OTTAWA (CP) - She once famously raised a toast with prominent Quebec sovereigntists, but Michaelle Jean has now tossed aside the rationale for her home province's independence.
The Governor General rejects the notion that Quebec has been either mistreated or hampered by its attachment to Canada.
"I never saw us, today's Quebecers, as being on bended knee, oppressed, and colonized," Jean said in a recent French-language interview with The Canadian Press.
"We have plenty of power and are a rich society, with a voice in the world."
Jean herself drew almost surreal levels of international attention last month as she was followed through Africa by jubilant crowds that included everyone from shoeless villagers and dancing schoolchildren to local dignitaries.
She plans to follow those first state visits with a trip to Afghanistan in 2007.
In a wide-ranging interview last month, Jean declined to answer when asked whether Quebec was a nation and said it would be inappropriate for her to wade into the political debate that was raging at the time.
But she did say her home province is a unique entity within Canada - by virtue of its language, culture and civil code - and noted that it has long desired such recognition.
Jean once felt compelled to issue a press release announcing that she and her husband had never "adhered" to the sovereigntist ideology.
She made the move amid controversy last year following the release of a 13-year-old video that showed her raising a glass with several sovereigntists as they toasted independence.
She says independence would weaken Quebec.
"We live in a world where large alliances are important. I'm among the Quebecers who feel that way," she said.
"I believe in the federation. The very definition of federation means coming together. I like that idea, of coming together. To bring together your strengths, your imagination, your ideas, your creativity.
"That's how I want to live."
Jean bluntly admits she didn't know the rest of Canada very well before she took office last year.
Her personal CV had been lengthy: Haitian-born refugee, battered-women's activist, Italian teacher, cancer-survivor, television journalist, and mother of an adopted daughter.
But outside her home province her experience of Canada had been limited to visits to Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba.
"Ask Canadians and one out of three will answer like me - no, I don't think I knew it well," she says.
"I don't think we know this country well - all its subtleties, all its nuances, all its faces and realities."
What has most fascinated her in her travels, she says, is how similar Canadians are from coast to coast.
She says she hears the same concerns about the same problems, like housing shortages and spousal abuse, wherever she travels.
"What interests me isn't our differences," she says.
"We've focused so very, very much on our differences. It's understandable. Sometime in order to define yourself, you do it by focusing on your differences from others.
"But what I've discovered is how much we have in common - how many common concerns we have."
She says every Canadian should have the same privilege of getting to know the country, and she recently called for travel subsidies to spur the domestic tourism industry.
Somehow those remarks last September triggered a furor in her home province. They were reported and interpreted in Quebec to suggest she was singling out Quebecers and lecturing them alone to get out more.
It was not the only time Jean found herself under fire in the Quebec media.
There is a popular urban legend in the province - fuelled by misleading media reports - that Jean was drunk during a public speech last year.
In that 2005 address to Ottawa's press gallery dinner, she waved a wine glass as a stage prop during a speech that was intended as a spoof, at an annual event where political figures are expected to make fun of themselves.
There was no mention in any of the reports casting aspersions on Jean that at that same event then-prime minister Paul Martin pretended to speak like a schoolgirl and NDP Leader Jack Layton sang an entire song about how he had no principles.
Jean says she expected to take some flak back home when she agreed to become the Canadian representative of the British monarchy.
She shakes her head when asked whether she considered quitting during those controversies, or during the one following her appointment.
"No, never. Never. Even in the difficult moments - it can hurt on the personal level - what's most important is learning from it," she said.
"It only makes you stronger. . . . You can't say, 'Oh my god, what am I doing here?' It's only obvious that if a Quebec woman enters that role it won't be unanimously popular."
She shakes her head again when asked whether she had ever considered entering politics at any point in her life.
Jean says the ceremonial role of Governor General suits her just fine and allows her to make a difference in her own way.
"People say, 'But it's just a symbolic role,' " she said.
"Well, symbols are powerful. Symbols speak. Symbols have an impact. . . .
"I don't always envy the politicians. They have constraints, a responsibility to follow the party line."
The ceremonial nature of the job hardly seemed to matter to the tens of thousands who joyfully greeted Jean recently during her five-country tour of Africa.
There is a common theme to the trips she makes at home and abroad.
It is that even in the most struggling places, in the face of the most intractable social problems, there are people working every day to defeat misery and cynicism.
In Africa they include peacekeeping teachers, medical workers, microfinance experts, and villagers in rural Mali who defeated malnutrition with better-quality crops and cultivation techniques.
Jean's visit generated a few headlines back home about some of these success stories and about the Canadians who played a role in them.
It was nothing compared with the avalanche of coverage she received from the African media.
A memorable example came when she urged Mali's national parliament to enact a long-stalled bill that would let women own property, gain an inheritance and seek a divorce.
The next day a leading Malian newspaper columnist compared her to legendary athletes Muhammad Ali and soccer star Pele as symbols of black pride.
In Algeria, the former television journalist held a roundtable discussion with colleagues there who saw many of their own die during the country's recent civil war.
She spoke to them about how reporters in her native Haiti also braved intimidation and violence as they reported on that country's struggle to become a democracy.
Jean says she's still fighting the same battles as Governor General that she did when she reported on social problems and hosted documentaries at Radio-Canada.
"I'd rather discuss with people what they can accomplish - about their power over their own lives - instead of about their powerlessness," she said.
"To me, powerless is like a provocation. I like to defy it. And that's what I felt throughout (the Africa) trip."
Copyright © 2006 Canadian Press