Hosted by

You can support Canadian History Ehx with a donation at

We have finally reached the point where the line of British aristocrats and military leaders who served as Governor General ends, and we now begin the Canadian Governors General.

It all begins with a man who came from one of the most prominent families in Canada and had a highly distinguished diplomatic career before he ever took on the mantle of Governor General, Vincent Massey.

Massey was born on Feb. 20, 1887 in Toronto to one of the wealthiest families in Canada. His father Chester was the grandson of Hart Massey, who created a farm-implement company called Massey Harris that would eventually become one of the largest companies in Canada. The family itself had come from Cheshire, England in 1630 and settled in North America, eventually finding their way up into Canada in 1802.

Vincent Massey’s brother Raymond would also make a name for himself becoming a celebrated actor who picked up an Academy Award nomination for his role in Lincoln in Illinois. He would then gain widespread fame as Dr. Gillespie on Dr. Kildare from 1961 to 1965. Raymond would say of his brother quote:

“I feel a definite sense of hero worship for him.”

As for Vincent Massey, he would attend St. Andrew’s College and then go on to the University of Toronto and then Oxford, earning a masters of arts in history. It was his time at Oxford that he would develop an appreciate for British traditions and he became known for his London-tailored clothes through his life. In 1907, he would enlist with the Queens Own Rifles of Canada as a militiaman.

That same year, he joined the Kappa Alpha Society, and met future prime minister and life-long friend William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Macleans would write two decades later quote:

“As a youth, he was wise beyond his years and found constant joy and profit in studying the thoughts and actions of the past.”

One year after graduating from the university, Massey donated $16,290 to the student’s fund so that they could build a student centre for extracurricular activities.

Coming back to Canada in 1913, Massey lectured at Victoria College until 1915 when he became an officer for the Military District No. 12 in Regina. While Massey did not serve overseas during the war, he would work with the Officer Training Corps.

The same year that he left Victoria College, he would marry Alice Parkin and the couple would have two children, Lionel and Hart. Through the marriage, Massey became the uncle of George Grant, a noted Canadian philosopher, and great-uncle to Michael Ignatieff, the future leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

In 1918, Massey would help establish the Massey Foundation with his family, which became the first art trust of its kind in Canada, funding new artistic and architectural projects.

In 1921, Massey made the decision to work with the family business and he became the president of the Massey-Harris Company, serving until 1925. The reason he left the company was because Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King appointed him as a minister without a portfolio in Parliament. King didn’t come to this decision lightly, and he wrote in his diary that MP Charles Stewart stated it was unwise to appoint Massey to the position. As for Massey, he would not accept right away. On Sept. 8, 1925, King wrote quote:

“I talked with Vincent Massey about coming in without portfolio. I could not get Massey to promise he would come in. Indeed he was inclined to decline but he is to think matters over and speak to me again.”

Massey would accept and prepare for the election. He would say a month before the election quote:

“I believe this election to be one of the most crucial in the history of Canada. Crucial because the very unity of the country is at stake.”

When the 1925 election came along, Massey failed to win a seat, losing by 650 votes, although some sources say it was 946 votes, and costing himself $16,000 in his campaign. That was no small amount, equivalent to $270,000 today.

At this point, his political career ended and his diplomatic career began. He would be appointed by King as the first ever envoy for Canada with full diplomatic credentials to a foreign capital when he became Canada’s first minister to the United States.

In 1926, he would be part of the Canadian delegation to the Imperial Conference, where the influential Balfour Declaration was drafted that would lead to huge constitutional changes in Canada related to the role of governors general and the monarch.

He would serve in this role until 1930 when the Liberals lost the federal election to the Conservatives. New prime minister R.B. Bennett did not want Massey to continue as the government’s representative because he was a Liberal and did not have the confidence of the Conservative government.

In 1933, he would become the President of the National Federation of Liberal Associations. Macleans would write that year quote:

“In this capacity, he is regarded by imaginative persons as a somewhat sinister figure who plans presently to depose Mackenzie King, the Gatineau nature lover. He is, however, quite content to let Mr. King be Prime Minister again, and has absolutely no personal ambition in his present endeavors as long as he becomes the next High Commissioner for Canada in London.”

