While Jules Leger had great potential as Governor General, the stroke he suffered only six months after he came to the post greatly limited his ability to serve.
When it came time for a new Governor General in 1979, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau chose someone much younger, who had already made a name for himself in Canada, Edward Schreyer.
Today, I am looking at the 22nd Governor General, who was the first former premier to serve in the post, and as of this writing and recording, the first Governor General I am covering who is still alive.
Edward Schreyer was born in Manitoba on Dec. 21, 1935 to German-Austrian parents. His grandparents on his mother’s side had come from western Ukraine to Canada.
As a child, he would attend school in his hometown and then go on to the University of Manitoba where he received a Bachelor of Education in 1962 and a Master of Arts in international relations. He followed that with a Master of Arts in Economics in 1963.
From 1962 to 1965, he was a professor of International Relations at St. Paul’s College.
While pursuing his degrees, he would meet his wife Lily Schultz, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.
In 1958, when he was still earning his post-secondary education, Schreyer was elected to the Manitoba Legislature at the age of only 22, making him the youngest person ever elected to the assembly.
He would serve in the Manitoba Legislature until 1965 when he then ran for Parliament, becoming a Member of Parliament and serving until 1968.
His wife Lily said of his time in office quote:
“When we got there, Ed didn’t like it. We never went anywhere. We missed our friends. I think I could have adjusted but Ed’s still basically a small-town boy.”
At this point, when he was only 33, he left federal politics and became the leader of the New Democratic Party of Manitoba. As a Catholic with eastern European ancestry, he was the first leader of the party in Manitoba without British and Protestant ancestry.
In 1969, Schreyer led his party to an upset in the provincial election, with the party picking up 17 seats and going from third place in the Legislature to first. His election win ended four straight victories for the Progressive Conservatives in the province. Schreyer now found himself to be the Premier of Manitoba. At the age of 34, he was also the youngest premier in Manitoba’s history.
The Vancouver Sun would praise the rapid rise of Schreyer, stating quote:
“If you were to program a future political leader, you would give him the credentials of Schreyer.”
One seat short of a majority, initially the Liberals and Progressive Conservative formed a coalition to keep Schreyer from coming to power but then Liberal MLA Laurent Desjardins threw his support over to Schreyer, allowing Schreyer to take office as premier.
As premier, Schreyer would oversee the amalgamation of Winnipeg with its suburbs. His government also introduced public automobile insurance and reduced medicare premiums.
He would be re-elected as premier in 1973 and during his second term he introduced mining tax legislation, while also serving as the Minister of Finance from 1972 to 1975 and the Minister of Manitoba Hydro from 1971 to 1977.
In 1977, his government was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives and Schreyer would become the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislature.
On Dec. 28, 1978, Schreyer was appointed to succeed Jules Leger as the new Governor General. The appointment of Schreyer was not greeted happily by all sides. The Calgary Herald would report quote:
“Lord Durham, Lord Elgin and Ed Schreyer? The appointment of the young socialist, former premier of Manitoba, as Canada’s governor general has rattled the ashtrays in every Conservative Old Boys club from Victoria to Charlottetown. Ed Schreyer altogether shreds the traditional image of the Crown’s representative in Canada.”
He was sworn in with a ceremony on Jan. 22, 1979 in the Senate Chamber. Not only was he the first former premier to become Governor General, but he was also the first Governor General from Manitoba and the third youngest ever appointed. He was the youngest Governor General since Lord Lorne in 1883, who was 38 years old.
Schreyer would give his oath using the bible that had been in his family for 128 years by that point. In the Senate chamber, 1,500 people were crammed in to see the moment he was sworn in.
In his first address as Governor General, Schreyer stated quote:
“The freedoms we now share and cherish are equal to the best of countries on this planet. They are surpassed by none. They can be greater still. It is not necessary to break the bonds of our common history to do so. To succumb to pessimism to allow fragmentation, to accept the shattering of the Canadian mosaic is to break faith with all who endured so much to build so well what we have today.”
