"Their Exex" they're doing well-but doing what?
In seven years, with warmth, quiet dignity and grinding work, Governor General and Madame Vanier have made once-indifferent Canadians learn to care about an “obsolete” institution — which somehow works
WHEN THEY TRAVEL, Their Excellencies, General the Right Honorable Georges Philias Vanier, 19th Governor General of Canada, and Madame Vanier, leave a trail of imperial fuss. Consider the elaborate choreography of their arrival recently in Stratford, Ontario, for a three-day visit, an annual outing intended to give official encouragement to the Shakespearean Festival.
Two 40-year-old railway coaches, decorated green and ivory inside, damask-upholstered, prettied by formal bouquets of red and white carnations and provisioned with fine food and wine, were hitched to the Canadian National passenger train to carry the vice-regal party to Stratford. Awaiting its arrival on the morning of July 14 were four RCMP in ceremonial red, two local police with fresh haircuts, a pair of CN police, an honorary aide-de-camp and, among the official greeters, a flowerhatted alderman’s wife. The train was 40 minutes late.
While the rest of the group paced, the honorary ADC, Howard Hemphill, Brigadier (ret’d), and Inspector Rick Fruin of the Stratford force reviewed the Vaniers’ itinerary and what Fruin called “the mechanics of getting them from Point A to Point B.” The Ontario Provincial Police were also involved, since Madame Vanier planned a side trip to London. The logistics of that one were still under discussion when the train pulled in.
It took 20 minutes for the coaches with the gold crowns on their sides to be detached and shunted to a track of their own. Then Esmond Butler, the governor general’s secretary, disembarked and invited the official greeters to an audience with “Their Exes" aboard the train. Finally, the Vaniers themselves, accompanied by a lady-in-waiting and another aide, appeared
on the back platform of their coach.
With their appearance all the fuss evaporated and it became a family occasion. A crowd of about 100, made up almost entirely of play-grubby children, had collected. Into the crowd strode Madame Vanier. in lilac linen, looking fine and strong, crying greetings and kissing little girls' cheeks, like a grandmother home from a trip. From a six-year-old girl she accepted a bunch of orange tiger lilies, which one of the boys had brought from his mother’s garden. The governor general, a very elegant grandfather, was chatting, meanwhile, with a 10year-old girl who clutched a Baby Brownie and had pinned to her T-shirt a big button that read, “Kiss Me You Fool." He was asking her whether she wanted him to stand still for a picture. She did. His Excellency accommodated and the adult spectators beamed. Then the Vaniers returned to their coach, to no applause (it was a Canadian crowd) and the children stayed, to ask the Mounties and aides for autographs.
Yet it was obvious that everyone, child or adult, was deeply satisfied not only with the Vaniers but with the gold braid and crimson with which they were surrounded. The boy who brought the tiger lilies had been meeting the Vaniers at the CN tracks for as long as he could remember and still thought it was a “big deal.” The girl with the Baby Brownie reported proudly, “The Queen sends them every year to Stratford." Even Inspector Fruin, who had to get Their Exes from A to B, said approvingly, “He’s a real gentleman and she's a real lady. They respect the people who come to see them."
The fact is that the institution of governor general, for all its imperial trappings, is more popular and has greater utility today than at any time in our history. “The first two Canadian
They’ve toured 90,000 miles, to every corner of Canada, and with no-fuss friendliness have made the office, for all its imperial trappings, more popular than at any time in our history
appointments have been resounding successes,” according to the latest revised edition of R. MacGregor Dawson's The Government Of Canada. After seven years at Government House, two years beyond their term, the Vaniers have been invited to stay on indefinitely.
In 1952, when Vincent Massey became the first Canadian to occupy the post, the Calgary Herald was one of many newspapers that greeted him gloomily. It editorialized: “This is a drab and melancholy milestone in Canadian history.” The IODE predicted that the post would inevitably degenerate into a “political appointment." The Women's Progessive Conservative Association saw a plot to “open the way to the time when the office will be abolished altogether."
Most Canadians didn't care, according to a Gallup Poll taken at the time. Almost a third of those surveyed weren't aware that Massey had been appointed.
Now, exactly seven years after the appointment of Massey's successor — a tradition-shattering French Canadian and a Roman Catholic — the problem is where to find a replacement for the admirably uncontroversial, vice-regal Vaniers. A Maclean's survey of Ottawa opinion of the institution turned up only one abolitionist, Douglas Fisher, former NDP MP, who would transfer the legal functions of the office to the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The lone republican in the Commons, August Chouquette (Lib., Lotbinière), resented the governor general's representing the Queen but even he would keep the institution. The consensus of a variety of concerned Canadians — officials of External Affairs, MPs, senators and labor spokesmen — was that we must preserve the new tradition of appointing distinguished Canadians.
The post itself, according to Senator Grattan O'Leary, “seems to be the one thing in the country to which most people give sup-
port. With divisions and lack of confidence in the leaders of the political parties and the evidence that many people have lost much of their former respect for parliament, this is the one institution you won't hear anybody criticize. It’s still the sine qua non."
