After the relatively low-key time of Lord Bessborough, the new Governor General would bring a passion for Canada that extended back decades. He was a man who loved history, writing and the idea of a Canadian national identity. He was John Buchan, the First Baron Tweedsmuir. Throughout this episode, I will refer to him as Buchan.
Buchan was born on Aug. 26, 1875 to John and Helen Buchan. His father was a Free Church of Scotland minister and as a child due to holidays in Scotland, he would develop a love of scenery, wildlife and walking.
As a child, he attended the Hutcheson’s Boys’ Grammar School in Glasgow, and he would be accepted into the University of Glasgow at the age of 17, where he studied classics. He would later attend Harvard on a scholarship and won several essay prizes for his writing.
With a deep love, and talent, for writing, Buchan had a desire to become an author but before he did that, he would take some different paths.
In 1901, he served as the private secretary to Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner for Southern Africa. The area of South Africa would later become a common setting for his writing. The same year he was working as a private secretary, he would be called to the bar but he never did work as a lawyer.
On July 15, 1907, he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, the cousin of the Duke of Westminster. Together, the couple would have four children, one of whom would have a strong connection to Canada. John Buchan Jr., would work for the Hudson’s Bay Company and when Canada joined the Second World War, he joined the Governor General’s Foot Guards and was on the first troopship to England in 1939. He would see active service and would command a famous Canadian by the name of Farley Mowat. Mowat would describe him as quote:
“Barely 30 years of age, soft-spoken, kindly, with a slight tendency to stutter, he was a tall fair-haired English romantic out of another age, his famous father’s perhaps. Tweedie, as we called him behind his back, had as a youth sought high adventure, but until this hour real adventure in the grand tradition had eluded him.”
In 1910, Buchan, the father not the son, wrote Prester John, the first of his adventure novels. Set in South Africa, it became a hit but Buchan was unable to enjoy the success as he was dealing with terrible ulcers at the time.
In 1911, he would run for Parliament and was progressive for his time, supporting women’s suffrage, national insurance, limiting the powers of the House of Lords and opposing the class hatred he saw being fostered by Liberal politicians.
When the First World War broke out, Buchan began to write for the British War Propaganda Bureau, while also working as a correspondent for The Times. He got the position after he was declared medically unfit for active service and was confined to a bed for the first months of the war.
In 1915, he published his most famous book, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was a spy-thriller set just before the outbreak of the war. With this book, many credit Buchan with being a creator of the espionage novel genre. His novels often had the spy chase at the centre of the narrative, but due to other authors like Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, his contributions to the genre have often been overlooked. The success of this book would lead to four more books in the series, all following the hero Richard Hannay.
In 1917, Buchan was made the Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook, which he called the toughest job he ever had.
After the war, Buchan turned to writing historical subjects, along with his thriller novels. He would become the president of the Scottish Historical Society, and a trustee of the National Library of Scotland.
In 1927, he was elected to the House of Commons.
In 1935, he would see his work, The Thirty-Nine Steps, adapted into a movie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That same year, Buchan was appointed to the Order of St. Michael and St. George. He was also made the First Baron Tweedsmuir by King George V on June 1, 1935. He was selected for the title due to his association with the village of the same name at the head of the River Tweed. As well, Lord Buchan was already taken at the time.
The reason he was elevated to peerage was because he was going to be the new Governor General of Canada, on the recommendation of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Opposition leader William Lyon Mackenzie King recommended that Buchan serve as viceroy as a commoner but the King would not allow this.
King would write in his diary about the appointment of Buchan as Governor General that he was inwardly delighted over the appointment. He would add quote:
“I gave word to the press that I was greatly pleased and that I regarded the appointment as an excellent one.”
King and Buchan had known each other for some time. Buchan and his wife had visited with King on his estate, Kingsmere, in 1924. At the time, King would say of Buchan quote:
“I know no man I would rather have as a friend, a beautiful, noble soul, kindly and generous, in thought and word and act, informed as few men in this world have ever been, modest, humble, true, man after God’s own heart.”
At the time, Buchan had also become disillusioned with politics and his arrival in Canada would give him a fresh outlook on the role of a public figure.
