After Jeanne Sauve served as the first female Governor General from 1984 to 1990, it would be a decade before another female Governor General came along.
This time, it was time for another Governor General to make history, Adrienne Clarkson, who was set several firsts as Governor General, but we will get to that.
Clarkson was born in Hong Kong on Feb. 10, 1939, the daughter of Ethel and William Poy, who were a prominent family in the colony at the time of her birth.
In 1941, the Japanese invaded and Clarkson, along with her brother and parents, fled and came to Canada as refugees in 1942. Due to her father’s work with the Canadian Trade Commission in Hong Kong, the family was able to settle in Canada under special circumstances, despite the fact that the Chinese Immigration Act excluded nearly all Chinese immigrants to Canada at the time.
Clarkson would say decades later quote:
“We arrived with one suitcase apiece and nothing else. I was very fortunate that my family never thought of themselves as having lost anything of real value. We lost only material things. We didn’t lose what we really believed in as human beings.”
The family would settle in Ottawa and Clarkson would attend public school in the community. Her father worked in the West Block of Parliament Hill as a trade and commerce official, and the family was provided with housing.
She would say of living in Ottawa after coming from Hong Kong, quote:
“I’m very proud that the little town, which was covered in snow, white snow, full of white people in 1942, and to which our little family came, is now the kind of place in which I can take my role. You couldn’t have 79 different kinds of people on the street if it weren’t Canada.”
She would graduate with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto in English Literature in 1960, followed by a masters in 1962.
The children did well in their new country. Along with Clarkson eventually becoming Governor General, her brother Neville became a plastic surgeon, while her sister served in the Canadian Senate from 1998 to 2012.
In 1951 while attending school, she was lined up with her class to see Princess Elizabeth drive through Ottawa.
In 1963, Clarkson married Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political economy. The couple would have three daughters.
In 1965, Clarkson began her career as a TV host and writer for CBC with her job as a book reviewer for the CBC show Take Thirty, before she was soon promoted to co-host. This made her the first racialized Canadian to headline a national television program.
She would write in her memoirs quote:
“Two years after we married, I started working in television, on Take Thirty, and was immediately successful at it. Life was fulfilling me in one way by the joy I had working and learning and moving far, far from the academic world.”
She would remain with the show for 10 years, while also writing for Macleans and Chatelaine.
In 1968, she published her first novel, A Lover More Condoling, and in 1970 she wrote Hunger Trace.
Macleans would write of her in 1972 quote:
“It has been said of Mrs. Clarkson that her life is a work of art. Maybe she really is capable of that kind of perfection. Mrs. Clarkson is small, her body composed. Her features, a serene arrangement of semicircles, are not without character. Her forehead is high and prominent, her chin is held up, perhaps to make overtures with strangers, her eyes are large, heavy-lidded and very cool.”
From 1974 to 1975, she hosted the show Adrienne At Large. She then helped to launch a new CBC show, The Fifth Estate. She would co-host and report on the show, which included such things as investigating the financing of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and interviewing the Shah of Iran.
One profile on the business practices of McCain Foods earned her the anger of Josie Quart, a Canadian senator, who accused her of degrading Canadians who had been successful and for not being a naturalized Canadian citizen. Clarkson had been a naturalized citizen since 1949. He would later apologize for his comments.
Ron Haggart, a producer on The Fifth Estate, stated quote:
“Clarkson had the ability to put people at ease, such that they probably said more than they thought they were going to say. That included her ability to know when to keep quiet.”
Trigger warning for infant death for the next 30 to 40 seconds of the episode.
The 1970s were not an easy time for Clarkson in her personal life. Prior to the divorce from her husband, one of her daughters died of sudden infant death syndrome in 1971.
She wrote in her memoir quote:
“Suddenly the nanny was at the door of my bedroom saying Something happened to Chloe, you must come. I hurried to the bedroom and picked Chloe up, but she was already cool. I don’t know what exactly happened then, but I think the fire department came, and the ambulance, and the next thing I knew I was by myself in the waiting room of Sick Children’s Hospital.”
This pushed her to work harder to deal with the pain. Eventually, she and her husband divorced and her husband gained custody of her daughters. One close friend would say quote:
“It is the huge wound in her life.”
In 1982, Clarkson left The Fifth Estate and because the first agent-general in Paris for the government of Ontario. Over the course of the next five years, she promoted the business and cultural interests of Ontario to Europe.
She would say quote:
“Instead of being a closet French-watcher, I can actually go there and do something.”
