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Jean's G-G tenure marked by euphoria and controversy

In September, 2005, Michaelle Jean, newly sworn in as Governor General greets people in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill, with her then-six year-old daughter Marie-Eden Jean, in front, and then-Prime Minister Paul Martin in back.


It was always the most improbable of stories - a young Haitian refugee rising from obscurity to become Governor-General of Canada.

Now, the countdown nears for the end of Michaëlle Jean's historic tenure: She will formally leave office in September and take up new duties as the United Nations' new special envoy for Haiti.

But as the speculation heats up over her possible successor, postmortems on Ms. Jean's five-year term will inevitably begin.

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It started with euphoria - then prime minister's Paul Martin's surprise appointment of Ms. Jean in 2005, the first Caribbean native and only the third woman to occupy Rideau Hall, home of the Queen's Representative in Canada.

A journalist and broadcaster, as well as a professor, the multilingual Ms. Jean succeeded Adrienne Clarkson. But the Queen's signature had scarcely been affixed when controversy erupted over alleged ties Ms. Jean and her husband, Quebec filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, may once have had to elements of Quebec's separatist movement.

But she weathered that early storm, dismissing the allegations and insisting both she and her husband were proud Canadians, "had the greatest respect for the institutions of our country" and had "never belonged to a political party or the separatist movement."

A second controversy soon followed - over Ms. Jean's French citizenship, acquired by marriage to Mr. Lafond. French law forbids its citizens from holding military or government positions in other countries. To avoid a conflict, two days before her swearing-in ceremony, Ms. Jean formally renounced her French citizenship.

But she could not entirely escape the clouds of political doubt that surrounded her. Appearing at her first Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa as Governor-General, Ms. Jean and Mr. Lafond met a mixed reception, as a number of war veterans literally turned their backs on the vice-regal couple.

She did not, however, shy away from a good fight, just because politics might have been involved. She pointedly criticized Quebec sovereigntists - and drew heat from the predictable quarters. Addressing an Ottawa press gallery dinner, she ridiculed then Parti Quebecois leadership candidate André Boisclair's admitted cocaine habit. And more than might have been expected, she waded into the gathering national debate over Canada's military role in Afghanistan, by forthrightly championing the mission.

Nor did it end there. Ms. Jean pointedly chose the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms to criticize the Harper government's decision to end the Court Challenges Program, a subsidy aimed at supporting groups in language and equality legal cases. The Prime Minister's Office came to regard the Governor-General as a "loose cannon," and its single biggest political problem.

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Ms. Jean cut back her public schedule in 2007, citing fatigue and thyroid problems, although she did go to France for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, appeared in Trenton, Ont. for the arrival of the bodies of six Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and was in Toronto to dedicate the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The following year, she was forced to return from a state visit to Europe to adjudicate a nasty parliamentary dispute that threatened to scuttle Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government. The immediate crisis was resolved in Mr. Harper's favour: The Governor-General agreed to prorogue Parliament.

But the controversy lingered, fuelled in part by Ms. Jean's decision, in a speech abroad and on her official website, to describe herself as Canada's head of state - a description that angered staunch Monarchists and the PMO. The Governor-General subsequently retreated from her claim.

Her fractious relationship with the PMO only began to heal this year, in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. Ms. Jean lost a close friend, her daughter's godmother, Magalie Marcelin, in the tragedy. There, for once, the government's political and the Governor-General's personal imperatives were in sync. She addressed an emergency meeting at the Department of Foreign Affairs, thanked the cabinet for its swift response to the disaster, and in March, travelled to Haiti to see the devastation and observe Canada's assistance program.

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

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