DAKAR, Senegal — Michaelle Jean has confirmed that her five-year term as Governor General will not be extended beyond its scheduled conclusion in September, officially signalling the end of what has been a lively chapter in the history of a traditionally staid institution.
It was a reign that began in controversy over suspicions she was a separatist; she broke into a spontaneous dance in Parliament on the day she was sworn in, butchered a seal with the Inuit and gobbled down a slice of its heart, wept publicly for her Haitian homeland, and earned adoring reactions abroad.
She concludes her term with lofty popularity levels that, according to one recent poll, would be the envy of just about any public figure.
There had been whispers that the government was seeking a successor. On Wednesday, Jean herself confirmed the worst-kept secret in Canadian politics: her term won’t be extended, as was the case with her predecessor Adrienne Clarkson.
The Governor General made the remarks in a chat with Canadian journalists aboard an airplane, as she prepared to touch down in Senegal for a 10-day state visit to sub-Saharan Africa.
“I’m very focused right now on what I want to achieve until the end of my tenure, which will come at the end of September,” Jean said.
“Normally, I was appointed for five years. And the end comes at the fifth anniversary of the installation, which is the end of September.”
A few dozen people, some of them dancing, greeted Jean at the airport. It was a far more subdued scene than her first visit to Africa in 2006, when tens of thousands of people in Mali waved from the sidewalks and one local newspaper compared the visiting Canadian viceroy to black heroes like Pele and Muhammad Ali.
With all that attention came periodic flashes of controversy.
The Quebec question erupted after her appointment; there was the war of words over whether she, a viceroy, and not just the Queen could be called, “head of state”; the seal-skinning earned unflattering headlines internationally but widespread support in Canada; and there was the time she was publicly corrected for confusing B.C.’s Coastal Mountains with the Rockies.
And, of course, there was the most contentious moment of all: her historic decision to toss Prime Minister Stephen Harper a lifeline when he was on the verge of being toppled by an opposition coalition in December 2008.
Harper apparently considered his request to prorogue Parliament a simple one. But Jean’s decision to let him languish for two hours before agreeing signalled, some insiders suggest, an indellible sour note in their relationship.
Jean now begins a trip to four countries, including war-ravaged Congo, where an estimated 5 million people have been killed in ongoing conflicts.
Jean said she’s eager to meet people there to hear their stories, and help convey them to Canadians.
Canada is considering an offer to lead a United Nations peacekeeping force already operating in the country. An announcement is expected within weeks.
Government sources caution that any peacekeeping contingent would likely play a leadership role, but still be relatively small — with perhaps just 100 soldiers.
“The UN request is for a force commander,” one official said. “The UN is not being pressed to send more troops.”
The conflict is the deadliest since the Second World War — and is, in fact, often referred to as Africa’s world war. It involves armies and rebel factions in several neighbouring countries, each fighting for territorial power and natural resource wealth.
“These people are the great forgotten,” Jean said of Africa’s war victims. “We need to go meet them. We need to listen to them. We need to report on them.”
Canada, she said, should be “flattered” that the world holds our military in high enough regard that it would be invited to take a lead role in the conflict.
There are currently 12 Canadian soldiers in the Congo. They are managing logistics, and helping with human-rights enforcement initiatives like recording sexual assault cases.
Rape by soldiers and rebels is so shockingly prevalent in eastern Congo that, according to people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, that women not only won’t go outside at night but they express fear at walking around in their own homes.
The Governor General’s 10-day trip will also take her to Rwanda and Cape Verde.