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Since Vincent Massey became the first Canadian born Governor General, the country had had one Governor General born in Ontario, three who were Francophone, one from Manitoba and one from Alberta.

After Jeanne Sauve finished her term as Governor General, it was time for Saskatchewan to gain a Governor General of its own. While technically Jeanne Sauve was born in Saskatchewan, she spent most of her life in Ottawa and Montreal.

Now, it was time for Ray Hnatyshyn to take over, becoming the 24th Governor General of the country.

Hnatyshyn was born on March 16, 1934 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Helen and John Hnatyshyn. His father, John, had come from Ukraine and became close friends with John Diefenbaker before he became prime minister. Due to that relationship and his work, John Hnatyshyn was made Canada’s first Ukrainian-born Senator.

His mother Helen would say quote:

“Ray was always interested in politics because of his father. Whenever his father went out with Diefenbaker, Ray would go along.”

Hnatyshyn would say in 1983 of those early years quote:

“In growing up, part of my political education came from first hand observation of Mr. Diefenbaker and my dad’s political activities.”

He would add later of Diefenbaker quote:

“I was in awe of him.”

Ray Hnatyshyn would attend Victoria Public School and then moved on to the University of Saskatchewan to earn a bachelor of arts in 1954, followed by a law degree two years later. In 1957, he passed the Saskatchewan bar and practiced law in Saskatoon for a brief time.

He then moved to Ottawa to become an executive assistant to the government leader in the Senate, remaining there until 1960 when he came back to Saskatoon to practice law. He would say of his experience quote:

“I could see it was where I wanted to end up.”

That same year, he married Karen Andreasen and together they would have two sons.

As a youth, Hnatyshyn had been a member of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. From 1951 to 1956, he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force reserves, and from 1956 to 1958, was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 23 Wing Auxiliary.

Over the course of the 1960s, Hnatyshyn also taught law at the University of Saskatchewan.

In 1964, Hnatyshyn began his first steps towards a political career when he ran as a Progressive Conservative in the provincial election, but he failed to win his seat, finishing with five per cent of the vote, 13th overall among the candidates.

In 1974, Hnatyshyn ran as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the riding of Saskatoon-Biggar in the federal election.

In that campaign, he would say that NDP support was swinging in his area and many were beginning to join him in his attempt to get elected. The riding had been won by the NDP the past two elections, but Hnatyshyn was able to win by 1,200 votes over his NDP challenger.

One way he helped swing votes over to his side was by aligning with farmers in the urban-rural riding. He would say quote:

“Anybody that lives in Saskatchewan for any period of time, whether they live in the city or not, knows which side his bread is buttered on. There is no question that agriculture is still the No. 1 industry.”

Hnatyshyn was also helped in that campaign by a very prominent Canadian, and an old family friend, John Diefenbaker.

Diefenbaker would say on the campaign trail quote:

“When I was a boy, if you didn’t have an English or a French last name, you couldn’t amount to anything. I had a dream in those days to change all that. I grew up and made my dream come true. It took 50 years for me to get the Bill of Rights passed but now it is law. Today, I’m back here just 17 miles from where I grew up and I’m campaigning for a man named Hnatyshyn.”

He would be elected and would serve in Parliament until 1988.

In 1976, he would be one of the few Progressive Conservatives to vote in favour of abolishing the death penalty. He would say at the time quote:

“Obviously some people will disagree. I hope people will understand that it was not done on a whim or for political reasons.”

This decision was especially hard as Diefenbaker voted to retain the death penalty. Three years later, Diefenbaker was dead. Hnatyshyn would say quote:

“It was a difficult day for me. He was disappointed in me, I know, but I had to do what I did. It was a matter of conscience. It was only much later I realized he had disappointed me that day too.”

In 1979, Joe Clark became prime minister and he appointed Hnatyshyn as the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, as well as Secretary of State for Science and Technology.

Hnatyshyn set himself apart from his colleagues by choosing to wear one of two suede sports coats, rather than the suits worn by others. He would say the jackets were made of Ultrasuede and joked it was an edible oil product.

Macleans would write of him quote:

“He was one of Parliament’s premier hecklers, fast with a quip, through his jabs were invariably followed by a grin or look of mock horror to dull the thrust. But he was never entirely comfortable with power. You could tell by the clothes he wore.”

Overall, Hnatyshyn was well-liked in Parliament by both sides of the aisle and when the Progressive Conservatives came back into power in 1984 under Brian Mulroney, Hnatyshyn was named government house leader. He would also serve as President of the Privy Council and the Minister of Justice.

In those positions, he was well-liked by his staff. The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:

“His staff were just totally dedicated to him and I think his sense of humour relieved a lot of the tension. Some of the stuff was just totally outrageous. He’d crack everyone up.”

As Justice Minister, he would introduce an anti-pornography bill that would limit what could be shown on television or movies. Hnatyshyn would say of the bill quote:

“I believe and I know all Canadians agree with me that there can be no justification for the depiction of extreme sexual violence or the exploitation of Canadian youth.”