When John Buchan became Governor General in 1935, Massey attended a private dinner with him, where he attempted to carve a turkey. The event is described as such, quote:

“Vincent is not the best of carvers and when the turkey slipped to the floor, platter and all, Vincent removed his coat, hung it neatly over his chair and continues to carve the turkey on the floor, asking his guests whether they preferred the white or the dark.”

For the next five years, Massey was out of the diplomatic world but after King returned to the role of Prime Minister in 1935, Massey was tapped to become the High Commissioner to Britain. He would hold this position until 1946 and was highly successful at it. During that election, Massey also served as the campaign manager for King, helping to portray King as a steady and experienced leader, to offset the lack of charisma of King and his poor speaking ability in public.

While the two were friends, Massey felt he would make a better prime minister than King, who he felt had muddled politics. Massey also believed that Canada was a British nation and the essence to being a Canadian was to adopt British traditions while abandoning French ones. Many felt that Massey had an air of snobbery, and King would appoint him to Britain feeling it was the best place for him.

Lord Cranborne would say of Massey quote:

“Fine chap, Vincent, but he does make one feel like a bit of a savage.”

In his role as the High Commissioner, he would represent Canada at the League of Nations, and serve as a trustee of the National Gallery. Arriving at Canada House in London, his secretary would be a man named Georges Vanier. Vanier would of course become the successor to Massey as Governor General of Canada.

Massey’s first year as the High Commissioner was not an easy one. He would have to deal with the death of King George V, the accession and abdication of King Edward VIII and the accession of King George VI. The abdication crisis would result in Massey developing a lifelong dislike for a British politician, who he called his least favourite British politician, Winston Churchill. Massey was did not feel that King Edward VIII should keep his throne if he were to marry an American woman who was twice-divorced. Massey felt Britain was the ideal every country should strive for and that view resulted in him wanting King Edward VIII to abdicate. Churchill, in contrast, felt the king should be able to keep his throne and marry Wallis Simpson. Massey would state that Churchill was a reckless adventurer who was exploiting the crisis for political gain.

When King George VI was coronated, Massey was one of the royal standard-bearers, a role he took immense pride in.

His time as the High Commissioner coincided with the rise of Nazi Germany. Influenced by his friend Lord Lothian, Massey had favourable views of Nazi Germany, believing the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh. Massey was very much in favour of appeasement and supported the Munich Agreement. He also worked with elected and non-elected individuals in the Canadian government to make it more difficult for Jewish refugees fleeing Europe to come to Canada, or using Canada as a stopover enroute to another country. As a result of this, 70 years later, a high school in Windsor would rename itself from Vincent Massey High School.

In 1939, as the world was on the brink of war, Massey would help to arrange the royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada from June to July 1939. He had been planning the visit since 1937 and worked closely with Lord Tweedsmuir to prepare for the visit. After the visit, Massey would state quote:

“The Royal visit to Canada was an event so happy in its conception, so gloriously successful in its achievement, and so fragrant in its memory, that any comment seems both inadequate and superfluous.”

As war approached, Massey became more accepting of Britain going to war rather than pursuing appeasement.

Massey, who again was deeply Anglophone, wanted Canada to do as much as possible to help Britain. Prime Minister King had been reluctant to take Canada to war and he wanted to minimize Canada’s role in the war in order to avoid the conscription crisis of 1917 in this new war. It would come to the point where King told the British government that Massey did not speak for Canada, leaving many to wonder what Massey’s role in England was exactly. Massey would play a major role in the creation of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, something he considered to be one of his greatest achievements.

At one point, Massey wrote King on an urgent matter and asked for a quick reply. A week later he still had no reply but spoke with a woman who had just received a 14-page handwritten letter from King discussing trivial matters. The incident did not endear King any further to Massey and the friendship would become more strained.

By 1943, King did an about-face on Canada being involved in the war. Instead of being opposed to the Canadian Army actually fighting in the war, he worried the war may end with Canada winning no victories, which he felt would ruin his political career. This would lead to a greater involvement in the war with troops from Canada, including the invasion of Sicily, Dieppe, D-Day and the Liberation of the Netherlands.

For his work as High Commissioner, King George VI made him a Companion of Honour in 1946. This title is limited to only the King and 65 other living individuals.

Returning to Canada in 1947, Massey served as the Chancellor of the University of Toronto from 1947 to 1953, the Chairman of the National Gallery of Canada from 1948 to 1952 and as the chair of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences in 1949.

