Early life and education
Jean's family hails from Haiti; she was born in Port-au-Prince, baptised at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and spent winters in that city and summers and weekends in Jacmel, her mother's hometown. Though her father worked as principal and teacher for an elite Protestant private school in Port-au-Prince, Jean was educated at home, as her parents did not want her swearing allegiance to the then Haitian president, François Duvalier, as all Haitian schoolchildren were required to do.
With her family, Jean fled Haiti to escape Duvalier's regime, under which Jean's father was arrested and tortured in 1965. Jean's father left for Canada in 1967 and Jean, her mother, and sister, arrived the following year; the family settled together at Thetford Mines, Quebec. Jean's father, however, became increasingly distant and violent, and her parents' marriage eventually fell apart; she, with her mother and sister, then moved to a basement apartment in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood of Montreal.
Jean received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Italian and Hispanic languages and literature from the University of Montreal, and, from 1984 to 1986, taught Italian Studies there, while completing her Master of Arts degree in comparative literature. She then went on with language and literature studies at the University of Florence, the University of Perugia, and the Catholic University of Milan. Besides French and English, Jean is fluent in Spanish, Italian, and Haitian Creole, and can read Portuguese.
Concurrent with her studies between 1979 and 1987, Jean coordinated a study on spousal abuse and worked at a women's shelter, which paved the way for her establishment of a network of shelters for women and children across Canada. She also involved herself in organizations dedicated to assisting immigrants to Canada obtain the entry they desired, and later worked for Employment and Immigration Canada and at the Conseil des Communautés culturelles du Québec, where Jean began writing about the experiences of immigrant women. She married French-born, Canadian filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, and the couple adopted as their daughter Marie-Éden, an orphaned child from Jacmel.