The Back Page

SHE DID US PROUD

Adrienne Clarkson showed the world the best could be Canadian

PAUL WELLS October 3 2005
The Back Page

SHE DID US PROUD

Adrienne Clarkson showed the world the best could be Canadian

PAUL WELLS October 3 2005

SHE DID US PROUD

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

Adrienne Clarkson showed the world the best could be Canadian

ON TUESDAY, SEPT. 27, Michaëlle Jean will become Canada’s 27th governor general. There will be some tension in the room: Mme Jean has attracted some recent controversy. She might want to contemplate the example of her predecessor, now just another ordinary Canadian after six extraordinary years.

Clarkson was a controversial figure too, six years ago, and for some of the same reasons: toffee-nosed Yorkville swell, CBC journalist, culture vulture. Just another leftie snob. I don’t believe a single speech has ever done so much to silence a pack of critics in this country as

Clarkson’s installation speech did. Not all of them, of course, and not forever. But from that first speech it was clear Clarkson was raising the bar.

I skipped the speech—why expect anything but boredom from a new governor general?—and saw it rerun later that night on TV. Before it was over I was in tears. “We are constructing something different here,” Clarkson said. “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. Wilfrid Laurier understood this clearly: ‘We have made a conquest greater and more glorious than that of any territory,’ he said. ‘We have conquered our liberties.’ ”

So that’s my favourite Adrienne Clarkson speech. I have friends who prefer her eulogy for the Unknown Solder, which she delivered in May 2000: “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.” Clarkson made her admiration for the Canadian soldier one of the most enduring emblems of her six years as governor general. She visited the wounded, travelled to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, delivered the Governor General’s Marksmanship

Medal to 138 crack shots. Last Wednesday, the Canadian Forces showed their gratitude with an unprecedented and deeply emotional ceremony. Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, thanked her for helping Canadians in uniform look “past a decade of darkness, past a long period of insecurity and past a lingering feeling of shame.”

And she did it all by speaking aloud her admiration for them. We’ve grown too bashful in Canada about the power of public eloquence. One of Clarkson’s gifts was to remind us how much we have to talk about and how healthy it can be when we finally do.

Of course, she always courted controversy; wouldn’t have been fun if she didn’t. She liked to travel. It’s something else we’ve grown sheepish about, as if we had nothing to learn from the world, or to teach it. I covered Clarkson’s 2001 trip to Germany. She packed events from early morning to late at night. When she and John Ralston

Saul split up, it was like following three or four state visits at once.

In Düsseldorf, she chaired a panel discussion on literature. The Canadian panellists were Michel Marc Bouchard, whose first language was French; Jason Sherman, whose first language was English; and Tomson Highway, whose first language was Cree. Clarkson knew their work well. Earlier, in Berlin, a young German woman shook physically, tears in her eyes, at the chance to ask Atom Egoyan a question about his films. We send politicians and businessmen overseas all the time. Clarkson always brought part of the Canadian soul.

In 2003, she visited Russia and Iceland and Finland, with artists and scholars in tow. She got into a world of trouble. The criticism seemed to assume such countries were beneath Canada’s contempt. “Most of our trade is with the United States,” a prominent Ottawa journalist told me at the time, “and Clarkson and Saul are going to Finland? What a bunch of communists.”

No. Not communists. Witnesses, on all our behalf, to the struggle against Communism. In Russia, Clarkson visited a gulag and, in Helsinki, she visited the Hietaniemi Cemetery, which honours the 84,000 Finns who died fighting off the Soviets. She brought people like Gérard Duhaime, a specialist in comparative Aboriginal studies from Laval University, and Shelagh Grant, an expert on federal public policy for the Far North. Their country had probably never shown them off as examples of the best among us. Adrienne Clarkson did.

Greg Tate has written that Miles Davis turned defeatist stereotypes on their head and made being black a synonym for the best of everything. Adrienne Clarkson did the same with being Canadian. From food to art to scholarship to the love of a good debate: the best could be Canadian. Around her it usually was. I’m proud to have known her. ilH