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Jeffrey Simpson

Why Canadians owe great thanks to Michaëlle Jean Add to ...

What a brilliant governor-general Michaëlle Jean has become after nearly four years in office. Say what you like about former prime minister Paul Martin, he did himself proud with this bold appointment.

Today, on Parliament Hill, Ms. Jean will be present for the Canada Day ceremonies, although it would appear that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has elbowed her aside in taking the military march past.

No matter, she always shines in public, both here and abroad.

Read her speeches, because they are beautifully written, and delivered in impeccable French and English. Watch her with crowds, because she connects with people of every station. Listen to what she says, because she has a modern message of tolerance, dialogue and pluralism, a message that flows from her first speech in which she pledged to work against the "two solitudes" in Canada.

She impresses those she meets in Canada, and wows those she meets abroad. Norwegian friends can't stop showering her with praise for her five-day state visit there. The Norwegian king was knocked out by her knowledge of international affairs. She went all over the country, including the far north. She met people from every walk of life, and was comfortable with them all.

She wowed the French: an immigrant from Haiti in 1968 as the Queen's representative, bilingual and speaking beautiful French, a woman of fashion, grace and elegance. Ms. Jean's public relations success miffed the separatists in Quebec, an unintended benefit of her visit to France and another reason to send her there again.

Ms. Jean succeeded the formidable Adrienne Clarkson, who also did an admirable job as governor-general. Occasional sniping at Ms. Jean comes from some of her predecessor's entourage in Toronto - which does no credit to anyone. Ms. Clarkson served with distinction and creativity. Leave it there.

There were rumours at the time of Ms. Jean's appointment that she might have cavorted with separatists in Quebec, and that she and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, were closet separatists themselves.

In the cultural/media circles from which they emerged, separatists were, and are, everywhere. Guilt by association seemed enough for a few skeptics to damn her appointment and to criticize Mr. Martin for not having done due diligence about the duo.

The case against her was pathetic to start with, and has since been exposed as such. Everywhere she travels in Canada, Ms. Jean gets star treatment, and rightly so, because she carries herself well, understands the fickle exigencies of the television world (having been a television presenter) and, most important, because, within the limits of what a governor-general can say, she says important things.

An observer senses a public warmth that causes people to be at ease. What she's like in private, we cannot say.

Ms. Jean did face a serious constitutional problem when Mr. Harper demanded that Parliament be dissolved last December after three parties ganged up on him. Whatever the popularity of her decision, she took advice from her constitutional advisers, including the eminent Peter Hogg, and made the right constitutional decision in granting dissolution. The politics of the issue were for others to sort out.

Ms. Jean is a great deal more charismatic than the dull white men running our national political parties. And what a contrast she will offer this fall when one of the British royals wanders around Canada.

Prince Charles is coming in November. If his very presence doesn't drive up the number of people who want to clip our umbilical ties to the British monarchy, nothing will. In fact, in a poll conducted by The Strategic Counsel for The Globe and Mail and CTV, 65 per cent of Canadians think we should cut those ties after a new monarch is crowned.

The contrast between the very Canadian, contemporary, bilingual, multicultural, modern, worldly Ms. Jean and the stodgy British prince and king-to-be (with Camilla) will be startling. Ms. Jean also will be an excellent host, and showcase for Canada, when she greets the many heads of state attending the Winter Olympics in British Columbia in February.

We've been lucky in Canada with our governors-general, one of whom, Roméo LeBlanc, an outstanding Acadian, just passed away. We should remember them on Canada Day, and be especially thankful for the work Ms. Jean is doing reflecting our country at home and abroad.

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