GG wraps up African tour

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Stresses need for bigger Canadian role

Michaelle Jean recalls the very first question she faced from a Canadian journalist when she stepped off the plane on her first visit to sub-Saharan Africa four years ago.

"What's the point of coming here on taxpayers' money?" Jean says, recalling that exchange.

She knows people are asking the same question now as she wraps up another African tour in her final months as Governor General.

Sal Island, Cape Verde -

Michaelle Jean recalls the very first question she faced from a Canadian journalist when she stepped off the plane on her first visit to sub-Saharan Africa four years ago.

"What's the point of coming here on taxpayers' money?" Jean says, recalling that exchange.

She knows people are asking the same question now as she wraps up another African tour in her final months as Governor General.

"So I said, 'Don't you think Canadians care?' I believe Canadians care, and they want to know what impact our co-operation projects and partnership projects with African countries have.

"They want to see how we are making a difference."

That was 2006. Jean returned home Saturday from her third, and likely final, visit to the continent as Governor General.

The modus operandi hasn't changed. Her delegations have included bureaucrats who take part in meetings with national leaders. There have been Canadians from various walks of life, ranging from business leaders hungry for contracts in the region; to human rights advocates working on health care, justice and transparency; to artists who set up cultural exchanges. They are accompanied by an RCMP security detail and military flight crew.

The average cost of a trip over the past four years by the Governor General has been $730,000, according to calculations by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The bills haven't been tallied up for this one yet, but her visit to eastern Europe last year cost $833,000, while trips to Haiti, Liberia and Norway all cost at least $123,000 - plus separate expenses like operating a Defence Department aircraft.

In a long, free-wheeling chat on the plane, members of her delegation described the value of this trip in terms a little harder to quantify.

They included a prominent Quebec judge, Louise Otis, who sat with the government of Congo to discuss a plan to help the country shake its distinction as the rape capital of the world.

It's a cheap, simple idea that would see roving units move from village to village to collect evidence like DNA samples from some of the hundreds of thousands of women raped with impunity by armed militias. The idea is that if men start fearing prosecution, they might stop raping.

Ben Peterson, a free press advocate, got 700 students in Rwanda to speak out against a crackdown on newspapers by asking for a show of hands while the country's foreign minister sat in the audience.

Lucien Bradet was busy talking business with the Congolese government, with new contacts he made in the president's office.

He leads a group that has helped score contracts in Africa for Canadian companies that do fish-farming, pastry-making and government tax-collection kits.

Bradet is, to put it mildly, exasperated by Canadian attitudes about Africa.

With Africa registering some of the world's biggest economic growth rates this year, endless mineral wealth in its soils, and a mind-boggling $1 trillion in estimated infrastructure contracts up for grabs in the next decade, he fears Canada's leaders are asleep at the switch.

"It's a shame that on Parliament Hill, Africa is seen as an aid receptacle and nothing else," said Bradet, head of the Canadian Council on Africa.

"We have things to offer. Why are we leaving it to others?"

Canada has made only four high-level visits since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006: three by Jean, and one where Harper, on his way home from a 2007 Commonwealth summit in Uganda, spent a half-day in Tanzania doing a photo op at a school and meeting the president.

Organizations: RCMP, Department of Foreign Affairs, Defence Department Canadian Council on Africa

Geographic location: Africa, Cape Verde, Eastern Europe Haiti Liberia Norway Quebec Canada Congo Rwanda Parliament Hill Uganda Tanzania

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