New Governor General Jean Wows Them in Winnipeg

"I HATE SHOPPING," says Michaëlle JEAN. "I do it all in one day, power shopping." But she loves clothes. After three days of intense governor-generalling in Winnipeg, Jean plops down on a sofa in the front room at the Manitoba lieutenant governor's house, tucks her high-heeled shoe up underneath her thigh, lets out an exhausted sigh, and happily gabs about fashion. "I do wear a lot of Canadian designers," says Jean, citing Philippe Dubuc, Michel Desjardins, Harricana, Marie Saint Pierre. "But I have to confess that I also buy from French designers when I go to France. I try to dress as simple as possible, but very feminine too. I'm proud to be a woman, I enjoy it."

Just watch Her Excellency walk, and you'll see what she means. Even in her most formal duties, such as inspecting the honour guard, Jean moves with a sultry swagger, shoulders back, arms and hips a-swinging. This looseness, this sexiness, helped draw Winnipeggers to the 48-year-old bombshell last week, when she and her 61-year-old filmmaker husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, made their first official visit, to Manitoba. (They left daughter Marie-Eden, six, in Ottawa, so she wouldn't miss school. "We call her twice a day," says Jean. "Today she told us she was in great shape, because she took the dog out. She wanted a dog, but I am taking care of Chouka. So I think this trip is going to give her back the responsibility.")

Winnipeggers responded to Jean as if she were Angelina Jolie, not a mere vice-regal. "Our Governor General kicks ass," exclaimed one lip-ringed teenage girl, making her way up the stairs of the legislative building after a welcome ceremony. "She's gorgeous." The movie star treatment included red carpets, photographers, autograph-seekers and swarms of fans shouting "woo-whoo." One guy even yelled, "You go, girl." Jean's hair and makeup were always perfect, and she was a natural in front of the cameras - even in a mob of people, she'd find the photographer and stare directly into the lens. She made eye contact with just about everyone, ducking around her phalanx of 12 security types to wave to someone she couldn't seem to get to. Then there were those smiles - one is closed-mouthed and demure, the other wide open and completely unaffected.

Our new Governor General combines Hollywood-style glamour with an affectionate demeanor. She actually pulls people close to her, tenderly grabbing children by the back of the neck to bring them in for an embrace, stroking the hair of grown women, and all but batting her eyes at smitten grandfathers. "She's very huggy," says Gladys Cook, 76, a substance-abuse counsellor and Order of Manitoba recipient who met Jean at a government dinner. "That's why I like her." Jean's staff is still getting used to it. "People want to be close to her and touch her, and she wants the same," says press secretary Randy Mylyk, "I'm letting it happen. There's a mutual desire to connect - who am I to stop it."

Employees who've also worked for her predecessor, Adrienne CLARKSON, notice the differences. With Clarkson there were crowds, observes Melanie Kwong, assistant to Lafond, but not this crush of people. And there used to be more curtsying and people not knowing what to do. "But Michaëlle's a magnet," says Kwong, adding that Jean seems to "thrive" on the close contact.

In her attire, though, Jean seems more conservative than the often flamboyantly dressed Clarkson. Jean's wardrobe, as she herself notes, is flattering but simple, consisting of neutral-coloured skirt and jacket sets. There's a game to be played in finding the flashy touch she adds to every outfit: a hem of lace on a long grey skirt, a silk-scarf belt on a plain black dress, loose red sleeves peeking out of a brown tweed jacket. In Winnipeg, she was wearing only silver jewellery - plain hoop earrings, a simple bracelet and three understated rings. And she alternated between two pairs of black shoes, one sensible, the other spike-heeled and pointy.

Jean is just as tame with her food and drink consumption. At a dinner thrown by the Manitoba government, she started the night with a toast, but had only a sip of her white wine after that. "And she just picked at her food, ate a little bit of everything, including the dessert," said her waitress at the Fort Garry Hotel. So, a good chunk of the dry-rub rib-eye with roasted radish and broccolini went to waste.

Too bad Lafond was sitting one table over - he might have finished it. At a lunch the following day with Manitoba filmmakers, he downed a full glass of red wine and a glass of white and ate everything on his plate, cleaning up the remaining sauce and potatoes with a piece of bread. And his staff couldn't drag him away from the table until he finished his crème brûlée.

