National Post

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Thursday, September 09, 1999

Challenge for Clarkson is to win hearts of Canadians
Public cynical: Recent PMs have treated job as patronage posting

Richard Foot
National Post



(Lord) Tweedsmuir

Adrienne Clarkson will shake many hands and, perhaps, a few heads, in her coming years as Canada's 26th governor-general. The question is can she restore the public respect and personal distinction so long missing from the office?

"Today the governor-general seems to be so distanced from the people of Canada," laments David Smith, a constitutional author and professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Prof. Smith and other constitutional scholars say the governor-general is an institution in decline, not because of a growing republican spirit here, but thanks instead to a string of poor and partisan appointments to an office that demands individuals of the highest calibre. A governor-general must command the respect of all political parties and also win the hearts of Canadians if they are to prove a success.

We've seen heroic and well-loved viceregal leaders before. In the late 1930s Lord Tweedsmuir -- the celebrated author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and other action classics -- impressed people by exploring the remote edges of Canada's Arctic. In the 1960s General Georges Vanier, a distinguished wartime diplomat, earned the affections of a country in the midst of difficult economic times with his inspiring, compassionate speeches.

Others inspired by the example of their distinguished lives, such as Vincent Massey, or Field Marshall The Duke of Connaught, or General The Lord Byng of Vimy, or Field Marshall The Viscount Alexander of Tunis.

Canadians are seldom inspired or moved by their governor-general today. Peter Russell, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, blames the problem on prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, who, starting with Edward Schreyer in 1974, carelessly handed the keys to Rideau Hall to loyal party supporters or defeated politicians in need of a job.

One of Canada's most important constitutional roles has, says Prof. Russell, been turned into any other high-profile patronage post.

"They did not act wisely in filling the position," he says. "These were all able people with honesty and integrity, but they weren't the outstanding people you really need in that position. I don't think our recent prime ministers took these appointments seriously enough."

But Mr. Chretien yesterday attacked the notion that there is anything wrong with the patronage, calling it "offensive" for "anybody to believe that someone who has served in politics can't serve well as governor-general."

Yet appointments "have just gone down, down, down that way," says Prof. Smith. "People remember these people as politicians. One year they're a minister of X and the next year they're governor-general. There's just not enough distance."

Ms. Clarkson enjoys more distance from partisan politics than recent appointments, but has been identified as an advocate for cultural and economic nationalist causes. Can she build reverence for the position at a time when a cynical public is hard pressed to feel admiration for government institutions of any kind?

"Georges Vanier was an excellent governor-general. But it was a different era then," says Prof. Smith. "Maybe today people would think he was a stuffed shirt."

Prof. Russell insists there is still a hunger for effective public figures. "All societies need symbols," he says. "And one of those symbols can be a person, not just a flag or a totem, but an individual who sums up what makes us interesting as a people. Because of Adrienne Clarkson's grace and charm and erudition, she might be someone Canadians can generally respect and have a warm feeling about."

What Ms. Clarkson might not yet understand is that for the governor-general to command admiration and respect, she must, like the Queen she represents, remain firmly above the political fray.

This doesn't mean she must confine her work to pinning awards on prominent Canadians or greeting obscure ambassadors in Ottawa. The governor-general is expected to offer moral leadership to the country, to encourage unity, and to maintain relationships with native communities. However, Ms. Clarkson and her husband, writer John Ralston Saul, both said yesterday that living at Rideau Hall would not deter them from speaking out more boldly on national issues. Given the nature of Ms. Clarkson's past public utterances, such as against free trade, there is always a danger such pronouncements could inspire divisions.

Prof. Smith says that when Ms. Clarkson does speak, she would do best to articulate only the emotions and feelings of ordinary Canadians. Prof. Smith says that during a visit to Australia last month he watched as that country's governor-general, Sir William Deane, travelled to Switzerland in the wake of the deaths of several Australians in a Swiss canyon.

"He'd gone there as chief mourner," says Prof. Smith. "He was quite visible on television and I thought he spoke very movingly. Editorials in the papers said that 'his words were our feelings,' he was expressing the feelings of the nation. I can't imagine that being said about the governor-general in Canada in recent years."

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