After the sudden death of Georges Vanier, Canada needed to have a new Governor General appointed. It was especially important as Canada was going through its Centennial Year and the Governor General would be a major part of the events going on throughout the country.
The title of Governor General then fell on a man from Western Canada, Roland Michener.
Roland Michener was born on April 19, 1900 in his family’s home. His birth in Lacombe, of what would be Alberta, makes him the first Governor General born in the 20th century and the first from western Canada.
His father, Edward, was an important man in the area. He was the mayor of Red Deer from 1904 to 1906, and then he served in the Alberta Legislature from 1909 to 1917. During that time, he was the Leader of the Official Opposition. Then, from 1918 to his death in 1947, he served in the Canadian Senate.
Roland Michener would attend schools in the area. He would also join the Boy Scouts in 1911. On June 1, 1911, after Arthur Kelly shot local police chief George Bell and escaped in the woods, Michener and his fellow scouts were called to help find him.
Michener would say years later quote:
“Well here I was at age eleven with not even a staff in my hand . . . and going in open formation with the other Boy Scouts across the kind of scrubby land, vacant land between the Exhibition Grounds to the south and the nearest house and we sprung this man out from where he slept, he was behind a small bush and jumped up, he had his gun in his hand and ran down into the swamp, into the bushes and there were a couple of shots, and we were all curious to know who it was and what! Nobody was hurt, but they captured him. . . Many parents weren’t very pleased with that use of the Scouts.”
Michener then went on to the University of Alberta where he graduated with a bachelor of arts in 1920.
A Rhodes Scholar, he then attended Oxford University where he met a young man on his hockey team who would become his lifelong friend, Lester B. Pearson. Their hockey team would do a tour of Switzerland during the Christmas holidays one year, playing against several European teams. Not surprisingly, the Canadians won every game.
He would say quote:
“We skied and skated and we were the darlings of the girls from the finishing school, who were following the season around, the daughters of the wealthy and of their families, and so we were very well treated, and we entertained them, in return. All we had to pay was our bar bills and our laundry bills otherwise the hotel was provided and we moved about Switzerland.”
After studying law in Oxford, he moved back to Canada and opened up a law practice in 1924. In 1926, he and Pearson would compete in the Canadian Open tennis tournament, losing in the first round. He would say of Pearson quote:
“We couldn’t change each other. We used to argue politics. I thought he’d be a Conservative. But neither of us changed the other.”
In 1927, Michener married Norah Willis and the couple had three daughters. Norah had come to Toronto study music and was fluent in French, and well-versed in history and economics. Norah, after her children were born, would attend the University of Toronto and earn a Doctorate in Philosophy in 1952.
While Michener lived in Toronto, he would work with the local Chinese community to help reunite family members that had been separated due to racist immigration laws in Canada at the time. Thanks to this, he became a very popular and respected person in the Chinese Canadian community of Toronto.
In 1943, Michener decided to run for the Ontario Legislature, describing himself as a small L Liberal and a capital C Conservative.
He would say quote:
“Politics was part of our family life. I decided when I was a young man that I would go into public life but I didn’t get around to it until 1943.”
Running as a Conservative candidate in the provincial election, he was defeated but in 1945 he tried again and was elected. He would serve in the Legislature until 1948.
In 1949, he made the jump to federal politics as a Progressive Conservative. The jump didn’t land though, as he did not win his riding.
Like with provincial politics, he tried again and in 1953, was elected to Parliament. For the first four years as a Member of Parliament, Michener still worked as a lawyer on weekends as he did not make enough as an MP.
During his time in Parliament, which would end in 1962, he served as the Speaker of the House of Commons from 1957 to 1962.
Michener stated he expected vigorous debate as Speaker but that quote:
“You give me time to try my wings before you start shooting in my direction.”
Opposition leader Louis St. Laurent would say of Michener quote:
“His record commends him and is a good sign for the future. I am confident that the House will be well served by him.”
The opening of Parliament on Oct. 14, 1957 was an event that would stay in his mind forever. One reason for this was because Queen Elizabeth II opened it for the first time, and he would comment on the length of her speech. He said he was quote:
“sweating under the lights, and she didn’t, perspire even, she seemed cool and collected, but you know, it was quite an ordeal.”
While he was a member of Parliament, Norah would support him in his work. She would even write a guide for the wives of MPs on proper etiquette for the situations they would find themselves in. She would also watch proceedings at Parliament and send notes to MPs to reprimand them if they did not follow rules for proper behaviour.
As Speaker, he was responsible for the smooth introduction of French and English simultaneous interpretation in the House in 1959.
