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Memorable 5-year Michaelle Jean mandate ends

OTTAWA - A yellow schoolbus rumbled to a stop at the village grocery store just north of the Arctic circle and, without warning, a bundled-up Governor General had walked in and was wandering the aisles.

OTTAWA - A yellow schoolbus rumbled to a stop at the village grocery store just north of the Arctic circle and, without warning, a bundled-up Governor General had walked in and was wandering the aisles.

Michaelle Jean considered the prices an outrage.

The subsequent scene was a solitary snapshot of Jean's five-year term, which concludes this week with viceregal transition ceremonies.

This wasn't quite the stereotypical case of a well-heeled public figure experiencing sticker shock upon exposure to the cost of everyday living. It would in fact qualify as a normal reaction for a first-time visitor to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. — because, on the 69th parallel, the price of groceries is just that obscene.

A jug of milk cost $13.99. Fruits and vegetables were also prohibitively expensive. And anyone with a craving for exotic fruit would have to be desperate enough to shell out $14.89 for a pineapple.

So the Queen's representative did the natural thing: she summoned the national media.

To be more precise, she sent an aide to drag in the lone Ottawa-based reporter covering her 2008 trip to the Northwest Territories with a request, which might be ubiquitous at Rideau Hall but counts as rare for an everyday greeting: "Her Excellency would like to see you."

So the reporter cut short an interview, walked into the store and found himself a moment later standing — alongside Canada's vicereine and an Inuvialuit couple — in front of a $14.89 pineapple.

"We need to do something about this," Jean said, staring in disbelief. She introduced the reporter to the local couple.

"You need to speak to these people."

Jean had encountered a reality known to anybody who has ever ventured into Canada's North: the region's sky-high rates of health problems, including diabetes, can't easily be curbed when it's so expensive to ship fresh foods but a bag of Doritos still costs less than $4.

Her immediate instinct was to suggest public subsidies that might help bring down the cost of fruits and vegetables here. Ottawa has since announced a $60-million subsidy program called Nutrition North Canada.

Some might have considered it naive for a public figure — holding what is constitutionally the highest office a Canadian can hold — to be shocked by such a well-documented reality of northern life.

It might strike others as equally naive for that figure to believe more people — from the national media, to the voting public, to policy-makers — might be persuaded to take an interest.

There were hints early on, even before she was officially sworn in, of the traits she might bring to the job.

But given all the furor over whether she was a closet Quebec separatist, few people noticed when a friend described the incoming Governor General as someone completely lacking in cynicism.

It was equally easy to misinterpret the motto she chose for her viceregal coat of arms — "Breaking Down Solitudes" — as a reference to old English-French squabbles. She repeatedly explained that her motto applied to all social barriers, including those that isolate people living in the North.

Jean has been far more muted about the key historic moment of her term — and perhaps the most important decision made by any Governor General in three-quarters of a century.

She's maintained a steadfast silence in public about her decision to grant Prime Minister Stephen Harper the prorogation that saved his government but, privately, has defended the 2008 move as the constitutionally sound one.

There will be occasions to assess Jean's term this week as it concludes with a military salute, an event in Parliament, and a tree-planting ceremony at Rideau Hall. She moves on Thursday to the next phase in her life as a United Nations envoy to Haiti, her earthquake-battered homeland.

The man who replaces her, David Johnston, brings with him undisputed gravitas and stellar credentials as an academic and public servant.

But any of her successors would be hard-pressed to outperform Jean in some aspects of the job.

Few public figures will ever command a higher profile as a Canadian spokesperson.

Jean's office estimates that between Jan. 12, the date of the Haiti earthquake, and her departure this week, she received at least 166 interview requests from media outlets including international heavyweights like CNN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC.

She charmed the leaders of G8 powerhouses and failing states alike. Ghana's president once declared, during a toast at an official dinner, that his country had fallen in love. Newspaper columns in France and Africa were especially breathless, comparing her to figures like Nelson Mandela, Lady Diana, Pele and Muhammad Ali.

The celebratory scene of tens of thousands of Malians cheering alongside the highway for the arrival of Canada's first black Governor General could have rivalled any Stanley Cup parade.

A former journalist, Jean's storytelling instincts kicked in again during that 2006 Africa trip.

While she toured Canadian aid projects in a dusty village on the savanna, she once again asked aides to track down a reporter. She sent an emissary back a second time when the reporter didn't immediately walk over. Jean insisted that someone needed to tell this story about women she'd met in the village who were working to fight female genital mutilation.

Some of these scenes will wind up in a movie if, as expected, her filmmaker husband Jean-Daniel Lafond completes the documentary he's been working on.

Jean is also considering a book. It could be a historian's goldmine if she decided to share details of her private meetings — not only with Harper, but also with figures like U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict.

