Adrienne Clarkson (Interview)

Many of their books are still in boxes and the personal furniture has not yet arrived from their former home in Toronto, but Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, are settling into Rideau Hall.

Clarkson, Adrienne

Many of their books are still in boxes and the personal furniture has not yet arrived from their former home in Toronto, but Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, are settling into Rideau Hall. In her first three months on the job, the new Governor General has injected a burst of energy - and controversy - into the sleepy ceremonial role. She has travelled widely, visiting communities in Canada and also flying to Kosovo, where she presented medals to Canadian peacekeepers in November. She raised eyebrows when she lauded the accomplishments of Louis Riel, the Métis leader of the 1885 North-West Rebellion, in a November speech in Ottawa. And media critics have lashed out at Clarkson on a number of fronts, among other things criticizing her for spending an expensive night in a Victoria hotel suite, and questioning the sincerity of her stated pride in her Chinese roots. On Dec. 13, the Governor General sat down with Maclean's Editor-in-Chief Robert Lewis and Ottawa Bureau Chief Bruce Wallace in her spacious study to reflect on the hectic first weeks in office - and fire back at her critics. Some excerpts from that conversation:

Maclean's: Do you still see your old friends?

Clarkson: When you move, you feel very much cut off from your friends. But I haven't just taken another job somewhere, I've become Governor General, so all my friends have become very protective of my time. My friends are no different from the rest of Canadians - people do understand that there is something about the function of the Governor General which makes them anxious not to intrude.

Maclean's: Do they still call you Adrienne or do they have to call you Your Excellency?

Clarkson: They call me Adrienne, of course. People who have known you since you were a child are not going to change that. But Canadians have a proper formality about them. I notice that a number of them in public, if we're at a big dinner or wherever, always say 'Your Excellency' without the least bit of irony.

Maclean's: How do you like the job so far?

Clarkson: You're asking at the wrong time, because we've been here for 10 weeks and I would say we've had about four days that have been our own. But what keeps me going is a kind of eternal curiosity about people, which is what made me reasonably good at television.

Maclean's: It's a great job for a reporter - you have great access.

Clarkson: Very few people have understood it that way. They say, 'Oh, well, you have to go to these things and you stand around.' But as a journalist, your big thing was always: could you get that person to see you and then to talk to you. Now, if I have a question, I simply say, 'I'd like to see so-and-so about this,' and within half an hour, I'm talking to them on the phone or they are going to be over to see me the next day. The access is terrific.

Maclean's: And you can get your guests to leave when you want them to.

Clarkson: Actually, I think our parties tend to drag on a little longer because we don't follow the strict kind of protocol - 20 minutes after coffee we get up and leave - mainly because the people are so interesting I just want to keep talking to them.

Maclean's: This will be read as people are looking forward to a new century. How do you see the country changing?

Clarkson: I think one of the major changes will be how we adapt a huge immigrant population to what we consider to be the Canadian way of life. You know it's odd to say this, but it probably was simpler in a time where there was an over-arching ethos of the kind of society which accepted one set of values and sang The Maple Leaf for Ever. Because at least people coming here understood what there was here and what the basis was. And if they were going to stay, they had to think about that and deal with that. I think our challenge is to make Canada as rich and as varied as possible while maintaining the structures that we know are very, very good and have worked for us.

Maclean's: You seem to be criticizing prevailing attitudes towards multiculturalism.

Clarkson: I didn't mean to imply that, and I really don't think of it in terms of what's official or unofficial multicultural policy. I think of it as, basically, people come here and they think: can I put my children in school, can I earn a living, will my children be able to have equal access to things? And I, of course, am reading a lot of my own experience into this, but we have to be certain that people have the freedom to be what they are and where they come from. But not have it imposed upon them - if you're an Italian or a Greek, you don't have to feel that you must stay that way always if you don't want to.

That is the challenge to come, because I think basically people want to belong when they come here. They don't want to be singled out or separated; they want to be able to be cheerleaders and president of the student council and go to camp and fish because that's what Canada is about. And if they are not welcomed into that or told because you're Italian you wouldn't want to live in the wilderness, you'd like to live in a nice cultivated city, then I think we're stereotyping people when they should be free to think.

Maclean's: Is this your comeback to critics who suggested you have not been true to your Chinese heritage?

Clarkson: I don't know that anyone has the right to tell me my heritage wasn't genuine. I have my family, I have our story. Everybody's family is individual. And whatever way you want to approach your own background, I feel Canada should leave you free to do that. In every group, you will find people who will either make the choice that they're going to stick to a group or not.

Maclean's: What are your thoughts about the handling of the boatloads of Chinese who arrived on the West Coast this year?

Clarkson: I look at it from a human point of view. If that many got here, were there other boats that were sunk somewhere in horrible conditions? I actually saw the boats from a distance at Esquimalt about a month ago, where they were in port, and they're just raw hulks, terrible things. From the purely concerned view of taking in 500 people, our human position should be, let's see how we can put these people through a regular process - and treat them humanely. These are human beings we're talking about, not a cargo of apples. So I think the process has to be speeded up and made more coherent.

Maclean's: But immigrants who have been through the system are frustrated by what they see as queue jumping.

Clarkson: I think Canadians can handle anything as long as they think it's fair, because they have a great sense of fairness themselves. The underlying theme that you're finding is: this isn't fair. When Canadians feel that somehow advantage is being taken, they get very upset and their fundamental, real obsession with doing good falls away, because they really want to know that things are fair.

Maclean's: Have you ever had republican leanings or have you always been a believer in a constitutional monarchy?

Clarkson: Yes, I always have been a believer in a constitutional monarchy, I guess because of the time in which I grew up. I'm a 60-year-old woman who grew up in Canada through the 1940s, all my parents' friends were veterans. I lived in Ottawa, which is a government town. It's tied up with all of that so I've never thought of myself as anything else.

Maclean's: One of the arguments for having a constitutional monarchy rather than electing the head of state is that the position is then above politics. Do you think you're breaking that pact when you come out on one side of the Louis Riel case, for example, by praising his accomplishments in opening up Canada's West?

Clarkson: I don't think there was any one side in the Riel case. Louis Riel was recognized by Manitoba as a founder of the province, so, excuse me, but I think people in Ottawa don't look beyond Ottawa. They're thinking, 'Well, there isn't a statue of Louis Riel in Ottawa.' I think we've seen an evolution in 20 years in the way in which Riel is considered. It's the side now emerging as the one that is historically accurate, that makes the most sense for our country and that brought Manitoba really into Confederation. So that isn't controversial. I felt the fuss showed that a lot of people had not been reading their history.

Maclean's: Is it legitimate to criticize the Governor General? The media treatment in Victoria was rough.

Clarkson: It was focused on whether the Governor General should spend time in the Governor General's suite in a hotel. Now I think that in terms of criticism of the role, if you want to have a discussion about whether or not one would make a speech about Louis Riel, I think we can have a good discussion about that. We might both have opinions - however, I still think I'm on the strongest footing there. But I think if it's about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the function of the Governor General and indeed are things that are long established practice, I really don't think that is legitimate. I do not choose how I travel around this country. I don't choose where I'm going to stay. Those are logistics that are worked out for me by people who have always looked after the Governors General. I'm not about to change that because I'm only here for five years.

Maclean's: In an interview after your Victoria tour, when asked why you attract so much controversy, you said your critics were either sexist or racist.

Clarkson: I'm always saying things about being a woman in a semi-ironic fashion because I've been around a long time. I've pioneered almost everything and anything to do with being a woman in broadcasting and, as they now say, a visible minority, which didn't even exist as a phrase when I started. I don't think I was hired because of that, because television is a very cruel business and I don't think I would have had a 35-year career in television just on the basis of either being a woman or a visible minority. But there can be a great deal of jealousy about people who have made their way through television. This is an easy shot. It's what used to be called: oh just another pretty face. That's all I was alluding to. But that will pass because the actions that I do as Governor General will be assessed and judged. And it's going to be extremely active.

Maclean's: Do you want your friends to know they can call you more often?

Clarkson: Yes. I'm thinking of having a secret password for my e-mail so that the e-mails will get through to me in less than two days.

Maclean's January 1, 2000