In the list of Canadian-born Governors General, the first three were well-known throughout Canada. Vincent Massey, Georges Vanier and Roland Michener had all prominent careers prior to taking the office.
When the very popular Michener left office in 1974, a new man took over who was relatively unknown to much of Canada, Jules Leger.
Leger would not have an easy time as Governor General but he would bring about changes to the position that have lasted to this day.
Leger was born in Saint-Anicet, Quebec on April 4, 1913 to a devoutly religious family. In fact, his brother Paul-Emile, would become a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Montreal from 1950 to 1967.
Leger would describe his hometown as a place where everyone quote:
“lived and worked together as good neighbours.”
After high school was finished, Leger would attend the College de Valleyfield and then the Universite de Montreal where he earned a law degree.
He would be given $100 by his father and a train ticket and Leger decided to travel through the country, staying with family, getting meals where he could and often living off sandwiches. By the time he returned home, he had 30 cents left.
Travelling to Paris to complete his schooling, he would earn a doctorate in 1938.
The same year he earned his doctorate, he married Gabrielle Carmel. They had met in Paris and together they would have two children.
The couple came back to Canada soon after their marriage and Leger began to work as an associate editor. He would win the Ottawa Press Club best story of the year for his article on the visit by the Royal Couple in 1939, specially on their visit to Confederation Square. It was the first time a French reporter had won the award.
In 1939, he took over the role of professor of diplomatic history at the University of Ottawa.
While working at the university, he would also join the Department of External Affairs and work in the office of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. From 1943 to 1947, he would serve as Canada’s Ambassador to Chile.
The Ottawa Journal wrote quote:
“Jules Leger, former secretary to Prime Minister King, Mrs. Leger and their children are at Essex House, New York, before going to Santiago, Chile where Leger will be secretary of the Canadian Legation.”
In 1949, he became the executive assistant to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent. Four years later, he was the Ambassador to Mexico, becoming the youngest Canadian to hold the post. In 1954, he was then made the under-secretary of state for External Affairs.
Leger greatly enjoyed being a diplomat. He would later say that the career gave him quote:
“a sense both of the relatively of the facts and the universality of man.”
On Sept. 25, 1958, he was made the ambassador to the North Atlantic Council, serving until July 5, 1962. On Nov. 4, 1958, he represented Canada at the coronation of Pope John XXIII.
From 1962 to 1964, Leger was the Ambassador to Italy, and from 1964 to 1968, the Ambassador to France.
Leger would say in 1965 that the time in Paris as an ambassador was the happiest time of his life. That statement came in a CBC 20/20 documentary called Diary of a Diplomat, which followed Leger as he discussed the day-to-day business of an ambassador.
In his role, he would also take part in the anniversary ceremonies at Dieppe, where so many Canadian soldiers were killed or captured.
As Ambassador to France, he would speak on the subject of Quebec separatism. He would say quote:
“We should not underestimate the gravity of this crisis. Only with courage and a lot of understanding will we be able to settle it. Both English-speaking and French-speaking men of good will at federal and provincial levels are tackling it. The Confederation is searching for its soul before reshaping itself.”
In 1968, Leger came back to Canada and was made the under-secretary of state to help develop the new bilingualism and multiculturalism policies being put forward by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The year 1968 came with tragedy when his daughter Francine committed suicide at the Canadian embassy.
In 1972, he left the position to become the Ambassador to Belgium, serving until 1974 as he returned to Canada to become the Governor General.
He was officially chosen to succeed Michener on Oct. 5, 1973.
Leger would say on being chosen quote:
“I know it is not an easy one but I know that myself and my wife can rely on the understanding of all Canadians from all walks of life.”
John Diefenbaker, who had known Leger for some time, would state quote:
“I was greatly impressed by him, his knowledge and courtesy. His wife Gaby, will be a great chatelaine at Government House.”
Diefenbaker had actually met Leger while on his honeymoon with his wife Olive in the early 1950s. They visited the country and met with Leger at the Canadian Embassy. Diefenbaker would say years later quote:
“We were greeted with the kindest consideration. There was no sign of annoyance from our hosts. His appointment is ideal. He has an unusual courtesy.”
Like his predecessor in Michener, Leger ensured he stayed fit. An associate would say that rain or shine or snow, he had never taken a car to the office, always choosing to walk.
The day before he was sworn in, he and his wife took a stroll through the snow-covered streets of Ottawa as reporters followed them. The Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:
“Tall, lean, grey-clad, Jules Leger looked for all the world like a professor on a field trip with a gaggle of students in parkas and mufflers. Mrs. Leger, hatless, wore a Canadian beaver coat with Danish fox trim.”
He was then sworn into office on Jan. 14, 1974.
Upon being sworn in, he would say quote:
“A process of change is underway, new values are emerging that already have made themselves felt here, particularly among the young. For it is at once our strength and our weakness that Canada is a crossroads, her people open to influence from any direction.”
Leger came to the post as Canada began a tumultuous time in the 1970s after the 1960s when so much changed in the country. Leger would say of Canada as it moved through the 1970s, quote:
“We find ourselves in another age, whose contours we cannot fully perceive. Our western civilization is floundering, exhausted, because of a number of paralyzing contradictions … insecurity amid plenty; poverty amid wealth; a traditional morality that is being shaken and replaced by a yearning for primitive purity; acts of violence by some who shun violence; space-age communications at a time when major political groupings are tending more and more towards regionalism.”
Soon after moving into Rideau Hall, he had all signs on the grounds made bilingual and he instructed that all RCMP guards on the property had to be bilingual.