She's been known to inject her own policy priorities into some of those chats — like the time she raised Haiti with Obama, and they apparently agreed to resume the discussion later in Washington.

Her forays into policy-making were not always appreciated by the elected powers in the Prime Minister's Office.

One case in point was Jean's particularly aggressive push for an Arctic university. She argued that the project would exercise true Canadian sovereignty in the North, assist scientific research in the area, entice young students to discover their country, and make it easier for Inuit youth to obtain a post-secondary education.

"We were not pleased," was how one official in Harper's office described the reaction to her public lobbying.

While they were in many ways polar opposites, she and the prime minister, they often complemented each other.

He spent his entire adult life studying Canadian public policy and, upon taking office, was forced to admit that he hadn't travelled much outside the country. She delivered speeches in five languages, was born in Haiti, studied in Italy and, upon taking office, was forced to relinquish her dual French citizenship.

He attended G8 and Commonwealth summits. She visited Canadian development projects, and spoke to African parliaments and university students.

He touted the valour of Canadian soldiers. She held hands and wept with grieving military families.

He talked up free trade before Latin American audiences. She spoke of "globalizing solidarity," and told audiences in poorer countries that they had things to teach even rich nations like Canada.

They even ate seal meat differently: Harper's cabinet arranged a cautious northern photo op where they picked at it with toothpicks, while she got blood all over her fingertips while digging into raw heart with Inuit elders.

Jean was grateful when the prime minister sprang to her defence as that seal-skinning episode prompted an international furor.

While the act eventually proved to be a public-relations bonanza, Jean was at first rattled by the immediate wave of criticism from those who called the gesture barbaric.

The Prime Minister's Office, when informed of her initial jitters, swiftly sent out a statement through then-spokesman Kory Teneycke that declared pride in her gesture.

When shown the note on a Blackberry, the Governor General offered a happy high-five and a hopeful observation: Perhaps this support, she opined, might bode well for the Arctic university project.

Her advocacy efforts, at home and abroad, enjoyed mixed results.

Jean earned a standing ovation from the few female members of Mali's parliament when she urged the chamber to pass a bill that would vastly expand women's rights and let them inherit property. The men remained seated, and a cacophony of grumbles swept over the chamber. Some warned against foreign interference. Four years later, the bill still hasn't passed.

But in Senegal, just two weeks ago, Jean's name was specifically cited in a news report about the unprecedented conviction of child-abusers in that country.

Jean had made headlines in Senegalese newspapers earlier this year when, at a news conference with the country's president, she described the treatment at some Islamic schools there as slavery. No court had ever enforced the country's anti-abuse law. The light sentences handed down this month — seven men were released on probation — were described by human-rights advocates as a hopeful first step.

Jean also managed a high-profile assist in the Harper government's fundraising efforts for Haiti.

The prime minister invited her to a briefing on the disaster relief then, later that day, she made a teary-eyed public appearance that tugged at Canadian heartstrings and pried open wallets.

While Harper and Jean were a study in contrasts, she shared several unmistakable traits with the prime minister who appointed her.

Those similarities with Paul Martin went beyond a common interest in aboriginal issues and African development.

When it came to enthusiastic hyperactivity she and Martin — who once famously made an unscheduled 10,000-kilometre detour to greet supporters at the Vancouver airport on the final day of an election campaign — were an undisputed match.

Throughout her term, carefully crafted itineraries were obliterated with aplomb.

Longer-than-planned meetings, extended handshakes at meet-and-greets, and impromptu detours all contributed to a daily ritual described by one aide as, "like trying to catch a butterfly."

She once dragged her entourage across an Arctic village, her RCMP detail marching in tow along the dirt road, because someone informed her of a pretty fjord visible in the distance.

Visits to small-town schools would conclude in an empty hallway as Jean chatted with one or two students in the company of the principal and a janitor waiting to lock up for the night.

Her exhausted entourage looked on in Haiti earlier this year as a carefully planned walk through the streets of her mother's hometown morphed into a prolonged group hug.

Canada's ambassador to Haiti, who'd been tasked with getting her to her next event, rested against a nearby hunk of concrete and sat impassively when reminded of the time. "I give up," he shrugged.

Jean steadfastly refused to wear a watch — not even as a fashion accessory — during her term. She preferred not to know what time it was.

During a meeting with a sexual-assault support group in Congo earlier this year, an aide tried in vain to get her attention by motioning it was time to leave.

The Governor General shifted nervously in her seat, and pretended not to notice. The meeting went on.

When she left Kinshasa during that trip, Jean cheerfully strode onto the plane with a message for a bleary-eyed travel party that had woken up at 3:30 a.m. after another longer-than-expected day.

"We'll have time to catch up on sleep in another life," she said.

 
 
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