to isolation and despair.

“We must not tolerate such disparities…We have a duty to encourage and support them in their efforts to join us in creating a better world.”

That afternoon, Jean visited a downtown centre for street youth.

Earlier in February, at a Montreal event marking Black History Month during her first official visit to Quebec, the descendant of slaves paid tribute to recently departed American civil-rights icons Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King and delivered an impassioned plea against the continuing oppression people of colour face here in Canada.

Citing statistics that indicate the challenges blacks face challenges finding jobs or suitable housing, and that they are “liable to being harassed or arrested for an act they did not commit,” Jean said “this discrimination sinks its insidious roots in the soil of ignorance and lack of understanding.”

“It has,” she explained, “no place in a society that prizes above all the values of respect, openness and sharing, which are paramount for me.”

On that tour of a province she long considered home, Jean also displayed candour about political matters, as reported by The Canadian Press.

When asked by a reporter about International Trade Minister David Emerson’s defection from the Liberals to the Conservatives, she said it was “a matter of his own conscience” – and described Prime Minister Stephen Harper as “very methodical.”

It was, of course, Harper’s prime ministerial predecessor, Paul Martin, who last August named her as the first black person – and only the third woman (not to mention the consecutive third journalist-broadcaster after Adrienne Clarkson and Roméo LeBlanc) – to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Almost three-quarters of 539 Quebec respondents to a poll conducted by Léger Marketing agreed with the appointment.

But jubilation quickly turned into panic when novelist René Boulanger wrote an article in the sovereigntist periodical, Le Québécois, claiming that Jean’s husband, French-born filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, was friends with hardcore separatists linked to the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) while directing the 1994 National Film Board documentary, La Liberté en colère (Freedom in anger).

In the article, Boulanger said he visited Lafond – “a pure indépendantiste” – and Jean in their Montreal apartment when the future vice-regal consort showed off a bookcase built by Jacques Rose, a member of the FLQ convicted as an accessory after the fact in the kidnapping and murder of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte in 1970.

Boulanger wrote that Lafond even joked that Rose built a false-bottomed drawer in the bookcase to store guns – an accusation Lafond vehemently denied later during a Radio-Canada interview.

Days later, Jean herself got dragged into the separatist allegations when Le Québécois dredged up an appearance she had made in La Manière Nègre (The Negro Manner), a documentary her husband made in 1991 (adapted into a book two years later) about the influence of Martinique poet Aimé Césaire on Quebec’s independence movement.

In the film, Jean is seen seated with hardline Quebec separatists in a bar toasting the concept of independence – “not something that is given [but] something that is taken,” she says.

Meanwhile, in the book, Lafond favoured Quebec independence and promised to attend “all” of the St-Jean Baptiste Day parades.”

Conservative premiers Ralph Klein of Alberta and New Brunswick’s Bernard Lord called on the couple to clarify their position on federalism.

On Aug. 17 as governor-general designate, Jean issued a statement in which she insisted that she and Lafond were “unequivocally…proud to be Canadian” and that they are “fully committed to Canada.”

That reassurance, however, did little to stop some 250 people from gathering on Parliament Hill in late August to protest a “separatist as head of state,” as one sign read – nor did it prevent a group of veterans from turning their backs on Jean less than three months later at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa. (Two days before her installation as Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces, she also renounced the French citizenship she only received the year before.)

There was a bit more “noise,” as Jean called it last fall too, when her sister, Nadege – a member of the Parti Québécois – publicly criticized Jean for poking fun during the annual (and satirical) Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner at party leader André Boisclair’s admitted cocaine use.

Jean dismissed all the fuss and challenges to her Canadian patriotism in an interview last October with the Winnipeg Free Press. She said it was the result of a “very mean strategy” to “build an image” of her that would “really frighten the rest of Canada.”

As it has turned out, the complete opposite has happened. From Prince Edward Island to Manitoba – which had the distinction last October of hosting her first official visit less than a month after her Sept. 27 installation as Governor General – Canadians have been quite smitten by Jean.

So too have the media, which will soon run out of ways to describe her mesmerizing,” “dazzling” and “rock-star”-quality appearances at events across the country that regularly elicit cheers and ovations.

“What has impressed me most is that so many people from all walks of life have kissed her, hugged her, shook her hand and told her, ‘We can relate to your life story’ – and that connection has really created an emotional bond between her and Canadians,” says Randy Mylyk, who serves as Jean’s press secretary.“
From the day she took office, she told me that the countdown has begun until the end of mandate and I have to touch as many lives as I can.”

The latest stop on her cross-country tour: British Columbia, from March 7 to 9. While in Vancouver, Jean will participate in the unveiling of the 1952 Olympic flag from the first Winter Games in Oslo – a fitting gesture for a woman who recently represented Canada at the closing ceremony of this year’s Winter Olympics in Turin and who could, as Governor General, officially open the XXI Olympic Winter Games when they come to Canada four years from now.

As Canada’s de facto head of state, Jean has to fulfil the duties of her high office.

From B.C., for instance, she heads to Chile for the inauguration of newly elected President Michelle Bachelet, an event at which Haiti’s new president, Réné Préval.

Just a few months into her job, she presided over the post-election changeover of the federal government from a Martin to Harper administration.

