CANADA HOUSE:

Everybody’s hom away from home

Our London branch doesn’t mind telling visiting Canadians what to tip a cabbie or how to get bailed out of jail, but when somebody demands a room with bath or return fare home — well, there has to be a limit to what an embassy can do

DAVID MACDONALD July 4 1959
CANADA HOUSE:

Everybody’s hom away from home

Our London branch doesn’t mind telling visiting Canadians what to tip a cabbie or how to get bailed out of jail, but when somebody demands a room with bath or return fare home — well, there has to be a limit to what an embassy can do

DAVID MACDONALD July 4 1959

Everybody’s hom away from home

CANADA HOUSE:

Our London branch doesn’t mind telling visiting Canadians what to tip a cabbie or how to get bailed out of jail, but when somebody demands a room with bath or return fare home — well, there has to be a limit to what an embassy can do

DAVID MACDONALD

Canada House, the nation's senior diplomatic outpost, is generally just what you’d expect— a sober and serious establishment where External Affairs experts ponder such weighty matters as NATO, commonwealth relations and European politics. Standing at the edge of Trafalgar Square, hard by Nelson’s monument, it’s a stately old stone pile with lofty columns, marble hallways and a hushed no-nonsense air about it. Through its great bronze doors pass cabinet ministers on errands of state, couriers from nearby Whitehall and foreign envoys coming to confer with the Hon. George Drew, high commissioner to the Court of St. James's. It is all very official, very governmental — for about eight months of the year.

Then, along about now, like a stripe-trousered ambassador switching to Bermuda shorts, Canada House undergoes a striking change. It’s tourist time again, a busy season for the people who work there and often a wacky one as well.

Oddly enough, just as many Americans reputedly overlook the ruins of Rome in search of American hamburgers, Canadians arriving in London usually gird themselves with cameras, sunglasses and guidebooks about Big Ben, Piccadilly^Tircus, The Tower—then make straight for Canada House.

Though most lists of touristy sights-to-see rate civil service offices just ahead of municipal abattoirs, Canada House often attracts as many as five hundred visitors a day in summer, about thirty thousand yearly. College kids and greyhaired grandparents, from Moose Jaw and Montreal, they flock to the old place in droves and rattle its crystal chandeliers with excited holiday chatter. The fact is that while Ottawa maintains it as a major foreign mission — next in size to our embassy in Washington — visiting Canadians tend to regard Canada House more as a super travelers’ aid post.

It is, in a way. For the convenience of overseas visitors Canada House provides a spacious reception lounge where they can obtain tourist information, pick up mail from home or seek advice on how to get visas for Russia, what to tip cockney cabbies and where to find Windsor Castle or the Windmill burlesque theatre. Canadians go there for leads on job openings, to line up Bohemian garrets in Chelsea, sometimes just to meet other Canadians. One expatriate reads Canadian newspapers at Canada House — all day, every day.

“We want Canadians to feel at home here,” says High Commissioner Drew, “and we try to do whatever we can for them. Within reason, that is.”

The distinction is necessary. For although most travelers make modest demands at Canada House, many others seem to approach it with the happy idea that Mr. Drew and his staff of one hundred and five men and women are there simply to attend their needs—whether they wish to get into Buckingham Palace or out of the

pokey, to borrow' money or meet Miss Diana

Dors. Not long ago Mrs. Elsie Tudhope looked up from the information desk at Canada House to see a young couple dressed in blue denim jeans and motorcycle boots, burdened down w'ith rucksacks. “We’d like a room here,” the husband said, “w'ith bath.”

When Mrs. Tudhope explained that Canada House was an embassy, not a hotel, he protested, “But we’re Canadians!”

Canadians, in the sweet name of citizenship, can ask for the darndest things. Last summer a Winnipeg man applied at Canada House for temporary diplomatic immunity — he wanted his cigarettes and liquor tax-free. Another from Victoria w'rote ahead to say how much he’d always admired George Drew as a political leader and how' he’d appreciate it now if the high commissioner, as an agent for the Canadian people, would please line up a Scottish moor where on his forthcoming visit to Britain he might pot a few' grouse.

“Sometimes the idea of what a taxpayer’s dollar entitles him to gets stretched pretty far,” says Gordon Cox, a forty-one-year-old External Afiairs official from Toronto. “One of our main jobs, for example, is to protect Canadian interests. But many tourists translate this to mean w'e should get them tickets to My Fair Lady— they’re Canadians and they’re interested in it. They seem to think a passport from Canada can open any door.”

Notably the Queen's. Though the average person’s chances of meeting royalty aren’t much greater in London than in, say, Antigonish, an astonishing number of Canadians believe an invitation to Buckingham Palace can be theirs for the asking. One Daughter of the Empire became quite indignant last year when told it just wouldn’t be possible to take tea with Her Majesty. “That.” she declared, “is downright undemocratic.”

