Since Vincent Massey had become the first Canadian-born Governor General, there had been Governors General from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. So far, both coasts of Canada had not been represented yet, but that would change with Romeo LeBlanc, who succeeded the very popular Ray Hnatyshyn as Governor General.
Today, I’m looking at his life.
Born in New Brunswick on Dec. 18, 1927, Leblanc was raised in Memramcook and then went on to attend the University Saint-Joseph. He would earn a Bachelor of Arts in 1948, followed by a Bachelor of Education in 1951. None of LeBlanc’s siblings went to school past grade 8, but two of his sisters wanted to ensure he had a proper education and they contributed to his schooling, helping him graduate from high school and later post-secondary.
After graduating with his degrees, LeBlanc became a teacher at Drummond High School from 1951 to 1953. He then moved to France to study French civilization at the Universite de Paris. His professors wanted him to go for a doctorate but his brother back home had died from a brain tumour and LeBlanc decided to help support his widow and children.
He returned to Canada in 1955 and began working as a professor at the New Brunswick Teachers’ College, serving in that position until 1959.
In 1960, LeBlanc changed careers and began to work for Radio Canada as an Ottawa correspondent until 1962, then as the United Kingdom correspondent from that year until 1965. He spent another two years as the United States correspondent from 1965 to 1967.
In 1966, he married Joslyn Carter and together the couple would have two children. They would divorce in 1981. That same year, he joined President Lyndon Johnson as a correspondent during his first trip to Vietnam.
In 1967, LeBlanc moved into politics for the first time when he became the press secretary to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
LeBlanc felt that the opportunity was too good for him not to leave his job in Washington D.C. He would say in an interview in 1971, quote:
“I loved Washington but I couldn’t think of a good reason for saying no.”
On Dec. 15, LeBlanc had a very busy time. First, his boss, Lester Pearson announced he was retiring, resulting in LeBlanc having to handle that. At the same time, his wife gave birth to their first child.
The Montreal Star reported quote:
“Caught in the middle, pulled from both ends, torn between the two, was Romeo LeBlanc. Wherefore art thou Romeo? Yesterday, he was everywhere. At 5 a.m. he rushed his wife Lynn to the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Neither of them had slept much. At 8:15 a.m., he rushed to the office of the Prime Minister who had slept quite well.”
After Pearson retired in 1968, LeBlanc continued in his role with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, serving until 1971 when he became the Director of Public Relations at the Universite de Moncton.
He would serve as the press secretary of the 1968 campaign for Trudeau, and he had covered campaigns as a reporter, but in the future he would not do any campaigns. He would say quote:
“I would not do another one. That is the way you get heart attacks.”
The Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:
“The rotund, rather old fashioned figure of Romeo LeBlanc, scarred but still unbowed, ambles away from Parliament Hill this week after four years of directing press relations for two prime ministers.”
Some in the press believed he had a falling out with Trudeau, but this would not be the case, especially considering his close working relationship with Trudeau for the next decade. He would say upon leaving the position quote:
“There is conflict in any press office, trying to reconcile the best treatment for the press with overall responsibility to one’s boss. There is this inherent tension, this is a grueling job.”
Overall, he enjoyed his first foray into the national spotlight as a press secretary for two of the most influential prime ministers of the 20th century. He would say quote:
“I have enjoyed it, it has been a rewarding experience even if exhausting.”
In 1972, he made the next jump in his career when he was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal MP. He would say quote:
“People want you as their advocate, explaining their problems to the government and the bureaucracy. Most MPs work their butts off. Oh yes, there are a few who goof off, but the great majority work very hard solving the problems of their constituents and there are a great many.”
One fascinating aspect of this election for LeBlanc was that to win the nomination to represent the Liberal Party in the riding, was that he had to defeat another Romeo LeBlanc who was also going for the nomination.
In 1974, he became the Minister of State for Fisheries. The Ottawa Journal wrote quote:
“The mere fact that Mr. LeBlanc is a New Brunswicker automatically elevated his standing among the thousands of fishermen, plant workers and those indirectly associated with the fishing industry of the East Coast.”
LeBlanc would say that he was not the minister of fish, but the minister of fishermen.
In his first major address as minister, he would impress many in the industry by giving his personal philosophy about the fishery in terms of how it has impacted the Maritimes socially, historically and economically. He would say quote:
“In a year when Newfoundland’s great fishery seemed for a time to have turned into a long calamity, when our Atlantic catch appears to decline for the sixth year in a row, when markets for the catch are jammed, I find almost everything about the fishing industry singularly unfunny. The economists among you probably know a hundred different ways to analyze the fishing industry. Who though takes the view of the fishermen? How many of us would go to work in the morning without any idea of our pay. How many of us would put ourselves in the place of the fisherman, exchange our way of life for his?”
