Obama, Governor General share animated airport encounter

OTTAWA - The first black president of the United States and Canada's first black Governor General knew theirs was a historic encounter - and they appeared to revel in it from the moment they met Thursday.

OTTAWA - The first black president of the United States and Canada's first black Governor General knew theirs was a historic encounter - and they appeared to revel in it from the moment they met Thursday.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean was the first of a handful of Canadian dignitaries to greet Barack Obama as he stepped off Air Force One onto Canadian soil for the first time as U.S. president.

"You would never have imagined that you and I could both be here like today, coming from African descent," Jean was quoted as telling the president as they began what insiders described as "soft and warm" exchange.

A Jean aide said the poignancy of the moment was not lost on either of them and may have given the pair "a form of added connection."

The two held an animated conversation on the tarmac that went beyond the formal dictates of protocol before the president was introduced to the other dignitaries, including Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Canada's ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson.

An Obama quip had Jean leaning back, laughing and throwing an arm around the president's back as they strode side-by-side into the reception centre for a private chat.

Jean's spokeswoman Marthe Blouin said "at that moment she was telling him that she felt it was like a love affair between him and Canadians."

"He said to her that he knew that, that he'd been informed that he was very popular in Canada. Then he joked and he added, 'Well, it's good to know because if things do not go well for me in the States, I know I can come to Canada.'

"That's why she was laughing so much."

During a media photo opportunity inside prior to their private session, Obama and Jean sat in armchairs smiling and leaning toward one another while keeping their voices low to prevent their discussion from being picked up by microphones.

During the 26 minutes they spent together - six minutes longer than scheduled - the two discussed Jean's recent visit to the land of her birth, Haiti, and its new prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, whom she described as "very dynamic and worth knowing."

Jean told Obama the Haitian situation is "terrible at the moment with the food crisis and it's even worse after the hurricanes and tropical storms of last summer and early fall and even worse with the economic crisis and the recession," although she emphasized Haiti remains politically stable.

"President Obama told her that he'd like to talk further with her on this issue," Blouin said.

As commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, Jean thanked Obama for his "kind words" to the families of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. She also told him how she attends repatriation ceremonies for the remains of soldiers killed overseas.

She told Obama that "she feels it's important for the families to have a ramp ceremony."

Jean also spoke to Obama about "youth empowerment," explaining how she's made youth her priority as Governor General.

"She told him how she was impressed to see how many young people voted for him last fall and impressed also by the enthusiasm," Blouin said.

"She told me that they both together shared the fact that they thought empowering youth is important, important also to fight against apathy, so the young generation is involved in politics, for example."

During the photo op, Obama listened intently as Jean was heard to utter the word "hope," a key element of the president's successful "Yes We Can" campaign leading to his historic election victory Nov. 4.

On inauguration day, Jean proclaimed Obama's election as the first African-American president a "joyful" occasion "filled with symbolic meaning on a global scale."

"A new page in the history of civilizations is being written before our very eyes," she said, "fulfilling the wishes of so many youths, women and men, from every background and every creed, to see our world become more just and more human."

On Thursday, Obama told Jean he wants to return to Canada with his family. "He told her he would like to see her again," Blouin said. "And he said to her that he would love to see her in Washington as well."

It's not Obama's first visit to Canada. He spent several days in the Toronto area for a family wedding celebration in August 2004, when he was an Illinois state senator.

He, wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha took a rental car to Niagara Falls, with a brief stop in Burlington, Ont.

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