As Speaker, he distinguished himself as being civilized and witty. His close friend Lester B. Pearson was at this point serving as the Leader of the Official Opposition, while the Prime Minister was John Diefenbaker. In fact, Diefenbaker was not a fan of Michener because he felt he was too fair to opposition parties. In one case, Diefenbaker would not sit down when Michener called him to order.
Other than a few MPs and the Prime Minister, many felt that he was a fantastic Speaker of the House and a group of university professors launched a campaign to make him the permanent Speaker of the House. Under the plan, he would run as an independent and other parties would not run against him locally. The plan never came to fruition though.
In 1962, Michener lost his seat in the House of Commons, which was the first time in Canadian history the Speaker of the House had lost their seat.
In 1963, his friend Lester Pearson became the new Prime Minister of Canada and he offered to make Michener the permanent Speaker of the House of Commons but Michener turned him down.
Instead, Pearson appointed Michener as the High Commissioner to India in 1964. Then, six months later, he was made the first Canadian Ambassador of Nepal. He would serve in both roles until 1967, during which time he studied Hindi. Norah would also become close friends with Indira Gandhi, the first female Prime Minister of India.
After the death of Georges Vanier, Pearson recommended to Queen Elizabeth II that Michener be appointed the Governor General. This was approved and Michener because the first former MP to serve in the position.
He would say quote:
“We are deeply appreciative of confidence reposed in us by the Prime Minister and Government of Canada in nominating me to be Governor General and in entrusting my wife and me with important and exacting responsibilities which will be ours, particularly at this time in our Centennial celebrations when all the world will be coming to our shores.”
Paul Martin Sr., a Liberal cabinet minister, would say quote:
“I don’t think there was anybody inside or outside the public service who could qualify better than Michener. People just felt that this was a good appointment.”
The day he arrived in Ottawa, Michener threw a party for the press and received his guests wearing slacks, sports shirt, suede jacket and loafers. He poured drinks himself and he played the piano for his guests.
A few days after he became Governor General, Michener opened the biggest event in Canadian history to that point, and arguably the biggest even to this point, Expo 67.
Due to Expo 67 and it being Canada’s Centennial Year, Michener was very busy visiting places in the country and welcoming heads of state. While previous Governors General only welcomed a few, maybe a dozen at most, heads of state during their tenures of five to seven years, Michener welcomed an astonishing 53 heads of state in his first year alone including President Lyndon Johnson and Princess Grace of Monaco. On average, they hosted a visiting head of state every 2.5 days during the Centennial Year.
When the Order of Canada was established in July 1967, Michener was the first to hold the honour and he would award the Order of Canada to its first recipients in November 1967.
He would say of it quote:
“Our intention is to do honour to those who, in many different ways, have served Canada with great distinction and have thereby contributed to the well-being of their fellow man.”
In February 1968, a constitutional crisis occurred when the government of Pearson was defeated on a tax bill. If this had of been a budget bill, Pearson would have had to resign and call a new election. Since this was a lesser financial bill, the result was not as clear. Michener consulted with legal experts and then decided that he would not require Pearson to resign unless there was a motion of no confidence. With that, Opposition leader Robert Stanfield immediately tabled a motion but it failed to pass. By the time an election was held in June, Pearson had retired and the new, dynamic Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau was now prime minister.
In October 1970, Michener would be involved in dealing with the October Crisis, which saw the FLQ kidnap British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte. Laporte would later be murdered and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would implement the War Measures Act to deal with the crisis.
The Act required Michener’s signature in order to become law. The paper would be brought to Michener at Rideau Hall by Jack Cross, a civil servant, who said later that Michener was waiting in his dressing gown and pajamas and was uncertain about signing. Cross would have to speak with the Governor General in order to convince him to sign.
Cross would say later quote:
“He had some hesitation about signing a document that strong.”
It was not known at the time, but would come out in 2010, that Michener was an intended target for the FLQ.
Michener would make a state visit to Trinidad and Tobago in 1971, which was the first time a Governor General had ever visited the country. In October of the same year, he would visit Iran to attend the 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. Many felt that it was inappropriate for someone who was not the head of state to make a state visit, but the trip was successful and that helped end any issues over it.
Throughout his time as Governor General, Michener would change the atmosphere around the Governor General forever. After his friend Maryon Pearson, wife of Lester B. Pearson, refused to curtsey, he removed the practice completely for any woman meeting the Governor General.
Michener also began regular meetings with provincial Lt. Governors and in 1972, he returned the Governor General’s New Year’s Levee to Rideau Hall.