Prime Minister Trudeau would state quote:
“The reason why we look upon your appointment as an event of historic importance is that, again for the first time, our first family will represent those millions of Canadians who trace their ancestry to countries other than Great Britain or France.”
The arrival of a new Governor General who was seen as a populist and anti-elitist was not greeted with enthusiasm on all sides. Lt. Governor Frank Lynch Staunton of Alberta lamented about the lost days of cigars and port, real state dinners, with the new Governor General.
When Schreyer visited the Quebec Winter Carnival, he was booed by the audience when he gave the opening speech in English.
In his role as Governor General, Schreyer focused on official bilingualism, the environment and women’s issue. He would establish the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case to recognize the work of the Famous Five.
As Governor General, he would fly to Port Coquitlam, British Columbia in September 1980 to award Terry Fox the Order of Canada. Typically, the recipient would go to Ottawa for a ceremony but Fox was battling cancer and Schreyer made an exception. Fox remains the youngest Order of Canada recipient in history.
A lover of history, he became the first Governor General to stay at Fort Garry, at this point a historic site, since Earl Grey in 1911. Schreyer, his wife and four children stayed in the fort in August 1979. It was also the hope of Schreyer that he could turn the original home of Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson at Fort Garry into a temporary summer residence for Governors General in the future. The family stayed there for 10 days as an experiment towards that goal. Maurice Tarr, the Fort Superintendent, stated quote:
“He insisted that only minimal changes be made and that tourists still be allowed in the house once the family is awake. Naturally, the dining room is closed off when the viceregal family is eating but otherwise they’ve made themselves very accessible to visitors.”
Schreyer would say quote:
“Governors General have spent some time vacationing in the Citadel in Quebec City over the last 112 years and I thought it fitting to spend some time in the west. I can’t guarantee my successors will keep up this tradition, but we intend to be back next year.”
In 1980, he hesitated to call an election after Prime Minister Joe Clark advised him to do so, something that had not happened since the King-Byng Affair of 1925. He gave some consideration to a Liberal-NDP coalition before allowing an election to be called.
Schreyer would also state that he would dissolve Parliament in 1981, and again in 1982, if Trudeau triggered a constitutional crisis by trying to repatriate the Canadian constitution without the support of the provinces. After this caused a great deal of controversy, Schreyer stated that he was only talking in the abstract and that the situation was not anywhere near a worst-case scenario. There was some support for his comments from those who felt he was within his rights, but most criticized him for it.
Senator Eugene Forsey would say quote:
“I’m appalled that he should have said this. One of the prime requisites of a governor general is that he should be discreet. If he finds himself in a position where he thinks he has to do something unusual, then he does do it. But he doesn’t go around making speculations. This is perfectly dreadful. He should never, never, never have done it.”
The chair of Carleton University felt different, stating quote:
“Unlike Forsey, I happen to think it is good that public officials state their views about their functions publicly. It may not be wise politically for a governor general and it may be considered in bad taste. But in terms of the public right to know, the more a governor general or a prime minister discusses his role, the better.”
Schreyer was known as a Governor General who was open and friendly, which went against the usual stiff persona of the office. He would change the prestigious New Year’s levee from an invitation only event to putting out an open invitation in the newspapers, especially for children under 12. Naturally, thousands of people came out for the event.
This created criticism in the social circles of Ottawa, with one unnamed person stating quote:
“They’re classless, tasteless people and their little girls have foul mouths.”
The Ottawa Citizen’s social columnist would write quote:
“They’ve very plebby, terribly ordinary people, you know. His family is straight off the farm. His mother looks like a real babushka, she has a very behind the Iron Curtain look, and she spends her time teaching people to make quilts.”
The wife of an External Affairs officer would state to the newspaper quote:
“Government House should have a sense of glamour about it. The Schreyers are anti-elitist because of their socialist background. He is a populist who is not only uneasy with elegance and style, he thinks it is immoral.”
He and his wife would open up Rideau Hall to make it more accessible to ordinary Canadians, and they would travel the country extensively.