As Buchan approached Canada, Prime Minister King would send a greeting to him over the wireless stating quote:
“My colleagues and I are looking forward with delight to greeting you in person upon your arrival at Canada’s ancient capital, and of renewing our welcome at Ottawa.”
On Nov 4, 1935, Buchan was sworn in as the new Governor General of Canada. When Buchan arrived in Canada, he found R.B. Bennett was out as prime minister and King was now back in the top post. It was also unusual as this was the first time that a Governor General was sworn in at night, as his ship was delayed by stormy weather.
At his ceremony, Buchan would say quote:
“You have welcomed not only His Majesty’s representative, but my wife and myself, in words so kind that I find it hard to make an adequate reply. We are looking forward to five years of duties, and also of happiness. For we have come to a land which we already know and love, a land in which we have many friends them, among whom, Mr. Prime Minister, one of the oldest and most valued is yourself.”
King would present the bible for Buchan to swear upon, and he would write about the ceremony in his diary stating quote:
“I kept looking at Buchan as I did and he kept returning my look with a smile of delight which it was easy to discern. It was a knowing look between each of us. I read what was written as if I meant it, there was no sycophancy about it. It was democratic from the first word and in simple, straight honest English with the emphasis on the right words and words with true and right values throughout.”
King would also describe Buchan in his diary that day, stating that he was a frail looking individual, who was puritanical in type like Cromwell in appearance, but smaller than one should expect.
King would write quote:
“As he sat in his chair, the shadow of the little device, microphone, hanging above, the light from behind cast it as a shadow on the red covering at the back of the seat, it was like a light in the Catholic churches, the flame in a hanging chalice, to me as the symbol of the holy grail, like the dove descending, the spirit of God.”
Coming to Canada, Buchan had a deep knowledge of the country having written about the country as a journalist and been a keen follower of the actions of the Canadian forces during the First World War.
Throughout his time as Governor General, Buchan continued to write and set a goal for himself to travel the length and breadth of the country. He said of his job quote:
“A Governor General is in a unique position for it is his duty to know the whole of Canada and all the various types of her people.”
He would also say of his position, quote:
“I am not a grandee of noble blood and estate. I’d be foolish to pretend to the traditions of my predecessors. But I am a man of worldly experience in a number of fields, and I must use this experience. I must meet all ranks of Canadians, must learn all colors of thought, understand conflicting points of view.”
A typical day for the Governor General consisted of rising between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., having a good breakfast but he typically did not have tea. He would spend part of the morning reading the newspaper and by 10 a.m. would walk around the Rideau Hall grounds. By 10:30 a.m., he was back at his desk, beginning his work day. From 12:15 p.m. to 12:45 p.m., he would receive callers, before eating lunch. Then it was back to work, and by 5 p.m. he was receiving callers again for half an hour. At 8:15 p.m., he was eating supper, but rarely did the family get to eat together just themselves as there were often guests.
As such, he would travel from coast to coast and into the Arctic to see regular Canadians. During a visit to Windsor, he spent some time in an automobile factory, where he asked many questions of the staff about the inner-workings of the factory, while also signing books for the staff.
By 1939, Buchan had travelled about 112,000 kilometres around the country. During one trip in 1937, he would fly all the way to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, a six hour flight from Fort Smith that was part of a longer 7,000 kilometre expedition by land, sea and air that began in Edmonton.
As governor general, Buchan encouraged a Canadian national identity, which angered some imperialists. In Montreal in 1937, he said quote:
“A Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.”
The Montreal Gazette would call him disloyal over the comment.
Buchan also felt that the ethic groups within Canada should retain their individuality as each made up the national character. This was a forerunner to multiculturalism, which became an official policy in the 1970s.
Buchan was an advocate for the Indigenous as well, and would agree to assist the Cree in obtaining a copy of the treaty between Queen Victoria and the Indigenous chiefs that had been signed decades ago. He would tell an Indigenous delegation quote:
“It should not be hard to get a copy of the parchment.”
