Toronto Star

Thursday, September 9, 1999

A strong nationalist for governor-general

Toronto Star

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has risen above patronage and appointed a governor-general who exemplifies the modern, multicultural face of Canada.

Adrienne Clarkson, who becomes Canada's 26th head of state next month, has lived the immigrant's dream. She has made her mark as a broadcaster, writer, publisher and diplomat. Now she has a chance to leave her stamp on the country's highest office.

Not only is Clarkson, who was born in Hong Kong, a role model for Canadians from other cultures, she has broken ground for women, done some of the most innovative public broadcasting in this country and taken personal and professional risks.

Her appointment was, in many ways, a bold one.

Clarkson and her husband, author John Ralston Saul, are passionate Canadian nationalists. They court controversy. They have spoken out against free trade and the encroachment of corporate values on public life.

Rideau Hall has never been a place of intellectual ferment. Most of Canada's past governors-general have been former politicians, selected more for their glad-handing skills than their love of ideas.

It will be fascinating to watch the sleepy official residence of the Queen's representative transformed into a place of lively debate.

It will be interesting, as well, to see two prominent, outspoken individuals bring their talents to the vice-regal post.

Clarkson made it clear, at her inaugural press conference yesterday, that she and Ralston Saul intend to approach the job as a couple. She used the word ``we'' in sketching out her aspirations.

If Clarkson and Ralston Saul bring the same élan to Government House that they brought to the Ontario Agent General's post in Paris, when Clarkson served there in the '80s, Ottawa could become a magnet for artists, writers and performers.

Clarkson, 60, has all but one of the traditional qualifications for the job. She is fluently bilingual, she knows the country well, she is at ease in public, she is a skilled communicator and she understands the importance of symbols and shared traditions.

All she lacks is political experience. And, with good advisers, that should not be a serious impediment.

Governors-general are rarely called upon to solve constitutional crises. And when they are, there is no shortage of experts upon whom they can call.

Her fundamental challenge is to make Canadians feel good about the country at a time when economic pressures and global technology are eroding the conventional pillars of nationhood.

This is a task Clarkson clearly relishes. ``We certainly have ideas and we will put them forward,'' she said, speaking for herself and her husband. ``We do stand for something and I think that's important.''

Chrétien could have made a safer appointment. He could have picked a former cabinet minister or judge, who could be relied on not to step outside the bounds of protocol or draw attention away from the government.

He could have made a more surprising appointment; a high-profile Conservative or New Democrat.

He chose instead to put merit ahead of pedigree or politics. He sent the right message.

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