In 1976, LeBlanc was appointed to the cabinet post of Minister of Fisheries and the Environment, but very little changed in his portfolio as he continued on in relatively the same position.
By the early-1980s, he continued to serve in the fisheries portfolio, except for a brief period when Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservatives were in power from 1979 to 1980. This made LeBlanc the longest-serving holder of the portfolio in Canadian history to that point. As fisheries minister, he would see Canadian territorial waters expanded from 12 nautical miles off the coast to 200. He would also establish a new fisheries licensing system, and begin to implement quotas and zones to protect Canadian fishermen from trawler competition and overexpansion. He would also convince Trudeau to close Canadian ports to Soviet fishing vessels, which would lead to better co-operation with the Soviets. He also implemented a policy that forbid all foreign corporations from holding commercial fishing licences in Canada.
In 1982, he finally left the Fisheries portfolio and was made the Minister of Public Works.
In 1984, LeBlanc chose not to run again and before Trudeau retired himself, he appointed LeBlanc to the Senate on June 29.
LeBlanc would support Jean Chretien in the Liberal leadership race. He would say quote:
“We have to decide if the Liberal party is going to stay Liberal. That is why I am here.”
For the next decade, LeBlanc would serve in the Senate. During that time he would serve on Jean Chretien’s leadership bid in 1984 and was part of his election-strategy team in 1993. After the election, LeBlanc was named the Speaker of the Senate on Dec. 7, 1993.
In 1994, Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced that LeBlanc would become the new Governor General of Canada. It was a big year for LeBlanc as he married Diana Fowler that year as well.
Sworn in on Feb. 8, 1995, LeBlanc was the first politician from the Maritimes, and the first Canadian of Acadian origin to serve in the position. On top of that, he was the first former member of the Parliamentary press gallery, and the first former senator.
Interestingly, the first choice to become the new Governor General was not LeBlanc, but hockey legend Jean Beliveau, but he declined the honour.
Upon his appointment, Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party, and Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, criticized the appointment for the appointment of a former Liberal politician and a close confidant.
Manning would say quote:
“I’m uneasy about the entire appointment. I don’t mean any personal offence to Mr. LeBlanc. I’m sure he is a fine fellow. At this point, I think it is unwise to have a personal friend of the prime minister in that position.”
Both men refused to attend his installation ceremony. John Harvard, a Liberal MP, would say quote:
“The Governor General’s office deserves respect and what Mr. Manning and some of his colleagues did was sad. The installation of a Governor General is non-partisan. The office is above politics.”
At the installation ceremony, among the usual 21-gun salutes and speeches, there was also entertainment, which was a first in the Senate Chambers. The Dance of the Broom was performed and Dan Hill sang a song for the Governor General.
In his first speech as Governor General, LeBlanc would say quote:
“In our separate villages we lived our separate lives in our separate worlds, except when fire destroyed a barn. Then families with names like Cormier and Taylor worked shoulder to shoulder putting up a new one. When one family fell on hard times, another family was there to help. In this great country, very few share the same past, but all of us can share the same future, especially if we refuse to permit the past to poison the future.”
As Governor General, LeBlanc focused on citizen involvement and the Indigenous, while also promoting history and the Armed Forces. Continuing in the tradition of his predecessor, LeBlanc continued to make Rideau Hall more accessible to visitors. He extended visiting hours at the estate and in July 1996, he began to allow the public to visit state rooms, gardens and greenhouses.
When LeBlanc became Governor General, 40,000 people per year were visiting Rideau Hall. By the time he left the post, 125,000 were visiting per year.
When the Quebec Referendum of 1995 dominated the news, LeBlanc made the specific decision to not get involved in the political debate but he would speak on the merits of Canada. He would say quote:
“The Governor General has traditionally abstained from taking part in political debates. But if you ask if there is a role for me to promote the merits of Canada, the answer is yes.”
In November 1995, LeBlanc created the Governor Genera’s Caring Canadian Award to recognize quote:
“The everyday courage and dedication of ordinary people who have made extraordinary contributions to their families, communities or country.”
On June 13, 1996, LeBlanc proclaimed June 21 to be National Aboriginal Day, to recognize Indigenous groups across the country. The day was created to focus on the heritage, cultures and achievements of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis.