Known as the Jogging Governor General, Michener was highly active and would go out jogging every morning to stay in shape. He would support the ParticipACTION that was aimed at improving the fitness and health of Canadians.
Due to his daily jogging, the Alberta Blood First Nation honoured him by giving him the name Running Antelope. In his first two years alone, he jogged with a high school track team, walked in the Oxfam 50-mile trudge, shot with Bisley marksmen, worked with the Mobile Force commandos and skied the opening five miles of the 120-mile Ottawa-Montreal cross-country marathon. He also swam with the collegiate swim team, piloted a government executive jet and would do sit-ups and push-ups beside his rail car while on trips.
Sometimes, his active nature caused some issues. One of the more humorous came about when he was showering after a squash match at an Ottawa arena. After his shower, he found the door to the locker room locked. So, he, the Governor General, wrapped a towel around his waist and walked to the rink where a figure skating class was in session. He then summoned an instructor to give him a key.
When he decided to retire in 1974, there was talk that he should be appointed as the head of the physical fitness program in Canada. The Sault Star wrote quote:
“Canadians are in terrible physical shape. What is needed is a vigorous, spirited campaign to reverse that condition. And there could hardly be a better man to head that campaign than Roland Michener.”
Regarding his fitness, Michener would say quote:
“My wife tried to persuade me to become more sedentary but I resisted the pressure with the support of doctors and kept up my athletics.”
After a photo was published of Michener jogging in Ottawa in his track suit, he decided to take it more seriously because he realized he had considerable influence and he could help encourage people who were approaching middle age to get active.
Ironically, despite other Governors General doing so, Michener never did the opening kick off at the Grey Cup.
It was a difficult December for Michener in 1972 after his close friend, Lester Pearson, died on Dec. 27 of that year. He would say quote:
“No Canadian of our time has been so deservedly renowned for his influence in the direction of conciliation and peace among the nations. We thank God for a life which has been of such profound benefit to his times.”
It was around this time that there would be discussions over whether or not Canada needed to have a Governor General. In October 1968, he would tell students at Bishop’s University quote:
“There is, in party government the risk of discontinuity and the consequent lack of confidence in parliamentary procedures which could ensure were a government defeated with no immediate prospect of an acceptable replacement in the offing. It is in such situations that the office of Governor General shows its essential function, providing the continuity in government without which public confidence would flunder.”
In 1973, Michener was awarded the Royal Victorian Chain, becoming only the second Canadian in history to receive the honour after former Governor General Vincent Massey.
At one point, he would become the first Governor General to travel to Alert, Northwest Territories, only 690 kilometres away from the North Pole. This was done to assert Canadian sovereignty over the region.
In 1974, his time as Governor General came to an end. As he left office, he would remark about the difficulty of leaving public life, stating quote:
“I should say thank you, lay down my text on the table and sit down. But reform does not come so fast to one who is guilty of 522 speeches on generalities, and that excludes six speeches from the Throne.”
Over the course of his time as Governor General, he travelled thousands of kilometres, conducting 203 tours across the country.
Michener would return to Toronto to practice law once again. He would say of going back to his profession after 20 years away quote:
“You know, I was away from law for twenty years in public life and I had no confidence to go back . . . I wouldn’t dare appear in the Supreme Court of Ontario as an Ex Governor General, the judges would be scandalized and so would I. They’d think I was trying to intimidate them.”
From the year he retired as Governor General until 1980, he would serve as the Chancellor of Queen’s University.
In 1979, Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed named a mountain after him and one year later Michener celebrated by climbing to the summit of that mountain. It should be noted, he was 80-years-old at the time.
In 1987, his wife would pass away. He had been her caretaker for most of the 1980s while she battled with Alzheimer’s. He would say of her quote:
“I could have been Speaker without her help, I could not have been Governor General without her. We were a team.”
He would pass away on Aug. 6, 1991. His ashes, as well as hers, would be interred at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Ottawa.
Opposition leader Jean Chretien would say quote:
“It is a big loss but he had a very good life.”
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stated quote:
“Apart from being a wonderful man, he made a tremendous contribution to Canada.”
Today, the Michener Institute is named for him, as are several roads and an arena in Manitoba. Six schools are also named for him in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
I will end this episode with what the National Post said upon his death, quote:
“Roly Michener leaves a legacy of service, commitment and good humor that those who follow him in the public life of our country would do well to emulate.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Lacombe Museum, Macleans, CBC, Wikipedia, Queens University, Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, Regina Leader Post, North Bay Nugget, Montreal Star, Sault Star, Edmonton Journal, National Post,