Many felt there was a great deal of promise in the start of the Governor Generalship of Leger. From tobogganing with Princess Anne, to getting mad at newspapers over covering of depressing events, he was very popular as Governor General.
Then, tragedy would strike.
Six months after he was sworn in, just as he was about to receive an honorary degree from the Universite de Sherbrooke, he suffered a serious stroke on June 8, 1974.
The stroke was serious enough that he was given last rites the evening of the stroke. Soon after, his condition began to stabilize and he would slowly improve. A statement would say quote:
“While the ultimate severity of Mr. Leger’s illness cannot be predicted, his condition has remained stable since his admission.”
By June 25, his condition had improved and he had returned home after several weeks at the hospital.
The stroke left him with impeded speech and a paralyzed right arm. He would also have to relearn French and English.
By November, he was ready to resume duties. For many, Leger became an inspiration. He would take speech therapy daily, and he would help prove that people could come back from a terrible event. He would say quote:
“Life for us is more difficult, but it is still full of wonders.”
He would say in 1975 during his New Year message quote:
“These long months have brought me close to those who suffer. I wish them well on the way to recovery. They should not despair.”
By 1976, he was back working nine hour workdays but he was not able to do as much in public as he had hoped.
In regards to the New Year’s Levee, he removed the restriction that prevented women from attending. He also replaced portraits of Governors General from the past with paintings by Canadian artists in Rideau Hall.
For the remainder of his time as Governor General, his wife would help him on many occasions including reading parts of the Speech from the Throne in 1976 and 1978. Due to the help she provided Leger in his position following the stroke, Leger’s official portrait as Governor General was the first to include the viceregal consort. Most agree that without his wife, he would have never continued on as Governor General.
In 1976, fire tore through the official residence of the Governor General in Quebec, destroying several rooms. Madame Leger would be heavily involved in its restoration.
Despite the stroke and its impact on him, he would continue to travel throughout Canada to meet with Canadians. This was a time when Canadian unity was under threat due to the rise of the Parti Quebecois in Quebec.
He would say quote:
“I think that if one can further Canadianize the position, that is what I should like to do.”
His support of federalism did not win him many fans in Quebec. During a 1977 concert at the National Arts Centre, he and his wife were booed as they entered the building.
During his time as Governor General, Leger helped to modernize the position. He would choose not to wear the traditional court dress of the Windsor uniform, instead wearing a morning dress at state functions. This was both praised and criticized by sides that like the modernization, and those who felt it was disrespectful. In 1978, he became the first governor general to accredit diplomats to Canada and to sign treaties on behalf of the Queen.
One Sunday, guests were invited to Government House to watch Duck Soup, a Marx Brothers film. The guests were treated to seeing Leger overcome with laughter at one of his favourite movies.
Some of his critics questioned why he remained in the post after his stroke, but for Leger he was focused on the person and institution he represented and he respected the position. He would write Queen Elizabeth II once per month to keep her apprised of what was going on in Canada.
On Oct. 11, 1978, Leger made it clear that he was giving his last Speech From The Throne. He would say quote:
“As the end of my term of office approaches, my wife and I would like to thank parliamentarians and the people of Canada for the respect and affection which they have extended to us on countless occasions over the years.”
Leger’s time as Governor General came to an end on Jan. 22, 1979. Pierre Trudeau would call Leger the wise old owl of Rideau Hall.
The Times Colonist would say of his time as Governor General, quote:
“Jules Leger’s health prevented him from doing it as fully as the other in the ways that had become conventional but it did not prevent him from doing it in different ways.”
It would say of his wife quote:
“Madame Leger brought vigor, charm, wit and genuine friendliness to her role at Government House, a role that her husband’s misfortunes with health made more important than that of other wives of governors general.”
After leaving the role of Governor General, Leger wrote a book The Unfinished Tapestry, which was a recollection of his period as Governor General.
His life after leaving the role of Governor General would unfortunately be short. On Nov. 18, 1980, he would suffer a stroke and be moved into intensive care. He would be out of intensive care a few days later and described as stable but in serious condition.
He remained in a coma and then on Nov. 22, 1980, Leger passed away. His wife Gaby would be at his bedside when he died.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would say quote:
“I met Jules Leger and his wife Gaby after the war in London when they were posted there. I was a student. And from then on, he always did for me what he did to many other young people. He helped them be better Canadians.”
Trudeau would add that Leger served all of Canada without ever forgetting his roots as a French Canadian.
Queen Elizabeth II stated quote:
“Jules Leger was a most distinguished Governor General, who won the admiration of everyone by continuing as governor general after a severe illness and his long and faithful service to Canada will always be remembered.”
Opposition Leader Joe Clark praised Leger’s quote:
“devotion to duty and his generosity of spirit. His service to Canada bespoke a special understanding of our country and its people.”
The new governor general, Edward Schreyer, would state he had known Leger for a long time and was deeply saddened by the death of Leger.
Unlike the funerals of Vanier and Massey, Leger’s funeral was small, with no television cameras. This was at the request of the family. His body would lie in state in the East Block of the Parliament Buildings
Archbishop Joseph-Aurele Plourde stated quote:
“Everyone here is a friend of the deceased.”
I will end this episode with what Albert Ritchie said of his former employer at Government House in London in 1948. He said quote:
“There are two qualities most marked in this man. His wisdom and his humanity. There are not too many people I would say are wise, but I would say it of Jules.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Macleans, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Ottawa Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, Red Deer Advocate, Vancouver Province,