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.
The Conservatives were left with an expanded minority after the October 14 election, but the opposition parties said the government had lost the confidence of Parliament.
Jean, was born in Haiti but fled with her parents to Canada in 1968. She became a Canadian citizen after the government of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier stripped her family of Haitian citizenship.
She earned a Master of Arts in comparative literature at the University of Montreal, where she later taught. She also studied in Italy and is fluent in five languages.
Jean joined Canada’s public broadcaster CBC in 1988 and made her name with a series of documentaries focusing on people at the margins of society.
She is the first black person and only the third woman to serve as the country’s governor general.
“I have come a long way. My ancestors were slaves. I was born in Haiti, the poorest country in our hemisphere. I am a daughter of exiles driven from their native land by a dictatorial regime,” she said when she was nominated to her post in 1995 by then Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Her nomination was almost immediately met with controversy because of reports that she and her husband had supported independence for Quebec. But she said neither had supported the separatist ideology, and the controversy soon faded away.
She also renounced her French citizenship -- which she had acquired through her marriage -- closing another sensitive issue.
She is married to film-maker Jean-Daniel Lafond and the couple have a young daughter, Marie-Eden.
Harper asked Jean to shut down Parliament until January 26, a day before the Conservative government has promised to introduce an expedited budget to tackle the economic crisis.
The request for suspension was unprecedented. No prime minister had ever asked for Parliament to be suspended so soon after an election, and no prime minister had asked for a suspension to avoid a confidence vote in the House of Commons.
The opposition has said it will still push ahead with its plans unless Harper makes a “monumental change,” which could set the stage for Jean making another major decision next year on whether to send Canadians back to the polls again, or give the coalition government proposal a chance.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson