Georges Vanier

As governor general, he spoke for both founding proples

July 1 1998

Georges Vanier

As governor general, he spoke for both founding proples

July 1 1998

Georges Vanier

Among the 55 million people who have lived, worked and loved in Canada over the centuries, a few can claim to have made a real difference. In Maclean's view, one man stands above the others. A man of courage and sacrifice, in war and peace, he exemplified the best in his countrymen. He is the leading Hero—and the Most Important Canadian in History.

Heroism is not a word or a concept that comes naturally to Canadian minds. The very idea goes against the Canadian grain, for we are a small country with a colonial past. We have not bred the great military figures or legendary national leaders who fill the history books of Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

But we do have heroes, those who served as great examples. Take Georges Philias Vanier, a young lawyer who joined the 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos, at its creation in early 1915, and served overseas with great courage, winning a Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, until he was grievously wounded during the Hundred Days, the great end of the First World War advance of the Canadian Corps. Vanier was shot through the chest and wounded in both legs, and his right leg had to be amputated. Continuing in the tiny postwar Canadian Army despite his disability, Vanier took command of his beloved Van Doos in 1925. Then, with the lovely, gracious Pauline Archer, the daughter of a judge whom he married in 1921 and with whom he had five children, he moved into diplomacy, serving first as military representative in the Canadian delegation at the League of Nations, and then at the Canadian High Commission in London, the Legation in France and, after the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, representing Canada to Charles de Gaulle’s Free French in London. Vanier also worked at the sometimes difficult task of recruiting Quebecers to serve in the Canadian Army. He then became Canadian ambassador in Paris from the liberation in 1944 until his retirement in 1953.

Few Canadians outside the army and the department of external affairs knew much of Georges Vanier until John Diefenbaker named him governor general in 1959 when he was 71, the second Canadian and the first French-Canadian to take that post. Governors general can be austere, like Vanier’s predecessor, Vincent Massey; Vanier was not. They can be patrician, or overfriendly retired politicians; there was none of this in Vanier. As governor general for almost eight years, he was the exemplar of service and duty and courage— the great military virtues that he embodied and honored. In constant pain from his war wounds, in increasingly ill health, Vanier did his job superbly.

He presided over government functions in Ottawa




1. Gen. Georges Phiiias Vanier


2. Evangeline

3. Maurice Richard (b. 1921)

4. Laura Secord (1775-1868)

5. Tecumseh

(c. 1768-1813)

6. Billy Barker (1894-1930)

7. Terry Fox (1958-1981)

8. Roberta Bondar (b. 1945)

9. Howie Morenz (1902-1937)

10. Anne of Green Gables

and opened garden shows in Saint John, N.B., and Victoria. He reviewed graduation parades at the Royal Military College and presented colors to historic regiments. He spoke to rich and poor in the same way. He made countless well-crafted speeches in perfect French and equally perfect English, and everywhere he talked of the joys and duties of being Canadian. There were few governor-generalities from him, and Canadians across the country loved him.

Even when he was dying, and knew it, he carried on. One journalist recalled the annual skating and tobogganing party at Rideau Hall for the media in 1967. “There was no reason for him to go through with the party; as an event it wasn’t that important.” But he did. Late in the evening, wearing a tuque, Vanier was pulled into the Tent Room of Rideau Hall on a toboggan, and his wife, Pauline, delivered a brief speech for him. “It was a very emotional moment,” the reporter reflected. ‘To my knowledge, it was his last public appearance. Within weeks, he was dead. He had a sense of duty or obligation that was, and is, quite remarkable.” Duty, obligation, service—those are words that, like heroism, Canadians are inclined to avoid. But Vanier epitomized all those noble ideas, and as governor general he represented in his person all those who went overseas to risk their lives for abstract concepts like democracy and freedom—and, yes, duty, obligation and service to a higher ideal than self. Vanier was Canada’s moral compass as governor general, an unquestioned man of probity and honor. Journalist Claude Ryan said of him that “he set his sights on the goal of giving to Canadian public life a sort of supplement for its soul, an infusion of high patriotism, even of pure and simple spirituality.”

It should come as no surprise that Georges and Pauline Vanier today are candidates for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. That pure and simple spirituality of which Ryan wrote was something they shared and passed on to their children, not least their eldest son, Jean, whose L’Arche (the Ark) in France became an international movement of small communities where the mentally handicapped live and work with their caregivers. After her husband’s death, Pauline Vanier went to France and helped her son until her death in 1991.

Canadians who think they have no heroes should think again.

As governor general, he spoke for both founding proples