That commission would be highly-influential and would hold 114 public hearings around Canada where it recommended the formation of the Canada Council. It would also lay the groundwork for the National Library of Canada.

There would be pain during this time for Massey as his wife Alice died in 1950.

In 1951, Macleans wrote a profile of the Massey family. Of Vincent Massey, the magazine wrote quote:

“Vincent Massey, a lean, ascetic figure with the hands of a concert pianist…the head of the Massey dynasty, he is also its product.”

On Feb. 1, 1952, Massey was selected to become the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada.

The selection of a Canadian as Governor General was met with controversy by some in Canada who criticized it as severing ties with Britain, and the fact that Massey was a commoner. As a widower, he was the first unmarried person to occupy the position of Governor General until Julie Payette in 2017.

Only five days after Massey was announced as the new Governor General, King George VI would die and Massey became the first representative of Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, every Governor General has only represented Queen Elizabeth II.

For Massey, he looked to John Buchan, a commoner who became Lord Tweedsmuir so he could serve as Governor General, for inspiration in his role. Massey was both a friend and admirer of Buchan and he would state he learned a lot from him.

On Feb. 28, 1952, Massey was sworn in as Governor General. The same day he was sworn in, Parliament was opened, marking the first time that both events happened on the same day.

The event was described by the Calgary Herald quote:

“Amid scenes of muted splendor, with black a prevailing note among onlookers, Right Honorable Vincent Massey, first Canadian to become Governor General of Canada, read the speech today, opening the new session of Parliament. With the minds of all dwelling upon the death of King George, the new Governor General opened with a tribute to his last majesty’s memory and an expression of the great love in which he was held by Canadians.”

Massey would say in his speech in the House of Commons, highlighting the fact that the Cold War was beginning, with an air of concern for Communism. He stated quote:

“The situation throughout the world continues to cause concern and to require my ministers to devote a great deal of attention to our external affairs. The government remains convinced that the nations of the free world must continue to increase their combined strength in order to ensure lasting peace and security.”

The first months of Massey’s time as Governor General were quiet due to the 16-week period of mourning after the King’s death.

When Queen Elizabeth II was coronated on June 2, 1953, Massey issued silver spoons to all Canadian children born on that day.

While there was criticism of appointing Massey, he would work to alleviate those fears of moving away from the Crown. He would say at one point quote:

“The Crown seems to have a universal appeal. Even foreign-born Canadians sense its symbolism of affection, authority and freedom. We are not moving away from the Crown. We are moving closer.”

As Governor General, Massey wanted to create a Canadian honours system but this would not happen during his term but it would lead to the formation of the Order of Canada. Massey would be one of the first individuals to be awarded the Order of Canada, only months before his death.

In 1953, Massey created the Governor General’s Awards for Architecture and he would support the arts heavily as Governor General. He would establish writer’s weekends at Rideau Hall to foster a Canadian literary identity and he would push for French and English to be taught in schools and for Canada to become a bilingual country.

Massey would journey across Canada by car, train and plane, but also by canoe and dog team when convenient modes of transportation were not available. During one trip in 1956, he would wear traditional Inuit clothing and attempted to catch fish through a hole dug in the ice. He would also suffer frostbite on his chin when he was out in temperatures that dipped below -30 Celsius. He would also fly over the North Pole, the first Governor General to do so, on his 10,000 mile, 17 day trip to visit the most isolated communities possible in the Canadian Arctic. At the North Pole, Massey would leave a canister that contained a square of silk from the Governor General’s standard. The Montreal Star stated quote:

“This was a pretty broad hint to every one who ever gets up around the pole, but eventually to the comrades who have been busiest of all not so very far on the opposite site of the strange international no-nation’s land which is the polar scape, that Canada has very vital interest, economically, politically, militarily, in the polar regions.”

On May 6, 1954, Massey was made an honorary member of the Ottawa Press Club, where he was admitted as a writer and not the Queen’s representative in Canada. Massey had written the book On Being Canadian, of which I will take a quote at the end of this episode.

Throughout his time as Governor General, Massey was well-liked by Canadians. A Royal Commission secretary admired him so much she named one of her kittens Vincent Massey. A few weeks later, that kitten was given to a young girl named Susie. Susie then went to a movie theatre and began laughing at a news reel when she heard the name Vincent Massey, believing it to be a cat’s name.

