Published September 27, 2005
MONTREAL – Queen Elizabeth II's new representative in Canada is a refugee from Haiti — the first black and only the third woman to hold the title of governor general.
Michaelle Jean, 48, is also one of the youngest to hold the office, the highest in Canada's constitutional order. It is a sensitive if largely ceremonial post, dedicated to promoting a national identity for a vast country with deep political and linguistic fault lines.
"I have come a long way," she said ahead of her swearing-in Tuesday. "My ancestors were slaves, they fought for freedom. I was born in Haiti, the poorest country in our hemisphere. I am a daughter of exiles driven from their home by a dictatorial regime."
Her critics claim she is a token and a pawn, picked by Prime Minister Paul Martin to boost slipping support for federalism and his Liberal Party in Quebec. Some say she should have been disqualified from the position because of her alleged ties to Quebec's separatist movement.
Martin has stood by her, calling her a talented woman who will bring fresh perspective to Rideau Hall, the governor general's residence in Ottawa.
"Born in Haiti, she knows what it is to come to a new country with little more than hope," Martin said when he announced her appointment in August. Jean's family fled the brutal regime of dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier in Haiti when she was 11.
"She is a reflection of that great quality of Canada, a country which focuses on equality of opportunity," he said. "She reflects what we are and what we want to be."
Haitian immigrants have been rejoicing in Quebec — the French-speaking province that is now home to 100,000 immigrants or descendants of the Caribbean nation. Other immigrants see Jean, the 27th governor general, as a symbol of what they or their children can hope to achieve in this multicultural nation.
Though once a British subject, the governor general — who is also commander in chief of the Canadian Forces — has been Canadian since 1952.
Bills passed in Parliament do not become law until the governor general gives them so-called royal assent, but this is done on the advice of the prime minister and his Cabinet and rarely does the governor general dissent.
Jean will also hold special powers to promote stability in times of emergency.
Outgoing Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was asked to extend her term as the country grappled with the uncertainty of Martin's minority government earlier this year.
The divisive issue of Quebec separation could plague Jean throughout her tenure, which is typically five years. A Quebec nationalist publication has asserted she and her French-born husband were once known in Quebec cultural circles as separatists.
Though Quebecois narrowly defeated the last independence referendum in 1995, recent polls have indicated that if another vote were held today, Quebecers might favor of some sort of autonomy within Canada.
Jean remained quiet about the issue until the furor grew so loud she was forced to issue a short statement confirming her commitment to Canadian federalism and denying that she belonged to any political party or the separatist movement.
Jean also announced Sunday that she would give up her dual French citizenship, which she acquired when she married French-born Quebec filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond.
The road to Rideau Hall has been full of roadblocks and challenges for Jean.
The daughter of an abusive father, she also survived cancer. Devastated by her inability to conceive a child, she and her husband adopted one of their own.
Jean became one of the first black reporters at Radio-Canada, the CBC's French-language television service, and went on to become a popular anchor and narrator for documentaries.
Most Canadians believe Jean will proudly represent their nation, which was built by immigrants and is today one of the most diverse in the world. Still, as she rises to the highest office on Tuesday, demonstrators plan to protest and demand an end to what they see as one of the last vestiges of their British colonial past.