In such cases, w'hen saying no, a soft answer helps prevent hard feelings. “It’s always best to be diplomatic,” says Jim McCord of Ottawa, the Canada House consular officer, “but it’s not always easy.”

A predecessor of McCord’s was once called upon by a Toronto woman w'ho demanded that he do something to save her daughter from a fate worse than death — marriage to a scamp of an Irishman the girl had met on her holidays.

Now this hardly fell under the heading of foreign affairs, not Ottawa’s type anyway. But w'hen the consul tried to explain why the federal government couldn’t very w'ell interfere, the lady was miffed. “Red tape!” she cried. Then she beaned him with his own inkwell and flounced out.

If they don’t always succeed at Canada House, tourists often try again at one of the six provincial houses, representing all regions but Quebec, that cluster about it like satellites in nearby parts of London. At Ontario House, for example, which exists chiefly to drum up over-

seas business, travelers

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“Sometimes,” says the agent-general, “I’m not sure if I’m a wet nurse or a father confessor”

have successfully prevailed upon AgentGeneral J. S. P. Armstrong to lend them money, store their luggage and find baby sitters for their offspring. A lanky, white-thatched and most obliging man, he has been recruited after holiday romances to give away six brides he’d never met before. When a party of eight tourists failed to find hotel accommodations last summer, Jim Armstrong put them up in his own home. “Sometimes,” he says, “I'm not sure whether I'm a wet nurse, Dorothy Dix or a father confessor.”

The same can be said for many Canada House staffers. Besides coping with tourists, they frequently must cater to the needs and whims of visiting VIPs. It sometimes becomes necessary to outfit a newspaper publisher with cutaway coat and grey topper for the Ascot, to lay on a fishing trip for a sporty industrialist or, as used to happen when the late Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to town, to arrange secret seances with departed spirits.

That incredible Canadian caused an incredible Hap at Canada House in 1947. when he came here to begin a tour of Europe. Another passenger in the same ship happened to be his cook from Laurier House, a Mrs. Gooch, who was on her vacation. On arrival, Mrs. Gooch's trunk got lost, throwing the PM into a terrible tizzy. One of his fondest fancies was good food, particularly Mrs. Gooch's, and he imagined that unless the missing baggage was quickly found she would cook for him no more.

So King called up Canada House, naturally, and ordered the then high commissioner, Norman Robertson, to drop everything and search for Mrs. Gooch’s trunk. Though a financial crisis was brewing back in Ottawa, King had only one worry. On boarding a train for Paris his last words to Robertson were, “Cable me as soon as you find that trunk.”

Accordingly, Canada House attaches put aside less urgent matters of state. They got after the steamship company, called in Scotland Yard and alerted the RCMP. Within twenty four hours Mrs. Gooch’s trunk had been traced to a railway station, word was Hashed to the premier and the great kcfulfle was over.

Equally beyond the call of diplomatic duty was the recent request of a prominent westerner, who telephoned Canada House from Paris to ask for help in buying a horse. Canadians do things like that. Referred to press attaché Campbell Moodie. who happens to be a certified horse-show judge in his spare time, the westerner explained that he’d already ordered a horse, sight unseen, as a gift for his daughter, from a stable near London. Now that he was detained in France he just wanted someone to close the deal for him.

“Okay,” Moodie said. "I ll do it. But first I’ve got to see that animal. You never know.” Sure enough, on close and expert examination it proved to be weakkneed, a real dog. Moodie cancelled the sale, saved the man fifteen hundred dollars and later found him a better steed elsewhere.

Now it wasn't for quite such purposes that Canada House was established, in 1880. Its chief function was then, and still is, liaison between Ottawa and Whitehall — keeping each government posted on the other's attitudes to matters of mu-

tual concern. Canada House was, and is, primarily a place for diplomats, the backroom boys of international politics.

Tourists rarely went near it in sizeable numbers until several years after World War II, when increased wages, longer vacations, faster and pay-later transportation put Britain within reach of bricklayers and bankers alike. Where few could afford the time and cost of an overseas trip in 1938, seventy thousand Canadians came here in 1958. In addition, thousands of Britons have moved to Canada since the war — one hundred and thirteen thousand in 1957 alone — and many more still hope to do so. And just as Torontonians call on Canada House for guidance about London, London's prospective migrants go there to learn about life in Canada. As press attaché Cam Moodie has put it, “We get them coming and going."

And there are ail kinds. Examples:

A woman tourist comes to get a new passport. Her old one wasn't lost or stolen (the usual reason). She gave it away as a souvenir.