In 1987, she came back to Canada and in 1988, began to host Adrienne Clarkson’s Summer Festival on CBC. This program would become Adrienne Clarkson Presents, which was an arts show that was critically acclaimed and ran until 1999.
In 1994, Clarkson was awarded the Order of Canada for her work, having hosted more than 3,500 television episodes of her shows and helping many charitable organizations. She had also received several Gemini Award nominations.
In 1999, Clarkson was appointed as Governor General on the advice of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Upon being chosen as Governor General, she became the first Governor General since Harold Alexander, who served from 1946 to 1952, to have not been born in Canada. She was also the first racialized person to serve in the post, and the first person of Asian heritage to serve. She was also the first Governor General in Canadian history to have no military or political background.
She would say quote:
“I am very honoured to be the first woman of neither founding nation to be Governor General of Canada. It has deep meaning for me that I am the first immigrant, I am originally a refugee and I think this is a very important evolution for Canada.”
Various media outlets did attack the appointment, with Larry Zolf calling her the perfect WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Jan Wong of the Globe and Mail criticized her for keeping her ex-husband’s name and not being able to speak much Chinese. When Clarkson stated she would like to be called Madame Clarkson, Deborah Grey of the Reform Party mocked the choice over using madam.
Also the same year she became Governor General, Clarkson married novelist John Ralston Saul, who had been her companion of 15 years by that point.
Chretien would say of the couple moving into Rideau Hall, quote:
“I guess that over dinner they might between the two of them come up with a pretty good conclusion.”
Several Reform MPs would criticize the appointment of Clarkson due to her left-leaning views. Bob Bills, a Reform MP from Red Deer, Alberta stated quote:
“It shows a Liberal arrogance in terms of this appointment. They assume that Canadians are all the small ‘l’ Liberal line.”
The party itself would praise the appointment though, calling Clarkson respected, hard-working and a passionate defender of her beliefs. The Bloc Quebecois would simply state that the position of Governor General should be abolished.
The National Post, in an editorial, wrote quote:
“Ms. Clarkson cannot represent all Canadians if she continually outrages the political opinions of half the country. She cannot express national unity on solemn occasions if she is a figure who symbolizes disunity the rest of the time.”
Clarkson would say of her husband and herself, and their views, quote:
“We certainly will have ideas about things and we will put them forward. If you look at the profile we have had separately and together, we do stand for something and I think that is important for Canadians.”
When she was sworn in as Governor General, her father William Poy was at Parliament Hill for the ceremony.
In her speech, she would say quote:
“I ask you to embark on a journey with me. We are constructing something different here. We have the opportunity to leave behind the useless blood calls of generations, now that we are in the new land that stretches to infinity.”
Throughout her time as Governor General, there were many landmark moments for Clarkson. She was a major supporter of the arts as Governor General, and she would travel to visit troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
She also worked to maintain strong ties between Canada and the Indigenous peoples. She would also travel throughout Canada, possibly more than any Governor General before her. She made headlines when she applauded the accomplishments of Louis Riel in a speech in November 1999. She would say in her speech quote:
“This man, Louis Riel, was a founder of Manitoba, and played a key, vital role, in opening up Canada’s West.”
As can be expected, some praised her speech, while others heavily criticized it. Robert Stewart with the Montreal Gazette stated quote:
“The vice-regal seal of approval on the self-proclaimed Prophet of the New World will doubtless encourage those who say he should be proclaimed as a Father of Confederation. It would be a typical act of Canadian niceness to honour the memory of a man who was hanged for high treason against Canada…being nice, however, always requires that you avert your eyes from embarrassing facts about the person you’re being nice to.”
In January 2000, when asked if she liked being Governor General, she stated quote:
“You’re asking at the wrong time, because we’ve been here for 10 weeks and I would say we’ve had about four days that have been our own. But what keeps me going is a kind of eternal curiosity among people, which is what made me reasonably good at television.”
Critics would continue to accuse her of not being true to her Chinese heritage, something Clarkson took offense to. She would say in an interview quote:
“I don’t know that anyone has the right to tell me my heritage wasn’t genuine. I have my family, I have our story. Everybody’s family is individual. And whatever way you want to approach your own background, I feel Canada should leave you free to do that.”
On May 28, 2000, she read a eulogy at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stating quote:
“Today, we are gathered together as one, to bury someone’s son. The only certainty about him is that he was young. If death is a debt we all must pay, he paid before he owed it… Did he read poetry? Did he get into fights? Did he have freckles? Did he think nobody understood him?… In giving himself totally through duty, commitment, love and honour he has become part of us forever. As we are part of him.”
