If Jeanne Sauvé’s vice-regal term follows tradition, it will feature lavish entertaining, a partial facelift for Rideau Hall and the establishment of a sporting trophy in her name. It will also be marked by a minimum of controversy and a maximum of cross-country travel. Her 22 male predecessors and their often remarkable wives seldom strayed from the straight and lofty path decreed by decorum, the rules of protocol and the political limitations of the Governor General’s job. Most of them are largely forgotten today by the people they served. Their names endure on countless streets and public buildings, as well as on the Stanley, Grey and Minto cups (for hockey, football and lacrosse championships). But their personalities are perceived dimly, if at all, despite the fact that many of them were colorful and accomplished, of noble birth and massive wealth.
Canada’s first 17 governors general, from Viscount Monck (1867-68) to Viscount Alexander of Tunis (1946-52), were aristocrats, military heroes and career public servants who came from Britain to represent the Crown in Canada. In 1952 Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent made the historic decision to appoint a Canadian, selecting Toronto farm equipment heir Vincent Massey for the honor. It was a heavily symbolic gesture, a further statement by Canada of its political independence. Since Massey, four other Canadians have been appointed and have gone about the post’s largely ceremonial duties with dedication and occasional gusto.
Prerogative: With the exception of Lord Byng of Vimy (192126), the First World War hero whose wife, Evelyn, donated the Lady Byng Trophy for clean play in the National Hockey League, all appointees followed the 1877 dictum of Lord Dufferin (1872-78) that a governor general be “docile to the suggestions of his ministers.” Byng was the only one ever to exercise his prerogative to ask a government to resign. That occurred in 1926, when Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King sought to hold onto power despite having won fewer seats than the Conservatives under Arthur Meighen in a general election. Hoping for support from two smaller parties, King summoned Parliament.
He failed to put together a coalition and asked Byng for dissolution and a new election. Byng refused and called on Meighen to form a government. A week later, after losing a vote of confidence by a single vote, Meighen sought dissolution. Byng agreed, and King won the ensuing election. Later that year in London, King forced the British government to accept a redefinition of the Governor General’s duties, placing the
position entirely under Ottawa’s control.
The imported governors general— from Dufferin, a romantic adventurer, to Alexander, a celebrated field marshal-brought a variety of skills to the post. The Marquess of Lome (1878-83) was a poet as well as a wealthy Scot who rewrote the 121st Psalm into the now familiar hymn Unto the hills around do I lift up. Earl Grey (1904-11) was an indefatigable traveller, orator and Canada booster. During a 1906 visit to Newfoundland he proposed that Canada annex the Crown colony, as well as the
French islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon, Bermuda and the British West Indies. And Lord Tweedsmuir (1935-40) was a celebrated writer (as John Buchan he wrote such thrillers as The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, as well as biographies of Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell).
Canadians: In 1952, with a new queen on the British throne and postwar Canada robust and booming, the federal government decided that it was time for a Canadian to occupy Rideau Hall. Massey, a seasoned diplomat as well as a great philanthropist (Massey College and Hart House at the University of Toronto are among his family’s many benefactions), was chosen to serve. Massey was succeeded by another much respected Canadian patrician, Maj.-Gen. Georges-P. Vanier (1959-67), who four decades earlier had served at Rideau Hall as aidede-camp. After Vanier’s death Roland Michener (1967-74) returned from New Delhi, where he was Canada’s high commissioner, to take up the vice-regal appointment and campaign tirelessly for physical fitness among Canadians. The diplomatscholar Jules Léger (1974-79), younger brother of Paul Emile Cardinal Léger, followed. Most recently Ed Schreyer, a former New Democratic Party premier of Manitoba, brought a less formal approach to the job.
As the first woman governor general—a departure as symbolic as the appointment of Massey—Sauvé might find some inspiration in the life of a former chatelaine of Rideau Hall. The popular and talented Lady Aberdeen, whose husband served as governor general from 1893 to 1898 and who once described her official home as a shabby old building “put away in its clump of bushes,” was an early advocate of women’s rights, a friend of U.S. suffragette Susan B. Anthony and one of the founders of the Victorian Order of Nurses. Sauvé, a woman who has known many firsts in her career, may also find a way to put a ceremonial post to good use. Sauvé is also a woman who has pioneered throughout her career, and her new post should enable her to continue a Rideau Hall tradition: initiating good works. Her Excellency, as she will be known, is in excellent company.
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