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Monday, May 15, 2006 




Jean brings ray of hope to Haiti
One-time refugee returns on red carpet at swearing-in of president

INGRID PERITZ
From Monday's Globe and Mail

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Nearly 40 years ago, Michaëlle Jean was a frightened girl who fled Haiti to escape her country's oppressors.
Yesterday, in a fairytale scene, the onetime refugee strode down a red carpet into her homeland's parliament as Canada's Governor-General.

In a day steeped in heady symbolism, Ms. Jean came to Haiti as Canada's representative for the inauguration of President René Préval.
It was a momentous day for Haiti, gripped again in the hope that it will be delivered from chaos and deprivation.
But it was also an emotional passage for Ms. Jean, who returned to her homeland like a prodigal daughter.
"It's a very important moment," she admitted on her way into the ceremony, a picture of poise in a peach suit and matching hat.

Mr. Préval's swearing-in drew dignitaries from around the world, but the radiant Ms. Jean was treated like the princess of Port-au-Prince. As the only head of state in attendance, she had a front-row seat near Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of the U.S. President. But Ms. Jean was the only one who was pointed out by name by the house Speaker.

Later, when she entered the soaring Port-au-Prince cathedral for a mass, the assembled well-wishers began to applaud.

In Canada, Asma Heurtelou, president of the Council Elected by Haitians in Montreal, said yesterday that the Governor-General's presence in Haiti is significant because it is showing the country that Canada is onside as it rebuilds.

"We are very proud and satisfied that she could go over there for this occasion," Ms. Heurtelou said.
And she's such an inspiration to ordinary Haitians that one official said her nomination as Governor-General in Canada was as important to Haitians as Pope John Paul II's election was to Poles. One Haitian Montrealer compared her to Princess Diana.

Ms. Jean's appeal extends beyond the political realm. She is graceful, articulate and able to maintain dignity in stultifying heat (while reporters trailing her bathe indecorously in sweat).
Ms. Jean, who arrived in Haiti on Saturday for a four-day visit, is not only in the country to represent Canada on official business.
She hopes her presence in Haiti will be a boost to the morale of a long-suffering country, beset by desperate poverty, street crime, instability and political divisions.

"It's important for me to come tell my brothers and sisters from my native land that my adopted land was still there by their side," she said.

But it was hard to ignore the Hollywood-style plot of Ms. Jean's homecoming, and the ironies that time has brought. Yesterday, during the President's address to the nation, Ms. Jean had a place on the veranda of the massive National Palace in Port-au-Prince.

That very palace had been the seat of power of the fearsome regime of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, whose brutality sent the Jean family into flight to Quebec when Ms. Jean was 11. In those days, Haitians avoided passing by the palace or making eye contact with the armed guards outside. Those unlucky enough to be arrested and taken inside often didn't make it out. Time hasn't erased the memories for the Governor-General.

"When I entered the National Palace, I did think of a lot of things that have happened in that palace," Ms. Jean told CTV yesterday. "Of course, there is history."

Yesterday, beneath a withering sun, Ms. Jean was on the inside of the presidential compound looking out. Before her stretched a sea of Haitians, some of them pressed against the palace fence, who had come to watch the presidential address.

Not far from the palace is where Ms. Jean had attended the Methodist-run Nouveau College Bird elementary school and where she embarked on the path of hard work and discipline that led her to one of the most visible posts in Canada.

It was in the same city that her father, a school principal, was dragged away one night and returned a broken man, setting in motion his family's exodus.

Ms. Jean admitted her visit to Haiti had personal meaning. As soon as she stepped onto the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport on Saturday, her first words to journalists were to say her trip felt like a dream come true. "It's very emotional to be standing here," she said.

"When I was appointed, I knew what it meant to people here," she said later. "When they saw one of them -- now a Canadian -- becoming Governor-General of that country, it was: "Oh, there's hope.' "

Through her outspokenness on Haiti, Ms. Jean is redefining the boundaries of the Governor-General's non-political post. She candidly told reporters she has been valued for her advice on her homeland not only by prime ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, but also by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "We live in a world that needs symbols. Sometimes symbols change things," she said.

Since her family fled in 1968, Ms. Jean has returned to Haiti as a journalist, and to adopt her daughter, Marie-Éden, 7. But this is her first visit since becoming Governor-General in September, and the first ever for any Canadian Governor-General.

Tomorrow, Ms. Jean travels to the seaside city of Jacmel, a spiritual anchor for Ms. Jean and her family home.

Drawing comparisons

One official said her nomination as Governor-General in Canada was as important to Haitians as Pope John Paul II's election was to Poles. One Haitian Montrealer compared her to Princess Diana.

With a report from Caroline Alphonso

© Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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