He would say quote:
“Many cities in Canada are less than a hundred years old but Aboriginal people have lived in this land for more than a hundred centuries. The day of celebration honours the native peoples who first brough humanity to this great land.”
In August 1997, he would issue a statement on the tragic death of Princess Diana in Paris. He would say quote:
“We will miss her, and all Canadians extend the greatest sympathy to her sons and her family for their tragic loss.”
In June 1998, LeBlanc held a large summer celebration, a tradition that dated back to the 1860s, and over 8,000 people showed up to celebrate, which showed the increased accessibility seen at Rideau Hall during LeBlanc’s tenure.
On April 1, 1999, LeBlanc signed the Royal Proclamation to establish Nunavut as the newest territory in Canada. He also established the Governor General’s Millennium Edition of the Map of Canada, which was taken to space in 1999 by Julie Payette, a future Governor General.
He also had the claws and tongue removed from the symbol of the Canadian vice-regal office, stating it was impolite and un-Canadian. The reaction to this were mostly unfavourable and the original standard would be reimplemented after LeBlanc left his office.
By the time his term as Governor General was winding down, LeBlanc made it clear to Prime Minister Chretien that he was not interested in an extension.
Chretien would say quote:
“You have to understand that he is in the fifth year of his mandate, so it is an indication that he is not very interested in an extension. I’m not surprised he does not want to see his mandate extended.”
Over the course of his time as Governor General, LeBlanc took part in upwards of 400 events every year, which was taxing on him as he aged. There was speculation that his health was the reason for the lack of extension but his office stated this was not the case. The release said quote:
“Anything about his health and things like that, all the excuses that are offered as an argument for him to quit early, that’s not true.”
LeBlanc’s term as Governor General came to an end on Oct. 7, 1999. In his last day as Governor General, LeBlanc simply boarded a train bound for Moncton, New Brunswick, and made no speeches as Adrienne Clarkson took over his role.
One person would say quote:
“He was sad and his wife was visibly so.”
On the train platform, 50 soldiers from the Governor General’s Foot Guards and another 50 from the Canadian Grenadier Guards waiting for their final inspection by LeBlanc.
Later, he would say of his plans after being Governor General and returning home, stating quote:
“It feels a bit strange because although I’ve gone back, going back was always interrupting work, going for a holiday or family reasons. But now, I’ll probably think to myself where do I go after this? The fact is, I’ll go nowhere.”
As Governor General, LeBlanc welcomed many heads of state to Canada including Bill Clinton, King Hussein, King Abdullah II and Nelson Mandela. He also took eight state visits abroad, becoming the first Governor General to visit the Czech Republic, India, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Mali and Morocco.
He also gave 791 speeches and attended more than 1,800 events during his time as Governor General. He also welcomed 68,677 guests to Rideau Hall for social functions, not counting the thousands who visited as part of tour groups. Over 60,000 came for the Teddy Bear picnics held over the last two years of LeBlanc’s tenure.
He would say quote:
“I expect to be lazy for some time, passing the time burning logs.”
His wife Diana would say quote:
“I just want to sleep for awhile. We’ve had so many experiences. I think you just have to sit down and think about it.”
From 2001 to 2004, he served as the Chancellor of Universite de Moncton.
On June 24, 2009, LeBlanc died at the age of 81 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
His son Dominic LeBlanc would say of his father quote:
“My father as a governor general was exactly the same person when he was assistant to the rector at Moncton University, as he was when he was a backbench MP, or Minister in government. He was someone who loved simplicity, who was modest in his personal life. In terms of public life, my father always saw the state or the government as a good tool, not the only one.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would say quote:
“Romeo LeBlanc will be greatly missed not only by those who knew him personally, his family, friends and former colleagues, and all those whose lives he touched directly, but also by those who knew him only as a public figure, one whose warmth and dedication to duty and his country are his legacy.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien stated quote:
“He was a man with very great qualities. He was very proud to be Acadian, very proud to be francophone.”
As with other Governors General, LeBlanc was given a state funeral, which was attended by Governor General Michaelle Jean, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
In February 2010, LeBlanc was honoured with a stamp by Canada Post and a park in his hometown was named for him. An airport in Greater Moncton is also named for him.
One last thing about LeBlanc, he was the last Governor General I will be covering who has passed away. From this point on, as of this recording, all the rest of the Governors General are still living.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Montreal Star, Wikipedia, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal, National Post, Montreal Gazette, Victoria Times Colonist,