One-time refugee plays key role in Canada crisis

Thu Dec 4, 2008 4:56pm EST
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By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - When Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Canada's governor general to suspend Parliament on Thursday, he put his fate in the hands of a one-time refugee from Haiti whose background was journalism not politics.

Governor General Michaelle Jean, who represents Canada's head of state, Queen Elizabeth, agreed to Harper's request to suspend Parliament until late January as he fights to keep his minority Conservative government alive.

As the queen's representative, Jean plays a mostly ceremonial role in government. She presides over the swearing-in of the prime minister, chief justices and cabinet ministers, and formally signs legislation into law. She is also nominally Canada's commander-in-chief.

But when it comes to the constitution, her word is final.

The agreement to suspend -- or prorogue -- Parliament lets Harper avoid a no-confidence vote on Monday that he was expected to lose as opposition parties push forward their plan to replace the Conservatives with a coalition government.

Jean, 51, often cited for her elegant style, was amid the pomp of a state visit to Europe when Canada's biggest political crisis in decades erupted, forcing her to quickly return home this week to make what could be the first of several difficult constitutional decisions.

Harper and Jean held a lengthy private meeting on Thursday morning in Ottawa. She had already been asked via letter from the Liberal, New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois parties to reject his request, and they have denounced Harper's proposal as undemocratic.

Jean has reportedly been consulting constitutional experts since the crisis erupted. She could have rejected Harper's request, although many observers had expected she would accept the proposal in at least some form.   Continued...

<p>The Governor General of Canada Michaelle Jean listens as Slovenia's President Danilo Turk speaks during a news conference during her visit to Slovenia at castle Brdo near Kranj December 3, 2008. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic</p>