In 1936, he would visit the Indigenous in Carleton, Saskatchewan, where he was given the name of Chief Okemow Otataowkew by the Cree, which means Teller of Tales. He would receive a head dress and a robe that was cast about his shoulders. The entire ceremony was officiated by Chief Sam Swimmer of the Sweet Grass Cree Nation, who was the nephew of Chief Poundmaker. Buchan would tell the chiefs, quote:
“Brother chiefs, I am most happy on this occasion you have done me a great honor in taking me into your brotherhood.”
On Jan. 13, 1936, Buchan would see his first hockey game, while admitting he had played hockey as a boy in England but it differed heavily from the hockey game he had just watched. In the game, the Ottawa Senators defeated the Montreal Victorias 6-2 in front of 4,000 fans. Buchan would say he was thrilled with the sustained action and the dexterous skating ability and the speed of the game. Buchan also shook hands with each player before the game, and also dropped the puck to open the game.
The year 1936 would be an odd one for Buchan. King George V died in January 1936 and was succeeded by his son King Edward VIII. Of course, he would abdicate the throne on Dec. 11, bringing in his younger brother King George VI. In the space of 12 months, Buchan commented to Mackenzie King, that he had represented three kings in Canada.
In 1937, Buchan would take his longest journey around Canada, travelling for 66 days in the summer, covering 19,000 kilometres throughout the Canadian North and the Western provinces. This trip gave Buchan the distinction of traveling more than any other Governor General before him.
One of the biggest events in the history of Canada would occur in May and June 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the country on the first Royal Visit in Canadian history. Buchan had actually conceived of the idea of the Royal Visit and he wanted to show Canada’s status as an independent kingdom within the Commonwealth. He would put a lot of effort into getting the King to agree, which he did, including going to London to meet the King directly. The King would finally agree in the summer of 1938.
While the King and Queen were in Canada, Buchan retired to Rideau Hall for the tour stating that while ethe King was in Canada, quote:
“I cease to be viceroy and retain only a shadowy legal existence as Governor General in Council.”
As Governor General, Buchan would write his autobiography Memory Hold-The-Door, as well as works on the history of Canada. He would also establish the first proper library at Rideau Hall, and he founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which remain the top literary prize in Canada.
By August 1939, with his time as Governor General coming to an end, Buchan was popular enough that Prime Minister King began looking at extending Buchan’s time in Canada. At that point, no Governor General had served for more than seven years, which was what Earl Grey served from 1904 to 1911. At the time, many knew that Buchan’s health was not perfect, but that did not seem to bother King.
Unfortunately, less than a year later, Buchan’s time as Governor General would come to an end for a tragic reason.
In the morning of Feb. 6, 1940, while in his bathroom, Buchan hit his head, suffering a severe head injury.
King would describe receiving a phone call from Willis O’Connor stating that Buchan had suffered an accident. He would relate in his diary that Buchan had been shaving in the bathroom and fallen into the bath, which was empty at the time. It was his habit to shave first and then bathe before having his breakfast in bed. As his servant brought breakfast, he found that Buchan was not in his bed. He went to the bathroom and found him in the bathtub, with a lot of blood at the back of his head, only partially unconscious and semi-delirious. He was then moved to his bed when a Dr. Gunn was phoned. King learned later in the morning and told that Buchan had had a stroke in the bathroom that caused his fall. King would then begin crafting a message to Canadians that morning and he would write in his diary that it quote:
“Required all one’s strength and endurance to carry through the next three months. Happily, my faith is strong.”
When the press began to call, King instructed his staff to not refer to it as an accident, but a fall as he felt it would sound better to the public. It would be reported that he had had a fall in his room while dressing, but had sustained only a mild concussion.
King learned later in the day that it was not a stroke after all, but that Buchan could not move his right arm or shoulder. Buchan was able to open his eyes and stick out his tongue when asked to by the doctor, and he could recognize his wife. Buchan’s wife would visit King and he would relate what she said in his diary, stating quote:
“She told me that he had apparently finished shaving and must have had some kind of giddiness. Had gone to sit on the side of the bath. Spoke of Government House baths as being of heavy porcelain. That he had fallen over and struck his head and had been found lying down in the bath with his head bleeding and quite delirious.”
After the meeting, King was again told that it was possibly not a stroke, but there was still the chance it was. King was told that the Governor General would have to stay in bed for up to two months, and if he survived, he would not be able to assume the duties of Governor General.