The governor general is an indispensable part of our body politic. It’s his duty to see that there is always a prime minister and a responsible cabinet in office. He's there, in the event of the sudden death of a prime minister, or of his unexpected resignation, or of his party's falling into dissension, to get a new administration under way. Not since 1926, when Lord Bvng selected Arthur Meighen as his prime minister, replacing Mackenzie King, to whom he'd refused a dissolution, has a governor general been called on to exercise such authority. But his authority remains, and presumably he could use it, for example, to veto another election, on the ground that the Canadian people are fed up voting.
It's not just courtesy that motivates Prime Minister Lester Pearson's orre-aweek meetings with Governor General Vanier or the stream of official documents that flows between Parliament Hill and Government House. The governor general needs to be kept knowledgeable in order to function as head of state in an emergency. Putting his signature to bills and orders-in-council is only the most tedious part of his job.
Governor General Vanier has managed, moreover, to add a new dimension to the office. He's made it seem comfortable and accessible, not only to crowned heads, their ministers and the like, but to ordinary citizens. Canadians use the institution in a way they never did before. They've turned the governor general into a kind of ombudsman, unofficial but very effective.
Each mail-delivery day at least 40 letters from private citizens, many of them with problems and grievances, arrive at Govern-
ment House. An immigrant writes about how his son, arrested for arson, was badly treated by Montreal police. A woman complains about the quality of public housing in northern Alberta. Last winter a flood of letters from all over the world protested Canada's slaughter of seals.
All letters, except from such regular correspondents as a Hull woman, who keeps petitioning Government House for a white aircraft so that she can “fly like a dove to the Vatican," are promptly answered. Copies of those containing complaints and grievances are sent on to the appropriate government departments and agencies. The immigrant's accusation of police maltreatment was dispatched to Quebec's deputy attorney-general in Montreal. The Department of Fisheries was kept steadily informed about public reaction to seal slaughter. The complaint about Alberta’s housing was referred to the lieutenant-governor of the province.
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I’m tired hearing people say we are a rudderless people”
With each letter goes a polite note from Government House, either inquiring about how the specific problem should be answered, or asking for “a reply in due course so that we may close our file.” In that way. according to a senior aide, “we can be sure of getting some action.”
To a society beset by such burden-
some questions as whether God is dead, whether the medium is the message. and whether Walter Ci rdon really does know best, the governor general demonstrably gives comfort. Last January, Government House got so many requests for reprints of his New Year’s address, broadcast over radio anil television, that the Queen’s
Printer had to be called in. Some 200,000 were mailed, a bigger distribution than most Canadian best sellers achieve and proof of a more resounding audience reaction than Seven Days, on a wild Sunday, ever recorded.
It was the speech of a man who, at 7;8, has no time for concealing what he conscientiously believes in. Unfashionably. he spoke in praise of hard work, discipline, duty, a worthy life, love, honor and parental responsibility for the formation of children's minds. As for the fretful notion that Canada is a nation without an identity, the governor general firmly dismissed that. He said:
“It is an idea, curiously enough, that is only found within Canada — never abroad. During the 30 years that I represented the country overseas, let me assure you that no identity was better recognized or respected than was the Canadian. Our reputation for fairness, good judgment and for understanding without bias, was the source of immense prestige for anyone fortunate enough to represent Canada. We are known as a people without an axe to grind, without a frontier hate complex ... I am tired of hearing people around me say and write that we are a rudderless people on the road to nowhere. We have a Canadian identity.”
For seven years the governor general has been making speeches at the rate of about one every four working days. That’s not counting off-the-cuff talks to school children — usually on his favorite themes of Canadian unity, youth and family. Together, the
Vaniers have toured every corner of the country; at last count their mileage was more than 90,000. At home in Government House they’ve entertained some 10,000 to everything from tea to a black-tie ball and received 15,000 more.
Both are actively interested in the Vanier Institute of the Family, a research agency that grew out of the Canadian Conference On The Family, called by them in 1964. They were able to persuade Dr. Wilder Penfield. the eminent neurosurgeon, to be institute president. Now. with a federal government pledge of two million dollars in grants to help build its endowment. the institute is about to begin studies of modern society's impact on family living.
The Vaniers, unlike most of their predecessors, are not privately rich. Although born to affluence, both of them, they lost it in the 1929 stockmarket crash. Now they budget to keep within the governor general’s salary of $48,667, plus entertainment and travel allowance, tax-free, of $87,()()(). (They have to pay for parking those CN coaches, an engine costs a dollar a mile, and a garden party tab for 5,000 would use up the annual pay of a middle-income Canadian.) Staff and upkeep of Government House, a preposterous place which runs to 60-odd rooms and miles of corridor, are the financial responsibility of the federal government. The National Capital Commission tends the estate's 88 acres.
