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It was February, 2006. Stephen Harper was taking charge on Parliament Hill. At a transition-of-power meeting, Ottawa's senior public servant, Alex Himelfarb, then the clerk of the Privy Council, looked across the table at Canada's new ruler and said: "Prime Minister, your biggest problem is in Rideau Hall."

He meant the Governor-General, the Queen's representative and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, charismatic, sparkling Michaëlle Jean, whose office abruptly announced this week that she is too exhausted by work and must cancel engagements on her doctor's recommendation.

At the time Mr. Himelfarb was giving his warning, Ms. Jean, sworn into office six months earlier, was turning out - along with her husband, Quebec filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond - to be a royal pain in the behind to the federal bureaucracy.

She and Mr. Lafond are said to have forced one chief of staff at Rideau Hall out of her job - the rumour, since quashed, was that they ordered the locks changed on her office door - and caused a second to quit angrily.

Mr. Lafond was displaying a disturbing take-charge behaviour, too often seeming to behave as the real viceregal office-holder, rather than his wife, and involving himself in at least one sensitive issue - the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec - where the Governor-General's office was not welcome.

And while former prime minister Paul Martin had thought Ms. Jean the ideal choice for the job, others in official Ottawa saw someone with an imperfect understanding of the governor-general's role and of the country itself, and little idea of what she wanted to do with her term in office.

The previous occupants of Rideau Hall, workaholic former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, let it be known they thought their successors weren't up to the mark they had established.

In Mr. Harper's mind, Ms. Jean was not the right sort of appointment. She was too young at 48, too politically naive, too meshed with her former career as a journalist. Thus, not surprisingly, the relationship between new Prime Minister and Governor-General began coolly.

But the beginning of the relationship was its nadir.

While Mr. Harper and Ms. Jean are still not close - and show it - a quiet respect for her job performance has taken root in the Prime Minister's Office, especially since her highly successful African visit late last year. She has set clear objectives for herself: a focus on women, immigrants, the socially marginalized and visible minorities.

Yet at the same time, the PMO has never lost a certain bafflement about her on-job modus or a suspicion that she is a somewhat unpredictable loose cannon.

A number of people, both inside and outside of government, were interviewed about Ms. Jean and the operations of Rideau Hall. All agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

A friend of the Governor-General said after Ms. Jean withdrew from some of her activities this week that she "has been on for ages now, she just didn't stop. So she is just overtired. I am surprised she lasted that long at that pace. It was too much."

But her announcement caught the PMO by surprise, and close observers of the office consider Ms. Jean's schedule to be the lightest since Jeanne Sauvé's term in the 1980s. It certainly appears sparse beside the frenetic busyness of Adrienne Clarkson until her discovery that she had a heart condition.

Ms. Jean took a pass in January on swearing in new cabinet ministers - arguably among her most important constitutional responsibilities - because she said she wanted to spend time with her husband and daughter after returning from Africa.

She appears Ottawa bound. Eighteen months after her installation, she still has not completed visits to all 10 provinces and three territories.

Her loose-cannon propensity surfaced at the 2005 parliamentary press gallery dinner when she declared in a comic speech - keeping in mind that she holds the country's great constitutional fire extinguishers and has the power to determine, in a crisis, who will govern Canada - that Paul Martin picked her to be governor-general because she was "hot" and made fun of Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair's use of cocaine.

She stuck one foot in political water, maybe up to her knee, by stating that the people of Quebec are not oppressed, colonized or short on power to determine their own destiny.

She possibly plunged a second foot into the same depth by suggesting on the Charter's 25th anniversary that Canadians' rights are at risk because vulnerable groups are denied full access to justice - a comment some see as challenging the federal government's withdrawal of funding for Charter challenges by disadvantaged groups.

On the first anniversary of her term of office, she established an interactive forum on the governor-general's official website, bringing in environmentalist David Suzuki as a blogger. Dr. Suzuki, while internationally renowned, also has a political approach to environmental problems not universally accepted.

Her background

Michaëlle Jean has been the Canadian success story the country collectively has dreams about.

Black, a refugee, born in Haiti, one of the world's poorest and most misbegotten countries, she comes to Canada as a child and grows up to earn a master's degree in literature, teach at three leading Italian universities, become fluent in five languages and be stunningly beautiful and charming.

She works for eight years in shelters for battered women in her home province of Quebec. She becomes deeply involved in aid for immigrant women.

She joins Radio-Canada, the French-language national public broadcaster, and becomes first a reporter and later an acclaimed host of public affairs programs. She is that rare breed who succeeds on both the French and English networks. In 2004, she is given the ultimate journalistic accolade - her own show, Michaëlle.

She is showered with awards and honours for her investigative journalism on human rights, immigrant society, and life in her native Haiti.

She marries an older man, French filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond. They adopt a Haitian child, Marie-Éden, now 7, who is growing up with her mother's warmth.

She said of her appointment: "I am turning a significant page in my own story as I set off on this new adventure with hope and determination."

The office she fills is probably the least understood in the Canadian governmental structure. The Queen is Canada's head of state. But the Governor-General carries out all but one or two of her constitutional duties and, acting in the Queen's name, personifies the Canadian state.

She is above politics. Ultimate constitutional authority in the country rests with her, and not all of that authority is symbolic: she can act if the Constitution is violated. No act of Parliament can be law until she gives royal assent, although as the representative of a responsible constitutional monarch she cannot refuse to do so.