Celebrated neurologist Wilder Penfield would also be called in to assess Buchan’s condition.
On Feb. 7, the press reported that Buchan was improving and resting comfortably. The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:
“He has steadily improved and is now conscious and is resting comfortably.”
By Feb. 8, King had phoned Lord Brockington to tell him that he felt Buchan would not last much longer. The Victoria Times Colonist would report that day quote:
“Lord Tweedsmuir spent a restless night and his condition this morning gives rise to grave anxiety on account of his increasing weakness.”
Buchan would be placed aboard a special train for Montreal’s Neurological Institute at the Royal Victoria Hospital where Dr. Penfield was headquartered. He would go through an emergency operation which was done to relieve the intracranial pressure that occurred when he hit his head.
On Feb. 10, it was stated in the Ottawa Journal that the condition of Buchan had improved, but he would go through a second operation in Montreal to relieve pressure on his brain.
On Feb. 11, 1940, Buchan, the Governor General of Canada, was dead. Upon his death at 7:13 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., when the Chief Justice was sworn in as the acting Governor General, Canada was without any representative of the British Crown.
King would write in his diary quote:
“So far as anyone within Canada was concerned, I was practically alone in the government of our country at least for those hours.”
King would announce to the country the news over the radio stating quote:
“In the passing of His Excellency, the people of Canada have lost one of the greatest and most revered of their Governors General, and a friend who, from the day of his arrival in this country, dedicated his life to their service.”
President Franklin Roosevelt would convey his condolences to Lady Tweedsmuir, stating quote:
“I was shocked and greatly grieved to learn of Lord Tweedsmuir’s death. Mrs. Roosevelt and I recall with pleasure and affection meetings with Lord Tweedsmuir and you and send you our sincere sympathy in your great loss.”
George Drew, the Conservative leader in Ontario would state that the Governor General was quote:
“a demonstration of all that is good and decent and worthwhile in the British way of life.”
At the time of his death, both of his sons were active in the military and the war effort.
Buchan would lie in state in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill, and then Buchan was given a state funeral in Canada. His ashes were then returned to England for burial.
Across Canada, schools would close on the day that the funeral was held, to pay tribute to the Governor General.
King would be deeply impacted by the death of Buchan. One week after his death on Feb. 18, 1940, he would attend church and find significance in a hymn, stated to be hymn 629. He felt that the hymn, titled Recover With The Lord, was a direct message from Buchan. On the page were the words “Faints to reach the land I love”, written to music. He would state in his diary quote:
“If it were not in the book before my eyes, I could not believe that this could possibly be true. Clearly it was to let me see that Buchan was sending me the message that his fainting had brought him into the bright inheritance of saints which are lying just above. If one asked oneself how could one friend let another understand the significance of his death from the hereafter, using only the materials of the earth for the purpose, I wonder if so much could be placed in so small a place.”
King would then add up the numbers of 629, which came to 17, a number he felt had great significance in his life.
Over the course of his life, Buchan wrote over 100 works that include 30 novels and seven collections of short stories. Recently, his work has come under scrutiny due to its attitudes towards race.
In British Columbia, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park is named for him to commemorate his visit to the park in 1937. He would write quote:
“I have now travelled over most of Canada and have seen many wonderful things but I have seen nothing more beautiful and more wonderful than the great park which British Columbia has done me the honour to call by my name.”
Tweedsmuir Peak is named for him, as are several streets throughout Canada and a town in Saskatchewan. Seven schools in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario are also named for him.
I’ll finish this episode with what the Montreal Star said of Buchan days before his death, stating quote:
“The Governor General’s broad humanitarian attitude towards life, his capacity for grasping problems of agriculture, forestry and other great industries, that are the lifeblood of the Canadian people, his keen sense of humour, his fine democratic spirit, and above all his all-embracing sympathies have enabled him to achieve closer contact with the people than any former occupant of his high office.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, National Library of Scotland, Wikipedia, Editoreric.com, Library and Archives Canada, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Journal, Vancouver Province, Windsor Star, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Calgary Herald, Victoria Times Colonist, Montreal Star
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