Although lack of money is no obstacle to an ordinary Canadian’s becoming governor general, the qualifications, in fact, are formidable. The political scientist, Dawson, summed them up, along with the functions of the office, when he wrote: “If he [the
“THEIR EXES" continued
Princess Margaret is a prisoner! cried the eccentric caller
governor general] is to be allowed to choose a new prime minister, if he is to be of any service as a mediator between conflicting parties, if his advice is to carry weight in cabinet councils, if in emergencies he is to act as guardian of the constitution, and. to a less degree, if he is to provide social and cultural leadership, his political opinions and prejudices must be above criticism and he must enjoy security to speak and act both honestly and fearlessly.” A successful governor general, in short, “must have ability of a somewhat unusual kind."
General Vanier’s qualifications in 1959 were a mixture of training in the law. military service (in two world wars, despite his loss of a leg in the first) and 35 years in the diplomatic corps, beginning as an aide to Governor General Byng in 1921 and ending as first Canadian ambassador to France. Fie also had Madame Vanier. one of those rare women whose grace and beauty have increased with age. and who shared with him an aristocratic devotion to duty and marked indifference to money.
Their five offspring inherited this unacquisitiveness. Thérèse, the only daughter, is a medical specialist, who is using her skills in Uganda. Jean, with a PhD. runs a home for mentally retarded on the outskirts ol Paris. Georges is Father Benedict, a Trappist monk at Oka in Quebec. Bernard, an abstract painter, lives abroad. Michel, the youngest, works in Ottawa, by day as a translator on Parliament Hill and at night as a student in political science at the University of Ottawa. Their parents are immensely proud of all their independent spirits.
The Vaniers are probably freer spirits in Government House than ever before in their long careers. The explanation, paradoxically, is the circumscribed power of the governor general. It is now firmly established that the head of state will not say
nay to parliament — none has since Lord Byng exactly 40 years ago. That leaves a governor general free — “indeed it is his duty,” in Dawson's words — to exercise an influence, “to give his own opinions whenever he feels those opinions are worthy ol consideration.”
By making Government House accessible to a tremendous range of Canadian interests — Madame may be entertaining the Voice ol Women at tea while His Ex is receiving the Chamber of Commerce — the Vaniers manage to be more intimately in touch with popular opinion than most elected representatives. On tours, moreover, and from letters, they learn what urges are stirring in the Canadian people. Newfoundlanders, for example, greeted them with great warmth recently, then, from cabinet ministers down, confided that they really didn’t feel Canadian. It is no accident that the governor general's formal messages make an impact on a national audience. Although what he and Prime Minister Lester Pearson talk about at their weekly meetings is an official secret, it is unlikely that His Ex contributes only governor generalities.
Government House is also conversant with the Canadian lunatic fringe. One persistent caller, known to aides as “the eccentric royalist.” reports by long-distance his inside information about plots on the Queen and her family. Last spring, when Princess Margaret visited New York, the man telephoned to say that he was in Grand
Central Station and that the princess was trussed up in the British Consulate. kidnapped. The aide who answered listened patiently, then remarked, “This must be costing you a pretty penny. Couldn't it better be spent on drink?” “You're right.” replied the eccentric royalist, and hung up.
But the tale most often told at Gov-
ernment House is about the first student ban-the-bomb march on Ottawa, in the early winter of 1961. Their Exes were away, at the Citadel in Quebec City. It was snowing heavily and as the students straggled through the main gates of Government House, their last stop, they looked “like Napoleon's Army in retreat." The aide who watched their approach was so impressed by their valor that he rushed to greet them and apologize for the
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absence of the governor general. Trying to compensate, he invited them on a tour of the residence. They demurred but nobody moved out into the cold. The aide approached one of the placard carriers, who looked like a leader, to ask him to organize his fellows either onward or out. But before he could speak, the keen looking marcher said quietly, “Don’t mind me, sir. I'm with the RCMP.”
On the day I toured Government House the Vaniers were preparing to move to their Quebec summer home at Tadoussac. At every turn of corridor, it seemed, my guide and I collided with the chatelaine herself, who was flying from one room to another, collecting things for packing. When we finally met, formally, in the Vaniers’ family room, she apologized for how bare it looked, without books and flowers. The Vaniers are very attached to the house; although it’s a “monstrosity” on the outside, Madame admits — “so many different architects at different times have had a run at it” — its interior is fine now with fresh paint, slipcovers and the layers of pink scaled from fireplaces to reveal their original black slate. Madame wouldn't have professional decorators; what's been done over, she has supervised herself, from the ballroom — now grey, blue and gold — to a smoking room in Quebec pine. The accumulated clutter of official portraits is gone. Except for one, all the governors general left hanging have some special association with the room in which they appear; the exception was made because Madame admired the subject’s handsome, Victorian face.
For a house with 60 rooms, the atmosphere was remarkably homey, rather like the Stratford CN station, when the Vaniers appeared. It occurred to me that the new Vanier Institute of the Family might well begin its work — “the reinforcement of family living” — by studying the impact of a governor general, who is Everyman’s head of state. ★