With the press, off the record he was known as a standup comic who took potshots at himself and others around him. On the record though, he was seen as the least quotable member of the cabinet and often talked in circles to the point that reporters eventually stopped asking many questions of him. Even with that frustration, most of the reporters liked Hnatyshyn for his easy demeanor and friendly nature.

Once, during a meeting with provincial justice ministers he received a phone call from Brian Smith, the attorney general of British Columbia who could not attend because he was on his honeymoon. The line went dead unexpectedly and rather than hang up, Hnatyshyn began to pretend to ask questions that became more and more personal, including about the intimacy of Smith’s married life.

Dan Turner, a reporter turned speech writer said quote:

“Put Ray in a room and in no time he’ll be surrounded by laughing people.”

In his position as Justice Minister, it was not uncommon for Hnatyshyn to work from 8 a.m. to midnight and throughout his time in Parliament, his family continued to live in Saskatoon, resulting in constant commute from Ottawa to Saskatoon and back again for Hnatyshyn.

In 1988, Hnatyshyn lost his seat in a re-election bid by 5,000 votes to his NDP challenger, ending his political career but a new career was on the horizon.

He would say upon his loss quote:

“Personally, I was surprised to see myself lose because people had received me well at the doors with great courtesy. In Saskatchewan we have a tradition of politicians getting knocked off. Now I know how Tommy Douglas and Roy Romanow felt. I know I don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

In regards to Romanow, Hnatyshyn would become godfather to a nephew on Romanow’s wife’s side.

One reason he may have lost in his riding was due to the government’s move on abortion. Throughout the campaign, anti-abortion activists targeted him and spend much of the campaign protesting on his front lawn. There was also the unpopularity of Brian Mulroney at the time. His NDP opponent Chris Axworthy would say quote:

“I know I didn’t win because the voters disliked Ray. I know they think very highly of him. It is Brian Mulroney they voted against. I was the beneficiary of that.”

For the next year, he worked in a law firm in Ottawa before Mulroney announced in October 1989 that Hnatyshyn would be the new Governor General of Canada.

When he found out he was going to be the Governor General, Hnatyshyn called his extended family and told them to get the family together for breakfast so he could make an announcement.

His mother Helen stated quote:

“It was a complete surprise. It was driving him silly trying to keep it to himself.”

Overall, there was high praise for Hnatyshyn becoming Governor General. Hubert Bauch of the Montreal Gazette wrote quote:

“To know Ray Hnatyshyn from all accounts is to think that he’s a prince among men. Intelligent, affable, generous, good-humoured, not the least bit full of himself. Former colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons unfailingly use terms like these to describe his human qualities.”

Critics of the appointment stated that Hnatyshyn was nothing more than a crony of Mulroney and should not have the post, especially considering he had a poor understanding of French.

Close friend Harry Near would say that would likely change. He told Macleans quote:

“I’m not suggesting that Ray will ever be fully bilingual, but you will see a definite improvement.”

In truth, Hnatyshyn was not appointed without thought by Mulroney. The prime minister consulted both Liberal leader John Turner and NDP leader Ed Broadbent, both of whom highly recommended Hnatyshyn.

Hnatyshyn would become the first person of Ukrainian-descent to serve as Governor General of Canada.

As such, the appointment was widely celebrated by Ukrainian Canadians. Dr. Dymtro Cipywynk, the president of the National Ukrainian Canadian Committee said quote:

“It is a cause of celebration. I think he will have a tremendous unifying effect on Canada. For a community that has worked so long to make it and do well in Canada, appointing someone like Ray Hnatyshyn makes a very important impact.”

On Jan. 29, 1990, Hnatyshyn was sworn in as Governor General. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would say at the ceremony quote:

“As a distinguished lawyer, as a second-generation Canadian, you know first-hand the difficulties which have caused you to become an advocate of tolerance, champion of national reconciliation, and you know of this country and you understand and admire her people.”

In his speech after being sworn in, Hnatyshyn said that he planned to quote:

“champion the issues about which Canadians care deeply. Service to the community, environmental responsibility, the ongoing struggle to conquer literacy, the needs of the aged.”

He would say in Ukrainian quote:

“I can only be grateful because among the families that came to Canada, and were welcomed to it, were Michael and Anna Hnatyshyn, holding in their arms the infant son who would be my father.”

Stating that the Governor General was a position that belonged to the people of Canada, Hnatyshyn got to work to back up his words. He quickly re-opened the grounds of Rideau Hall to the public, which had been closed since 1986 under Jeanne Sauve. He also invited 400 residents of the neighbourhood around the property into the mansion for a visit. He also insisted that people call him Ray.

When he invited his neighbours to Government House, they were treated to coffee and cookies and Hnatyshyn and his wife mingled with the guests for two hours.

Neighbour Jean Short would say quote:

“He was absolutely charming. He remembered my family. I really think we’re going to like our new neighbour.”

Hnatyshyn would say quote:

“I was happy to open the gates.”

It was also rumoured in private quarters he had told friends quote:

“I guess if the Berlin Wall can come down, the gates can be opened.”