The Royal Canadian Legion described as powerful. John Fraser, a journalist, would say quote:
“You have to go back pretty far to find anyone who stirred national emotions the way Clarkson did with her magnificent speech.”
On Sept. 14, 2001, Clarkson presided over a memorial service on Parliament Hill for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, which was attended by over 100,000 people, making it the largest single vigil ever seen in Ottawa.
During her time as Governor General, Clarkson was criticized for what the public saw as lavish spending. One example of this was in 2003 when she conducted a state visit to Russia, Finland and Iceland, which cost $5 million. This would lead to a House of Commons committee inquiry questioning her officials, resulting in a budget reduction for the Governor General.
That being said, her 19-day tour of these countries, which included 59 other prominent Canadians, was also seen as a major success.
It was seen by many that the Prime Minister had left Clarkson to defend herself, without any help from him.
The House of Commons would vote to trim her budget by $417,000.
In 2004, her tenure was supposed to come to an end but Prime Minister Paul Martin asked that she remain for another year, as he felt it was important to show Canadians stability while the government was in a minority government.
In January 2005, Clarkson was criticized for not attending the memorial service for Alberta Lt. Governor Lois Hole. Many monarchists in Canada began to lobby for Clarkson to resign at this point.
On July 8, 2005, Clarkson was admitted to the hospital with chest pains and soon after was fitted with a pacemaker. She would soon return to her duties.
On July 23, 2005, Clarkson was made an honorary member of the Kainai Chieftainship at a ceremony near Standoff, Alberta. She was then adopted into the Blood Tribe with the name Grandmother of Many nations. This made her the first Governor General since Edward Schreyer in 1984 to become an honorary chief and only the third woman overall to receive the honour.
On Sept. 27, 2005, her term as Governor General came to an end. Due to her popularity with the military, a huge send-off was mounted by the military for her, the first time such a thing had ever been done for a Governor General.
On her last day as Governor General, she and her husband planted two ceremonial trees on the grounds of Rideau Hall.
Over the course of her time as Governor General, she welcomed 200,000 people a year to Rideau Hall, attended upwards of 1,000 events a year, chatted with children in the Canadian North, sipped tea in outport villages, and visited countless troops around the country and abroad.
While some have criticized her time as Governor General, others state she brought new life into the position and received praise for being a more modern Governor General that brought more public attention to the post. The Globe and Mail would state in an editorial quote:
“Adrienne Clarkson, once a refugee, represents the Queen here in Canada is the singular most important reason for believing that the monarchy is relevant to Canada’s emerging identity. Her role may only be ceremonial and symbolic, but as the enduring quality of the Royal Family attests, you can never underestimate the power of myth.”
Macleans would write quote:
“Adrienne Clarkson showed the world the best could be Canadian.”
The Saskatoon Star Phoenix said of her quote:
“She certainly lived up to the routine job description. She had tea with the Queen’s subjects. She inspected the honour guard. She attended funerals. She wined and dined visiting heads of state and she read the government’s throne speeches. More significantly, though, Adrienne Clarkson brought an unprecedented intellectual rigour to the job of the Queen’s representative in Canada that has raised the bar for her successors.”
Unlike previous Governors General, Clarkson also wrote her own speeches, and her and her husband met more Canadians than any previous Governor General.
Before she left office, she made history one more time, by attending the installation ceremony of her successor Michelle Jean. Such a thing had not been in over a century, but Clarkson received permission to do so as she wanted to show quote:
“respect for the institution and for the Governor General designate.”
In 2006, Clarkson published her autobiography Heart Matters, which became a best seller.
She would also have a cameo appearance in an episode of Corner Gas.
In 2007, she was appointed as the Colonel-in-Chief of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
In 2009, Clarkson published a biography of Norman Bethune and that same year, established the Clarkson Cup, which is awarded to the champion of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The cup is currently housed in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 2018, she would receive criticism when it was found she had been spending $100,000 per year on office supplies, which was billed to the taxpayer. This is completely legal as Governors General can bill office expenses but it received a great deal of criticism in Canada.
Along with her 32 honorary degrees, two schools in Ontario are named for Clarkson.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Governor General of Canada, Wikipedia, Macleans, Edmonton Journal, CTV, National Post, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Fort McMurray Today, Calgary Herald,
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