Outside of Canada, he was also widely respected. The Jewish National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem would open with the name Vincent Massey Hall. Mrs. William Riven, her first name is not given, would state quote:

“It is wonderful to think that every person entering the building will visit the Vincent Massey Hall and realize the close tie between our two countries.”

As Governor General, he would continue to have his taste for the finer things that came from his admiration of British culture. His favourite dish was said to be a pheasant hash cooked in a puree of chestnuts, eggs and truffles.

On July 1, 1958, Massey inaugurated the first national televised broadcast for the CBC.

Over his time as Governor General, Massey would welcome Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Canada on three royal visits. He would also host many leaders including US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. One year later on May 4, 1954, Massey addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington D.C. where he would speak to Congress on the importance of the friendship between the United States and Canada.

Massey would serve as Governor General with two prime ministers, Louis St. Laurent and John Diefenbaker, both of whom extended his term as the vice regal. The Montreal Star reported quote:

“The prime minister said that the extension constitutes recognition of the outstanding manner in which Mr. Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General, has carried out his duties.”

He would travel nearly every year during his time as Governor General but a kidney infection would force him to cancel his plans for a trip around Canada before he left the post of Governor General. Over his seven years in the post, he was rarely laid up by illness, only once having to cancel a New Year’s Day event due to a fever.

Before leaving his post, he would say in a speech quote:

“I feel deeply that Canada’s national consciousness is more powerful than it has ever been. WE have become more self-reliant, we have greater pride in our country. We shall maintain our identity as long as we remain loyal to our traditions and keep doing things our own way.”

Finally, after an incredible eight years, he would retire on Sept. 15, 1959 and move to Batterwood House.

As he prepared to leave office, many who criticized his posting as Governor General as a Liberal move away from Great Britain, would admit that he turned out to be skilled in his role as the vice-regal.

The Ottawa Citizen would write quote:

“Mr. Massey, was thought by many to be an egghead, withdrawn and introverted. Few realized the broad reach of his interests, his open-handedness or his ready wit. The criticism evaporated in the face of Mr. Massey’s determination to make the office of Governor General a visible, living link with the Crown. He did it by travelling to all the corners of this broad land, turning up in remote places no Governor General before him had perhaps even contemplated visitors.”

Due to the fact that Massey opened the doors of Rideau Hall to the public, the number of people who visited the vice regal home numbered 85,000 over the course of seven years, twice as many as visited the home in the previous 14 years before Massey.

The Ottawa Journal would write quote:

“He was the one who swept the cobwebs out of old Rideau Hall and let in the sunlight and laughter. No longer was it the exclusive ceremonial place of entertainment for the social elite, the wealthy and the powerful. For Vincent Massey opened its doors to just about everyone. Queens and presidents, as always, came to call, but so did the less privileged from the Boys’ Club and the lonely little people from the shelters for homeless children.”

For his service to the Crown, Massey was awarded the Royal Victorian Chain, becoming only the second commoner, and the first Canadian, to ever receive the honour. To date, only two Canadians, Massey and Roland Michener, have received the honour.

Queen Elizabeth II wrote to Massey quote:

“I wish to send you my congratulations and my sincere thanks for the manner in which you have discharged your duties. I know that as my personal representative, you have always sought to maintain the right relationship between the Crown and the people of Canada.”

He would pass away on Dec. 30, 1967, only one day before Canada’s Centennial year ended.

The Queen would say in a statement quote:

“His many services to his country and to his sovereign will long be remembered. My husband joins me in sending our sincere sympathy to you and the Canadian government and people in this great loss.”

Former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent would state quote:

Mr. Massey was a public officer who gave great service to the Canadian people. All the Canadian people realize, as I do, that our three Canadian governors general were never surpassed by those who came before them.”

Across the country, flags were put at half mast to honour Massey, and his body would lie in state. His funeral was also broadcast live on CBC radio and television.

Today, Massey College is named for him, as are the Massey Lectures. Mount Massey is named for him, as are several parks and buildings throughout Canada. A total of 23 schools are named for Massey.

I will end this episode with what Massey said in On Being Canadian. He said quote:

“I believe in Canada, with pride in her past, belief in her present and faith in her future.”

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Kingston British Whig, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Sault Daily Star, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Star, Windsor Star,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: