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After Vincent Massey made history as the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, it was up to his replacement, Georges Vanier, to make history as well. For Vanier, not only was he Canadian born, but he would become the first Francophone Governor General in Canadian history.
Born in Montreal on April 23, 1888 to Philias and Margaret Vanier, his family had settled in Quebec around 1670.
Years later, the Ottawa Journal would write quote:
“He liked to boast that his paternal ancestry traced back almost to the beginning of New France. The name Vanier appeared in the first census of New France in 1666.”
Within his household, his father would raise his son to be bilingual. As a child, his family was reasonably well-off, with his father owning a successful business and was one of the first people in Montreal to own a car, although he never learned to drive it. Instead, he had a chauffeur to do that. The family also had two cottages that they would spend time at through the year.
Vanier would attend Loyala College, now Concordia University, graduating in 1906 with a bachelor of arts. A devout Christian his entire life, he would begin a lifelong habit of having daily communion while attending the school. As a student, he was considered to be exceptional, and he also excelled at both boxing and hockey. He would say later that his happiest moment at Loyala was when he scored the winning goal for his team with one minute left in the game.
As a student, he was often reserved and he would be criticized by his teachers for his reserved nature. Vanier would respond quote:
“Intimate feelings of joy, sadness, desires, aren’t something to write about. They can be spoken about, and in fact, are more often understood with gestures, looks and tones of voice.”
After graduating, which he did at the top of his class, he would attend Laval University where he obtained his law degree in 1911. That same year, he was called to the Quebec bar.
Despite his law degree, Vanier gave serious consideration to becoming a priest but the First World War would come along and upend that path for his life.
Vanier felt that it was his duty to serve for Canada in the First World War and in 1914 he would enlist and play a large role in organizing the first battalion of French Canadians, now known as the Van Doos. Vanier also felt that France was the centre of Western Civilization and he felt compelled to assist the country to defeat Germany. He would write his sister quote:
“I could not read the harrowing account of Belgian sufferings without feeling a deep compassion and an active desire to right, as so far as it is within my power, the heinous wrong done to Belgium.”
On Feb. 15, 1915, Vanier passed the officers’ exam and was commissioned as a lieutenant. On May 20, 1915, he boarded a ship in Halifax and was sent across the Atlantic to train. While at East Sandling Camp, he and his fellow troops would be visited by Sir Robert Borden, the prime minister, and Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia.
On Sept. 13, he arrived at the front lines and would lead a trench raid on Jan. 2, 1916. The raid was successful, with Vanier and his men taking out a German machine-gun post and making it back safely to Canadian lines. During his time in France, he would often write home expressing his love for the country. He would write his sister after a visit to Paris quote:
“Ah, the sheer joy of it, to visit Paris on leave from the trenches, where we are all trying to do our bit for the triumph of civilization.”
Vanier saw the war as a holy war, and Canadian soldiers as knights. The idea of the knightly ideal of a man who had to be courageous and honourable in upholding what is right would be a defining trait for Vanier through his life.
The first time Vanier appears in the newspaper was on June 21, 1916 in the Montreal Gazette. It states quote:
“Captain Georges Vanier is a young Montreal advocate who early responded to the call of the war and saw eight months in the trenches before he was wounded a few days ago.”
Throughout the First World War, he would serve with distinction, including at major battles such as the Battle of St. Eloi Craters and Vimy Ridge.
After Vimy Ridge, he would write to his mother and say quote:
“You know of course that things are going with a tremendous swing and that we are pushing the Germans. The morale of troops is magnificent. We cannot lose. What is more, we are winning quickly and the war will be over within six months.”
During the 100 Days Campaign, Vanier would be involved in a battle that would cost him his right leg due to a German shell exploding near him. He was also shot in the chest and both legs. His recovery would be lengthy, but he would not leave France.
While his time in the trenches was over, he refused to return to Canada. He would write from a hospital quote:
“I simply cannot go back to Canada, while my comrades are still in the trenches in France.”
During the First World War, he was awarded the Military Cross With Bar and the Distinguished Service Order. The Military Cross was presented to him personally by the King at Windsor Castle. He would also be appointed as a knight of the French Legion of Honour.
After recovering, Vanier needed to find his new path in life and rather than becoming a priest or lawyer, he would find himself on the path to becoming a diplomat.
In 1921, he would begin to work as the aide-de-camp to Governor General Julian Byng.
This was an important year for Vanier, as he also married Pauline Archer. Together, the couple would go on to have five children including Jean Vanier, who would found a charity to help people with developmental disabilities.
He would remain as the aide-de-camp for Byng for four years. The two men would become very close and he would side with Byng during the heated King-Byng Affair I talked about in earlier episodes.
He would then serve briefly as the commander of the Van Doos, before becoming the aide-de-camp for the next Governor General, the Marquess of Willingdon.
With his diplomatic career taking off, Vanier was named to the Canadian military delegation for disarmament to the League of Nations.
In 1931, he was posted to the Canadian High Commission in London, where he would remain until 1938. It was there he would meet Vincent Massey, his predecessor as Governor General. Like nearly everyone else, Vanier found Massey to be a snob.
In 1935 when his friend Byng died, he would write a tribute to him that appeared in the London Times.
In 1939, Vanier was appointed as the Canadian Minister to France, sending him to the country as war was on the horizon. On Aug. 26, 1939, he sent a dispatch to Ottawa stating that war was inevitable. Five days later, the Second World War erupted.
On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded France and Vanier was advised to burn secret documents related to Canada and get ready to flee the city and the country. As he left his office, he found thousands of people, many of them Jewish refugees, begging to be allowed to come to Canada.
On May 24, Vanier wrote to Mackenzie King stating that Canada had a wonderful opportunity to accept refugees and provide them asylum.
The next day, the King government stated it would accept 10,000 refugee children, but only if they were British, French, Belgian or Dutch. Jewish children were mostly left off the list by the King government.
On June 10, Vanier’s last act in Paris was to hand over papers to the American ambassador to France, giving him legal power to represent Canada in occupied France.
Leaving Paris, a typical three hour drive took 17 hours as the roads were full of refugees. On June 17, Vanier and his family boarded a boat that took them to Britain.
While getting his family out of the country, Vanier would also arrange the evacuation of Canadian citizens and other refugees to England.
Back in Canada, Vanier met with Prime Minister King, who wrote in his diary quote:
“Found him looking much older. Felt a certain sorrow which he seemed to be carrying. I took him to Moorside to see the trees and on the ruins. While there, there was a bit of glorious outburst of sun which lit up the trees, and later brought a rainbow into the distant Eastern skies.”
Soon after reaching Canada, Vanier would urge the Canadian government to accept Jewish refugees from Europe.
In late 1940, he wrote to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, stating quote:
“Canada has a wonderful opportunity to be generous and yet profit by accepting some of these people.”
The Canadian government though, was not in favour of this and very few Jewish refugees would get into Canada during the war.
In 1942, Vanier was given the rank of Major General and then sent to London as the Canadian minister to all Allied governments in exile. During one speech, he would say quote:
“If we think that after the war we will be able to go on living in our old comfortable way, we are wrong. There is going to be a new order of things, through evolution, if we are wise. Through revolution otherwise.”
In 1944, he took two trips to Italy to visit with the Van Doos, and he would meet with Pope Pius XII in Rome. That same year, he became the ambassador to France, the first ambassador to the country after it was liberated from the Germans. One of his first acts was to go to Dieppe to pay his respects to the Canadian soldiers buried there. He and his wife would break down in tears as The Last Post was played as they put flowers on the graves of the soldiers.
Throughout the war, he and his wife would continue to settle refugees, especially Jewish refugees. He would say at one point quote:
“Today millions have been stripped, wounded and left for dead on the bloodstained roads of Europe. Is not each one of these our brother or our sister”
In April 1945, Vanier toured a concentration camp only one week after it was liberated. He would tell CBC Radio quote:
“How deaf we were then, to cruelty and the cries of pain which came to our ears, grim forerunners of the mass torture and murders which were to follow.”
In Paris, he and his wife would continue to help refugees by getting them food and temporary shelter. Thanks to their instance, the Canadian government would eventually change its regulations and 186,000 European refugees would come to Canada between 1947 and 1953.
In 1953, Vanier retired from being a diplomat and started to work as a director in various companies including the Bank of Montreal.
In 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed Vanier as the first French Governor-General of Canada.
On Sept. 15, 1959, Vanier took office. He would say quote:
“My first words are a prayer. May almighty God give peace to this beloved land of ours and the grace of mutual understanding, respect and love. If Canada is to attain the greatness worthy of it, each of us must say I ask only to serve.”
As Governor General, Vanier would turn an upstairs bedroom at Rideau Hall into a chapel where he could pray twice a day. He also installed bilingual signs at the main gates of Rideau Hall. Even though he was over 70, he was known for his stamina as Governor General. He would be up at 8:30 a.m. and would work straight until 6 p.m., taking only half an hour for a rest after lunch. He often spent his time reading, and his personal library had over 2,000 volumes. He especially liked watching hockey, and even though he had lost his right leg, he still played tennis.
While he was deeply religious and devoted to his Catholic faith, Vanier respected other religious views. He would write quote:
“When duty or circumstances call for my presence as Governor General at a service of any other faith, you may rest assured that I shall be happy to attend and shall do so with entire freedom.”
While Vincent Massey served during a time of stability in the Canadian government, Vanier would serve during a chaotic time. He would deal with minority governments and the rise of Quebec separatism and the Quiet Revolution, as well as sharp divides in the government over several issues.
As a Francophone Governor General, separatists would call Vanier a sellout and say he was the Queen’s jester. Vanier, for his part, would state quote:
“The road of unity is the road of love. Love of one’s country and faith in its future will give new direction and purpose to our lives, lift us above our domestic quarrels and unite us in dedication to the common good. WE can’t run the risk of this great country falling to pieces.”
On another occasion, he would state that Canada’s problem could be solved through marriage. He would say quote:
“It may sound absurd but the answer is for all Canadians to intermarry. Our only real problem is one of language and that could be settled.”
As Governor General, Vanier was now serving his third generation of the House of Windsor, having served King George VI and King George V in various capacities. He would refer to Queen Elizabeth II as our little queen and he was incredibly loyal to the monarchy.
He would be involved in several important moments in Canadian history including opening the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 and in 1965, he would officially inaugurate the new Canadian flag. The Blackfoot would honour him by giving him the name of Chief Big Eagle as well. He would also take a special interest in the Boy Scouts.
As Governor General, he would also host President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, the Shah of Iran, the prime minister of Israel and his old friend, Charles de Gaulle.
His wife Pauline would also make headlines, even being named Women of the Year by the Canadian media in 1965. That same year, she was also named the first woman chancellor of the University of Ottawa.
The Ottawa Journal would state of the couple quote:
“He liked people. And he liked entertaining, as did his wife. He had a talent for putting others at ease.”
Vanier would create the Vanier Cup for the university football championship.
In 1963, Vanier would suffer from a heart attack that left him confined to bed for about six weeks as he recovered.
On Jan. 1, 1964,he was made a full general in the Canadian Army, only the sixth man to ever achieve the rank in Canadian history.
By 1965, despite being 77, Vanier continued to travel throughout the country to see as many Canadians as possible. By this point, he had logged 105,000 kilometres around the country, and given 400 speeches to organizations in Canada. The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“There has been an indication when he will step down from his third major career. Prime Minister Lester Pearson announced last summer that the tall white-haired soldier diplomat will remain in office at least a year beyond the normal five-year term.”
In 1967, as the Canadian Centennial was beginning, Vanier’s health began to decline to the point that when he addressed students at Universite de Montreal, he had to do so from a wheelchair. Despite the fact he knew he was dying, he would still hold the annual skating and toboganning party at Rideau Hall. One journalist would say quote:
“There was no reason for him to go through with the party, as an event it wasn’t important.”
This would be his last public appearance.
Choosing to continue on during Canada’s Centennial year, he said quote:
“If I don’t make it, then they’ll just have to find somebody else.”
His health continued to decline and on March 3, he stated he wanted to give up his post to Prime Minister Pearson. Pearson then suggested he spend the year at the vice-regal summer residence resting, to which Vanier only smiled. He then told Pearson that his health was not likely to enable him to carry on in office.
On March 5, 1967, Vanier died from heart failure while watching a Montreal Canadiens game on television. He had just spoken with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and told him that he was willing to stay on as Governor General until the end of the Centennial Year.
He became the second Governor General to die in office after John Buchan.
Opposition leader John Diefenbaker would say quote:
“A fine Christian gentleman has answered the last roll call. The memory of his life of service will be cherished for generations to come. His life was one of devoted service to his sovereign and his country.”
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson would say quote:
“We mourn today, deeply, and sincerely, the loss of our Governor General. In its 100 years, Canada has had no more devoted and courageous a servant than General Georges Vanier. His whole life is the shining record of that service. He never failed any test of duty in peace or war. He was indeed the good and faithful servant.”
President Lyndon Johnson would say quote:
“He was a wise and humane citizen of the world. He does also belong to the world and is not lost to it. It is indeed a sad day.”
Charles de Gaulle, president of France, stated quote:
“Vanier was a companion and a friend of mine. His death saddens me profoundly. My wife joins me in extending our deepest sympathy at this time.”
The Sault Star wrote quote:
“The mourning today is real and deep. The memory that long will linger is bound to remind many a Canadian to ask only to serve, and to humbly to be able to do so one-tenth as unswervingly as he did.”
After his death, 15,000 messages of sympathy were sent to Rideau Hall. A state funeral was held for him on March 8.
Many schools in provinces such as Alberta were closed for the day to pay tribute to Vanier.
Many Canadian Catholics felt that Vanier should have been a candidate for sainthood, along with his wife Pauline, due to their piety.
In 1990, Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais named a five-member committee to prepare the case to declare Vanier and his wife Catholic saints.
In 1998, Vanier was named the most important Canadian in history by Macleans magazine. Several buildings, roads and parks are named for Vanier. The former city of Vanier was also named for him. A total of 34 schools in Canada and one in Germany are named for him.
I will finish this episode with what Macleans said of him in 1998, quote:
“He spoke to rich and poor in the same way. He made countless well-crafted speeches in perfect French and equally perfect English and everywhere he talked of the joys and duties of being Canadian. There were few Governors General like him, and Canadians across the country loved him.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governors General of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Macleans, North Bay Nugget, Vancouver Sun, Windsor Star, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Journal,