She’s met the powerful: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (perhaps the first black female American president and head of state one day?) at Rideau Hall last October – and whom she will see again in Chile on March 11, and Pope Benedict XVI last month in his private library where Jean reportedly spoke to the pontiff in French and Italian.

However, as part of her desire to break down the “two solitudes” (her official motto is in fact “Briser les solitudes”) – beyond the traditional linguistic lines – and the “narrow notion of ‘every person for himself,’” Jean pledged to make the governor general’s role “a place where citizens’ words will be heard, where the values of respect, tolerance, and sharing that are so essential to me and to all Canadians, will prevail.”

Thus far, fulfilling that mission appears to most energize her.

In her first English-language television interview with CTV’s Canada AM in February, Jean said “it’s very powerful to be as close as possible and to feel that energy in people who believe in community actions, who believe in certain values – who are not individualists, but believe in that collective strength and to make things happen.”

She has also reached out to groups – accompanying Aboriginal youths and veterans on a “spiritual journey” last October to France to visit war-related commemorative sites, including Juno Beach in Normandy, as part of Canada’s last event marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War; and spending two “intense” hours “in a reflexive dialogue on personal responsibility, dignity and freedom” with inmates at Montreal’s Bordeaux penitentiary who “shared their deepest fears and aspirations” with her.

Though Jean had been to Bordeaux before as a journalist, her visit marked the first by a Governor General to a prison.

As she said during her installation as Governor General, “I know how precious…freedom is…I whose ancestors were slaves, who was born into a civilization long reduced to whispers and cries of pain, know something about its price, and I know too what a treasure it is for us all.”

Her story, she explained, of watching as a little girl family and friends “grappling with the horrors of a ruthless dictatorship” in her native Haiti to become Canada’s Governor General “is a lesson in learning to be free.”

Born in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince on Sept. 6, 1957, Jean experienced the terror of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship.

Her father, Roger, a school principal and philosophy teacher, was abducted by “government thugs” in 1965 and days later was returned, “dumped in the street” outside the family home – “his head so badly swollen from the torture that he was barely recognizable,” according to a CanWest News Service story published on the eve of Jean’s installation as GG.

Roger Jean sought asylum in Quebec in 1967. His wife and two daughters arrived the following year – and the family carved out a life in Thetford Mines, an asbestos mining town about 100 kilometres south of Quebec City where Roger Jean landed a teaching job at a college.

He and his wife, Luce, eventually split up. Luce ended up in Montreal with the girls where Jean would obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree in Italian and Spanish languages and literature at the Université de Montréal, where she pursued – but never completed – a master’s degree in comparative literature. Scholarships also allowed her to study at three Italian universities during her undergraduate years.

From 1979 to 1987, she also worked with shelters for battered women in Quebec.

But Jean’s connection to Haiti ultimately landed her a career – and a husband.

In the mid-1980s, she returned to her Caribbean birthplace for the first time since she left at the age of 10.

She went there to interview women in Creole, one of five languages she is fluent in (English, French, Italian and Spanish are the others) for a feminist journal started by a doctoral student who attended the U of M during Jean’s time there. The assignment led to another job as researcher for a documentary on Haiti’s 1987 elections. That gig eventually led Jean to the world of journalism with Radio-Canada, from hosting the documentary series, “Grands Reportages” and her own interview show, “Michaëlle,” to serving as anchor of Le Téléjournal’s daily edition, “Le Midi.”

(She also won the 2001 Gemini Award for best interview in any category.)
It was through Haiti that she also met Lafond (13 years her senior with two daughters and two grandchildren from a previous marriage) who asked her to work with him on that now-infamous documentary on Césaire.

While they were in Haiti researching the film, Jean fell in love with him – and they married in 1992.

They twice tried to have children, but “first one pregnancy, then another, ended in miscarriage,” one of Jean’s former Radio-Canada colleagues told CanWest.

In 1999, Jean and Lafond ended up adopting a baby from Haiti -Marie-Éden – who is now the youngest occupant of Rideau Hall since former Governor General Ed Schreyer’s kids zipped around its halls more than 20 years ago.

Joining the six-year-old vice-regal daughter is a vice-regal dog: a fox terrier, from Quebec, which Lafond suggested Marie-Éden call Chouka – a name given to pooches he has had in the past.

The puppy was apparently part of the deal to ease the little girl’s transition from Montreal – where her mother was known to most Canadians as the host of CBC Newsworld’s “The Passionate Eye” and “Rough Cuts” – to Ottawa, where mom now represents the monarch and is the direct link for all Canadians to Elizabeth II.

Smart, articulate, charismatic, hip, attractive and fashionable, multilingual Jean is “a poster child for” and “one of the best embodiments we have of what modern Canada is all about,” Université de Montréal ethics research centre director and philosophy professor Daniel Weinstock told CanWest News Service last year.

“She’s an example of successful integration of immigrants from troubled lands to Canada.”

As Jean told the Winnipeg Free Press, she thinks of Canada “as a country of every possibility, and I think I’m one of the living examples of this.”

A woman full of life, too, smiling and clapping her hands and moving to the music – as she has been doing publicly since Sylvie Desgrosseillers, a fellow Haitian Canadian, and the People’s Gospel Choir of Montreal blew the roof off Centre Block on Parliament Hill during her installation ceremony.

“She looks good, Tina Turner good,” said an Ottawa Xpress writer, “and has the potential to be popular – Oprah popular.”

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