A retired British general calls the information section to complain that his daughter in Victoria, B.C., can't get a telephone. If someone doesn't arrange it he will expose Canadian inefficiency in a letter to The Times.

An irate landlord phones to report that a Canadian student has left with bag and baggage, but without paying the rent.

A woman in the Midlands writes for information about her missing spouse. The sketchy details are sent on to the RCMP: “My husband went to Canada to work for farmer John Murphy. He

plays the cello and violin. He left here thirty-eight years ago.”

An English engineer stops by for literature on the St. Lawrence Seaway (which has surpassed even the Mounties in British admiration) and a woman who is moving to Vancouver has to be reassured that she won't be troubled en route by hostile Indians.

From Halifax, N.S., a man telephones to ask for an invitation to a reception for the Queen during her tour of Canada. He is told to take it up with city hall.

One member of London’s Canadian community, about eight thousand strong, comes in for help with his income tax forms. Another wants baseball scores. A third, a persistent crackpot, phones for the third time in a week to warn that German spies are overrunning Canada.

Like all Canadian embassies, but more often than most, Canada House receives SOS messages from "distressed Canadians”—the official designation for those who get themselves into various jackpots. Some wind up in jail and want out, although the number of these has fallen off sharply in recent years, since Canadian merchant seamen were placed under the jurisdiction of a U. K. mercantile marine office. In cases where a citizen is unfortunate enough to be incarcerated, before or after trial, the best Canada House officials can do for him is to recommend a good lawyer—if he has the money— or bring his plight to the attention of a legal aid society. The government does not pay fines or furnish bail.

The reason for the distress of most distressed Canadians is. of course, money— the lack thereof. They get parted from it

in various ways. One man reported recently that he'd lost his wallet and two hundred pounds to a pickpocket in Soho, another admitted blowing his bundle on a sure thing at the race track and a college student confessed that he'd spent his return fare on a good time because a good friend assured him, “Canada House will always ship you home free.”

Fie was mistaken. "We don't give handouts here,” says consular oflicer Jim McCord, "although everyone seems to expect them.” Most of the time McCord merely gives advice—wire home for funds or get a job and earn some. Only cases of extreme need are sent on to the Canadian Immigration Service here, which can provide return passage for stranded nationals — as a loan — and does so for about a hundred per year.

The Immigration centre at 61 Green Street, a former town house of the Dukes of Sutherland, is one of sixteen federal department offices in London that work closely with Canada House. In earlier days, recruiting new settlers was one of the biggest and toughest jobs of the Canadian mission to London. It's no problem now. Britain is crowded with people who want to go west. Early in 1957. after the Suez crisis renewed the postwar pinch of -austerity here, as many as two thousand a day queued up in Green Street and many more besieged Canada House.

Instead of extolling Canada’s virtues, according to immigration director L. G. Cumming, who was born in Scotland, the task today is to give eager applicants a realistic idea of the problems they may face. "Our streets aren't paved with gold,” says Cumming, "but people believe what they want to believe. Someone who's already gone to Canada writes home that he just bought, say. a new Chev. Now that wouldn't exactly make him a plutocrat in London, Ontario. But to his brother here a Chev is a car worth two thousand pounds. Next morning the brother's at our door with dollar signs in his eyes. If we don't set him straight on a few things he may be in for some trouble.”

A while back two Yorkshirernen hit on the idea of transporting an entire community to a new site in Canada. Cumming first learned of it when a pamphlet they'd been circulating landed on his desk. Their plan, on which they were preparing to risk fifty thousand dollars, was to pick a spot on water, with nearby rail lines and timber stands for building homes, and with no great extremes of climate—an ideal sort of place for fifty Yorkshire families.

What made Cumming leap with surprise was their chosen location — near White River. Ont. He quickly contacted the promoters, advised them they’d picked a place with one of the coldest climates in the country and put an end to their scheme. "They simply looked at a map,” Cumming explains, and saw that White River was further south than Yorkshire. It is, too, but there’s a whale of a difference in climate.”

The two men thanked him for his trouble and took their disappointment in stride. This isn't always the case. A woman who was turned down at the immigration office, on medical grounds, wrote directly to the Duke of Edinburgh to protest. "By what right am I kept out of Canada?" she demanded. “After all, we own it.”

This attitude went out of date quite a while ago. even in England, but it still prevailed widely back in the Victorian times when Canada House was established. It wasn’t until 1880. thirteen years after Confederation, that the British government finally agreed to Sir John A. Macdonald's demands that the new dominion should be represented in London by an official with semi-diplomatic status. Since the queen could hardly name an ambassador to herself, he was dubbed a high commissioner.

The first was Sir Alexander Galt, one of the Fathers of Confederation. After three years he was replaced by Sir Charles Tupper. from Nova Scotia, who remained in the job until 1896 — except for a brief period when he returned to Canada to become finance minister.

Of the eight high commissioners since Tupper, only two have been career diplomats — "pros.’’ The rest have been men with wealth or strong political connections or both. The longest to remain here, from 1896 until 1914, was white-bearded Lord Strathcona, one of the CPR's founders. Because private financial dealings took most of his time, Strathcona rarely turned up before four p.m. to work at Canada House, which then consisted of eight dingy rooms in Victoria Street. He usually kept his staff working so late that the office became known as "the lighthouse of Victoria Street.”

Another millionaire who held the job was Peter Larkin, a tea tycoon who dressed in a grey frock coat and white topper and was celebrated throughout London as "Lord Salada." It was in 1925, during Larkin’s seven-year term as high commissioner, that Canada House moved to its present location on Trafalgar Square. The building, which had housed the ultra-stuffy Union Club for a hundred and one years, was reopened by King George V.

Larkin made his office in what had been the gentlemen’s smoking room, a vast chamber with the largest unseamed carpet in town. Visitors arriving there on matters of state often found the high commissioner, an ardent golfer, putting balls along the carpet. On one occasion he lofted a chip shot out of his secondfloor window into Trafalgar Square and another time his backswing cost him the price of part of a crystal chandelier.

I he high commissioner generally credited with putting Canada House on the diplomatic map was Vincent Massey, who came here in 1935 and remained for eleven years. The English had seen no Canadian representative like him. Besides making his official rounds like a man born to court, Massey cut a wide swath in social and cultural circles. He was a member of the best clubs, became a director of the National Gallery, wrote scholarly articles for leading periodicals and spoke on the BBC in polished tones. Such was his urbanity that the late Lord Cranborne once remarked of him, "Fine chap, Vincent, but he does make one feel a bit of a savage.”

Massey ran Canada House throughout World War lí, when its responsibilities ranged all the way from delivering the bullets that went into Canadian guns to administering a fund for Canadian war babies. Across the street from Canada House he set up the Beaver Club, which became a favorite haunt of Canadian servicemen. He also opened a convalescent home for officers. His wife, Alice, organized a Red Cross unit in London's Canadian community and personally wrote to the next-of-kin of men appearing on the casualty lists from Canada House. Frequently, on visiting the Beaver

nb, she took half a dozen soldiers, sai ors or airmen along to have dinner

with the high commissioner at the Dorchester Hotel.

After Massey returned to Canada in 1946, soon to become Canada's first home-grown governor-general, he was succeeded by Norman Robertson, the first career diplomat posted to London as high commissioner. Except for Lester B. Pearson — a onetime secretary of Canada House — probably no Canadian envoy has won greater international standing. During Robertson’s two terms in London — spaced by Dana Wilgress, another "pro” — he was often consulted by the

BritishForeign Office on issues not even remotely connected with Canada. When U. S. and U. K. diplomats stopped talking to each other, at the time of the Suez crisis, it was Robertson who served as their mediary: he called himself "a walking post office.” As a back-room operator, he disliked the public side of the high commissioner’s job. hated making speeches and hid from the press.

By contrast, his successor George Drew wasn’t here half an hour before he delivered his first address—-the Canadian Press acclaimed it a local diplomatic

record—and he has averaged about three a week since his arrival in 1957. Drew maintains the trappings of his predecessors — such as the chauffeur-driven Cadillac which carries him to work, and the high commissioner's home at 12 Upper Brook Street, in the heart of fashionable Mayfair. But, far from avoiding reporters. he holds press conferences regularly and encourages reporters to call him at home on his private line.

Drew’s duties are nothing if not varied. He has had to maintain close contact with British government leaders, the rest

of London's diplomatic corps and other Canadian ambassadors in the capitals of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He has dined with the Queen, represented the nation at conferences on NATO and the law of the sea, attended many social events and given hundreds of receptions, dinners and cocktail parties both at Canada House and in his home. As an official greeter at Canada House, he has welcomed Prime Minister Diefenbaker and ten members of his cabinet, as well as

assorted Canadian hockey teams, air cadets, ballet dancers, chess players and the mammoth Canadian trade mission that was dispatched to Britain in the fall of 1957.

That trade mission posed many problems for officials of Canada House and the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, which is conveniently located next door. In addition to lining lip industrial tours, interviews, transportation, accommodation and entertainment, they had to

see to it that wherever the high-powered businessmen went about Britain their mail from home was sure to follow speedily. One morning nineteen cables arrived. There wasn't a market quotation in the lot — only results of the previous day's Grey Cup football classic.

This wasn’t really necessary, since a shortwave broadcast of the game had been piped into a Glasgow pub as a special treat for the travelers, courtesy of Canada House, it