Lily had a strong commitment to helping Canadians with physical disabilities. As part of that, she would have an accessible entrance and elevator installed at Rideau Hall so more Canadians could visit. During the International Year of the Disabled, she had the Fountain of Hope constructed and dedicated to Terry Fox, which still sits at the main entrance to Rideau Hall today.
While the couple were friendly and open with Canadians, they also had difficulties adjusting to life in Rideau Hall. Lily Schreyer was said to be less than pleased with the life of living in the fishbowl that was being a Governor General’s wife.
Edward Schreyer would say quote:
“I taught a course in constitutional government at the University of Manitoba, so I was familiar with the duties of the office, though surprised by the amount of time devoted to social activities. I’m actually less frustrated than I expected to be, though it does happen now and again. Sometimes I can’t help but think it would be more fulfilling to be in active government but I offset that by reminding myself that, really, this is a golden opportunity to see every part of Canada and to talk freely in private with all kinds of officials and experts.”
Schreyer would say that he enjoyed receptions and meeting people but preferred small events to large ones. That being said, he also knew that large receptions were important, calling it the bread and butter of the job. He would tell the Calgary Herald quote:
“I don’t like ill-defined social conversation. I prefer small gatherings to large cocktail parties. Sometimes you find someone to talk to at a large party about something of depth and substance, but it doesn’t happen often.”
On May 14, 1984, his time as Governor General came to an end. It was said that the only person happier than the new Governor General was Schreyer himself.
Despite his joy in leaving the Governor General post, he had no regrets. He would say quote:
“I have no regrets whatsoever, nostalgia perhaps, for past associations and achievements, but not regret. Serving as Governor General of Canada was a completely unthought of idea to my thinking, but once it was suggested accepting the task wasn’t difficult. I felt I could get to know this country, its people and its natural geography in a way that no other opportunity would provide.”
It was said that of the 1,460 days he was Governor General, Schreyer was on the road for half of those days, visiting people in Canada. During his time as Governor General, 250,000 people came to Rideau Hall as well, and he met with 13 heads of state. One of his most important visitors was Pope John Paul II.
As well, he would make state visits to five Nordic countries, as well as Romania, Greece, Germany and Greenland. He also presented 1,155 medals and distributed 450 academic medals to students. He also received 98 foreign ambassadors in Canada and signed 14,911 orders-in-council. He also visited the northern most point in Canada and the southern most, broke the sound barrier in a jet, drove a tank and went down in a submarine.
Most of the media criticized his time as Governor General, likely due to the fact he was unlike any Governor General who came before.
Charles Lynch of the Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:
“His crony and chief courtier, author Farley Mowat, was on national TV Sunday night saying Schreyer was the greatest Governor General Canada has ever had. A fellow viewer asked what Farley had been sniffing and I replied, without hesitation, that what he smelt was hospitality, his long spells in residence at Government House as a guest of the Schreyers and the tax payers.”
After he served as Governor General, Schreyer stated he was donating his pension from the post to the Canadian Shield Foundation, an environmental organization.
The same day he left his role as Governor General, he was appointed the High Commissioner to Australia, a post he held until 1988.
Back in Canada, he would work as the national representative for Habitat for Humanity and as an honorary director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
Beginning in 1989, he would work as a guest professor at universities in North America and Europe, lecturing on the environment, energy economics and resource geography.
From 2002 until 2008, he served as the Chancellor of Brandon University.
In 2006, at the age of 70, Schreyer became the first former Governor General to run for Parliament after the term had ended. He would lose to his Conservative opponent.
In 2011, he would endorse Thomas Mulcair for the federal NDP leadership, and in 2015 he would criticize Manitoba Hydro for not looking hard enough towards other renewable energy sources. Despite his age, he ensured his voice was heard.
He would say quote:
“If I wasn’t pushing 80, I’d be tempted to jump back into political life just on the issue of energy alone.”
A recipient of the Order of Canada and Order of Manitoba, a school in his home town is named for him.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Manitoba Historical Society, Macleans, Wikipedia, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, North Bay Nugget, Sault Star,