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Governor General Michaelle Jean, shown in Sal Island, Cape Verde in April, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Governor General Michaelle Jean, shown in Sal Island, Cape Verde in April, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Michaëlle Jean grew in the viceregal office Add to ...

The announcement that Michaëlle Jean, the Governor-General, will take up duties as an UNESCO special envoy for Haiti in September, represents the near-end of an imperfect tenure.

The UNESCO role is well suited to the strengths Ms. Jean has brought to the role of Queen's representative. Her charisma, spontaneity and skill at, in her own words, "people-to-people diplomacy" will be put to good use in a cause that is important to Canada and the international community. But her departure will also allow the appointment of a truly meritorious individual as the new Governor-General, someone with the intellectual rigour required of that office.

The UNESCO job, while limited by the relative ineffectiveness of that UN entity, is well tailored to Ms. Jean, and is probably a wiser use of her talents than, say, an appointment as Canadian ambassador to Haiti.

When she was appointed Governor-General by the Queen, on the advice of former prime minister Paul Martin, there was some criticism about Ms. Jean's French dual citizenship (later renounced), and questions about possible divided loyalties. But if any existed, it was the tender bonds she retained with her country of origin, Haiti. That is not necessarily a bad thing, for the same pull is felt by many newcomers to Canada. It is possible to be Canadian while caring deeply about a country of origin, especially a place like Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere and one devastated by an earthquake last year that killed some 300,000 people.

And for all of that, Ms. Jean has not been, as some have derisively called her, the "governor-general of Haiti." She has always fulfilled her duties as the Queen's representative for Canada, and has done so with grace and empathy. Even when she has tripped up, such as her embarrassing reference to the B.C. Coastal Mountains as the "Rockies," she admitted her flaws, taking the trouble to write letters of contrition. During her term, Ms. Jean followed the lead of her immediate predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, both by paying special attention to the Inuit and by fulfilling her responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief of Canada, including making popular gestures, such as eating raw seal meat, and wearing a Canadian Armed Forces uniform. Ms. Jean also placed emphasis on youth and the arts.

It was, however, an unusual appointment. Ms. Jean was a television journalist, with a limited profile and few obvious distinctions, when elevated to viceregal office. She was not - then - a distinguished Canadian, and this perceived lack of accomplishment hampered her effectiveness.

Despite efforts to mask it, such as the Harper government's generous role in the UNESCO appointment, relations were sometimes strained. This was plain for all to see when Ms. Jean was publicly rebuked by Mr. Harper for having referred to herself as Canada's "head of state," at an UNESCO meeting, as it happens. That role is fulfilled by the Queen. For all her populist appeal, Ms. Jean did not command the respect among the political elites that the office requires. And despite its symbolic importance, the position does call for more than a national bauble. The Governor-General wields important constitutional powers.

This was most at evidence during the 2008 crisis over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's request for prorogation when it became clear his government would lose a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Some constitutional experts believe the Governor-General had a responsibility to exercise the reserve powers of the Crown and refuse the Prime Minister's advice to prorogue. Others argue that the Governor-General should do as little as possible to interfere with politics, and Ms. Jean made the correct decision to accede to Mr. Harper's request.

Canadians should welcome Ms. Jean's appointment as UNESCO special envoy, and thank her for her service. Mr. Harper should aim higher than his predecessor in advising the Queen on her successor.

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