At first glance Lafond - who could be seen wiping the rain off his bald head at an outdoor ceremony - resembles Jim Carrey's Count Olaf in the Lemony Snicket movie. But he grows handsomer by the minute thanks to his playful personality. If he's a separatist (as some have speculated), he's a particularly affable one - tipping his hat to old ladies and reaching to squeeze the shoulders of most people he passes. At the filmmakers lunch, he was every bit the French intellectual-philosopher-documentarian, but he treated the young group like peers and balked at being called "your Excellency."

Unprovoked, he defends his new role. "For me, there was no contradiction between what I did, documentary films and Rideau Hall. In this job I can defend and struggle for the same values as with my art. It is clear for me. I didn't invent Rideau Hall, it's there - like Parliament, it is there. We have to use that for the best."

Lafond won't undertake any new films during Jean's term, but there are a couple he must finish. The first, with a working title of Histoire d'Hassan and about a black American living in the Middle East, could spark more controversy for the couple if it takes a negative stance against the U.S. Surely it couldn't cause more trouble than his now-infamous 1991 film La manière nègre - about Martinique's anti-colonialist poet, Aimé Césaire - in which Jean, Quebec sovereignists and others are seen toasting independence.

Jean says that only one person in Winnipeg expressed concern to her over that toast. And she's prepared to defend herself. "I think independence is a wonderful value that we all share as Canadians," she told Maclean's. "And once you see the film, you realize that I was there to talk about the Haitian experience and Haitian history. There's no reason for me to have regret, because I know exactly what I was talking about. Independence was a great value for Haiti, independence is a great value for women and for every Canadian because it is part of who we are. And that doesn't mean that I support the separatist movement in Quebec. What I love about documentary films is they question history, question reality, they bring facts and they come with a point of view."

While Jean will fight to the death for artistic freedom, she's just as passionate about community services and programs, especially for children and battered women (early in her career she worked with women's shelters in Quebec). While touring one such facility for Winnipeg women, she listened to residents' stories. "We feel like we've found a kindred spirit," said Marlene Bertrand, director of Manitoba's family violence prevention program. "And you should have seen the women she spoke to, they were going back in for second hugs."

Affection seems to be what people want most from Jean. During an assembly at Children of the Earth, an all-native school, the Governor General asked shy Charlene Smith, 17, about her goals and dreams. It was a tearful moment when Smith opened up in front of a room of strangers, saying, "I don't want to end up on the streets. I want a job. I want to take care of myself and take care of my family." Jean hit back with a simple, "You deserve it," before pulling her in for a double-cheek kiss. Later, two tough-looking 15-year-olds, outside smoking, couldn't hide their jealousy. "I wanted to give her a kiss and hug," said Rachel Cameron. Her friend Becky McKay laughed in agreement - "Damn Charlene."

It's at functions with specific groups that Jean really seems to make connections. She promised a group of Franco-Manitobans, "You will always have an ally in me, in terms of the French language and the place it should have in the country." And at Children of the Earth, when a boy asked how she could help preserve traditional life, she declared: "I think Aboriginal cultures are ... the heritage of every Canadian, every person in this country. Your songs, I listen to them and they go straight to my heart, and I feel they're mine too."

Jean's more of a listener than a talker. The former TV journalist wants to hear people's stories and what they have to say about their Canada. But her job calls for speechifying. And while the Winnipeg crowds seemed to hang on her every word, her formal talks tended to be dense with over-poetic language, platitudes, clichés and repetitive mentions of "breaking down solitudes" and being "a citizen among equals" and "a woman of action." It doesn't help that her delivery can be painfully slow.

The speeches are collaborations between Jean and Alain-Bernard Marchand, a poet who has also written speeches for federal cabinet ministers. They go for walks and have long discussions, Marchand says. "We come from the same generation - she's a little older - and we have similar backgrounds. She studied Italian literature, I studied French literature, and we love the same Canadian authors and poets." Now the two commiserate about their shared love, Montreal. "I miss it," says Jean, almost swooning. "It's my city."

Winnipeggers may be sorry to hear her heart lies elsewhere, but there's solace in the offing. This week, some real movie stars ride into town to shoot scenes for a Jesse James flick. If Winnipeg thinks Michaëlle and Jean-Daniel are glamorous, wait till they get a load of Brad and Angelina.

Maclean's October 31, 2005