He added that the security concerns that had closed the grounds were alleviated by the security cameras that had been installed. He stated quote:

“Not once during the time I was governor general did I feel a sense that I needed security.”

He would also establish a visitors’ centre and begin guided tours of the grounds and building.

Macleans would write quote:

“The fence-mending gesture would signal what is likely to be a marked change in viceregal style.”

One of his first trips as Governor General was to go to Quebec, where he met with Premier Robert Bourassa. At the time, Canada was also going through the Meech Lake Accord debate, and Hnatyshyn would say of it in Quebec quote:

“People are not always agreed about the meaning of the past and the needs of the present. We are writing a very important page of our history and to protect the future we must force ourselves to understand and be understood.”

Those around Hnatyshyn would say that there was a chance, given his affable qualities, that he would become the most admired Governor General since Georges Vanier, who served from 1959 to 1967.

On Feb. 21, 1991, Hnatyshyn had a bit of a hiccup during a flight on a military aircraft. While flying out of Toronto, the crew detected the smell of burning rubber and an unusual vibration. It was found that there had been landing gear difficulties. Nothing serious, but still something relatively unusual for a Governor General to go through.

In October 1991, Hnatyshyn phoned the locker room of the Toronto Blue Jays to congratulate them on becoming the first Canadian team to win the World Series, something he would get to repeat the following year. He would also invite them to Rideau Hall.

In 1992, the skating rink at Rideau Hall was re-opened after years of being closed to the public. That same year, he hosted a rock concert on the grounds, which had a message of staying in school and also promoted the Canadian Scholarships Program. The concert aired on YTV as His Excellency’s Most Excellent Rock Concert.

Also that year, which was the 75th anniversary of the NHL, he set up a miniature hockey hall of fame inside Rideau Hall and had Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Maurice Richard greet visitors.

In 1993, Hnatyshyn created the Governor General’s Summer Concert Series, which has since become a very popular music festival.

In 1994, his wife wrote the book Rideau Hall-Canada’s Living Heritage. The proceeds from this book went to expanding the collection of art and furnishings at Government House. A heritage garden was also built by the couple on the grounds.

Gerda would say quote:

“When my husband and I took up residence at this historic address, our thoughts inevitably focused on somehow sharing the experience with all Canadians. We became convinced the appropriate medium would be a coffee table book.”

The 160-page book explored the heritage of the home, as well as its grounds.

As Governor General, Hnatyshyn created the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, which is now one of the most prestigious awards for the performing arts in Canada.

His time as Governor General came to an end in February 1995. In his last New Year’s Day levee, held on Jan. 1, 1995, 2,000 people came out to say goodbye.

As Governor General, Hnatyshyn welcomed 26 heads of state to Canada, including Russian president Boris Yeltsin. He would also make several state visits of his own, including to Ukraine, his ancestral home. Along with the heads of state, he also received more than 150 Ambassadors or High Commissioners. He would also preside over the 125th anniversary of Confederation, the 50th anniversary of D-Day and welcome Prince Charles and Princess Diana to Rideau Hall.

He would receive criticism in April 1994 when he met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, which led many to accuse him of being soft on human rights.

Over the course of his time as Governor General, he travelled over 500,000 kilometres and visited over 80 communities in Canada. He also attended over 2,000 events, gave over 1,200 speeches, received over 20,000 letters and sent out over 100,000 anniversary messages. At Rideau Hall, over 92,000 people toured the public rooms and 112,000 toured the grounds. He was also the first Governor General to travel internationally with business leaders to drum up opportunities for Canadian entrepreneurs.

He would say after stepping down quote:

“I’ve had a very fortunate life. I’ve had the opportunity to serve the people of Canada and I am very humbled about that.”

While most Canadians felt Hnatyshyn was an excellent Governor General who connected with Canadians, the Monarchist League of Canada criticized his time as Governor General stating he did not stand up for the Canadian Crown he represented.

In November 2002, he was named the Chancellor of Carleton University.

Only a few weeks later, on Dec. 18, 2002, he died from complications related to pancreatitis. A tumour had been found in his bile duct in mid-August and he had been in the hospital off and on since September.

On Dec. 23, 2002, he was commemorated in a multi-faith state funeral after spending two days in state at the Senate Chamber.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien stated quote:

“He will be remembered by all for his warmth, his devotion to his country and to the work he did on behalf of all Canadians. He touched the hearts of all and will be sorely missed.”

When his stamp was issued by Canada Post in 2004 on what would have been his 70th birthday, the organization stated quote:

“Even in full formal dress, Ray Hnatyshyn could never look pompous. He was resolutely a man of the people.”

Macleans would write after his death quote:

“Forget the high office and Hnatyshyn’s career was still a potent symbol of immigrant arrival. His father came from a farm in Ukraine to become a lawyer, as did Ray and his two brothers. But for him the grander achievement had to be more than just surviving Ottawa politics in a particularly bitter period, but taking some of the mickey out of it with wit, whimsey and a touch of prairie friendliness. It is an inspiring Canadian story.”

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Governor General of Canada, Wikipedia, Regina Leader Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Fort McMurray Today, Windsor Star, Vancouver Sun,

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