Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean driven to tears over quake
OTTAWA - Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean had just received word of the worst disaster to hit her Haitian homeland in two centuries of calamities when her American dinner guests arrived Tuesday evening.
The vice-regal, known for her heart-on-sleeve candour, held it together through a long, fraught evening getting urgent but sporadic reports at Rideau Hall with U.S. ambassador David Jacobson.
And she kept her composure during a highly unusual inside-the-war-room photo-op with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his crisis management team Wednesday.
Jean even managed to deliver, unbroken, a French-language statement to the media on the devastating 7.0 earthquake, when "fate once again turned against the people of Haiti."
But shortly after switching to English during a sombre press conference, the weight of Haiti's troubled history appeared to crush one of the country's most celebrated daughters.
Jean started to tear up when she spoke of the Canadian embassy staff in Port-au-Prince. She regained her composure only to lose it again when she mentioned "our dear friend" Hedi Annabi, the UN special representative in Haiti, who remains missing in the collapsed UN headquarters.
"Now more than ever, it is time for us to show our solidarity with the most vulnerable people in the Americas, our brothers and sisters in Haiti," Jean said, her hand suddenly flying to her mouth to stifle a sob, "whose courage is once again being so harshly tested."
She concluded her statement with a Creole message directly to her Haitian homeland.
"I was saying to the Haitian people they are not alone," a teary Jean told reporters before departing.
Despite the industrious efforts Wednesday of the Prime Minister's Office to showcase the concerted government action led by Stephen Harper, the stage belonged to Jean.
She had spent Tuesday evening with Jacobson, in one of those serendipitous dinner meetings arranged long in advance.
When U.S. President Barack Obama came to Canada last year, he struck up an enthusiastic rapport with Jean, revolving around Haiti.
But where the Jean-Obama exchange 11 months ago was tinged with hope -- the new president wanted to hear Jean's impressions of progress in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country -- Jacobson arrived at Rideau Hall at one of Haiti's darkest hours.
Jacobson and his wife were winding their way to a regularly scheduled dinner with Jean, and her husband, Daniel Lafond, when news of the Caribbean island tragedy flashed on his Blackberry.
"I believe she was aware of it just before we arrived," Jacobson told The Canadian Press.
As Jacobson recalled the evening -- careful not to betray diplomatic confidences -- he offered a glimpse into how the Governor General reacted to the worst natural disaster to strike her homeland in two centuries.
"She was very interested in making sure that the Canadian response was effective. But I think most of all, last night she was personally moved by the situation."
Jacobson said he didn't want to get into the specifics of the personal dinner table conversation.
"We had long discussions about buildings in Haiti that had collapsed, about people in Haiti, friends of hers in Haiti and the dire reports last night about the situation."
Jacobson helped fill in Jean on the sketchy details as the first disjointed dispatches flooded in to North America.
Almost one year ago, Jean was driven to tears when she travelled back to Haiti and saw the devastating aftermath of a series of hurricanes on rural farmers. She had hoped to build a better future for the country of her adopted daughter, building on a rapport begun with Obama during that brief encounter last February.
On Wednesday, Jean said she'd been in contact with a frail uncle in Haiti and that he was in a safe place.
But the day, she said, was not about her. All the Haitian diaspora, she said, is engulfed with a feeling of worry and of "selflessness."
"What is reassuring is to see that Canadians are not indifferent," said Jean. "We can see Canadians' solidarity at its best."