Clarkson Appointed Governor General | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Clarkson Appointed Governor General

It is the immigrants who best grasp how difficult it is to be different in a new society - and how much ferocious will is required to succeed.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 20, 1999

Clarkson Appointed Governor General

It is the immigrants who best grasp how difficult it is to be different in a new society - and how much ferocious will is required to succeed. In early 1942, fleeing the brutal Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, William and Ethel Poy and their two children settled into a cramped apartment in a seedy downtown Ottawa neighbourhood. The wealthy Poy had fought alongside the British army against the Japanese - and then managed to escape with his family, a tiny remnant of his fortune and five meagre suitcases. Life was tough.

Last week, as she made her debut as Canada's 26th governor general, Poy's daughter Adrienne Clarkson drew deft parallels between her own history as an Asian refugee huddled in wartime Ottawa amid the descendants of British and French settlers - and the 20th-century saga of the nation itself. "I'm very proud that the little town, which was covered in snow, white snow, full of white people in 1942, and to which our little family came, is now the kind of place in which I can take my role," the veteran broadcaster said, barely concealing a nervousness that surprised Ottawa insiders. "You couldn't have 79 different kinds of people on the street if it weren't Canada."

The appointment attracted both kudos and controversy - if only because Prime Minister Jean Chrétien reached beyond his circle of political partisans to anoint a highly opinionated and distinctly nontraditional representative of Canada's head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. When the investiture of the 60-year-old Clarkson takes place on Oct. 7 and she officially replaces former cabinet minister Roméo LeBlanc, she will be the first member of a visible minority to hold the position. Her 10-page official biography is crammed with an impressive list of awards, honorary degrees and careers including broadcaster, film director, diplomat and publisher. And she is only the second woman, after former cabinet minister Jeanne Sauvé, to occupy the post.

Perhaps most intriguingly, she comes as the official half of an unofficial viceregal pair: she recently married her longtime companion, the outspoken philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul. And Chrétien made no secret of his gleeful expectation that the two forceful personalities would bring political acumen, cultural flair and sheer love of country to their elegant residence in Rideau Hall. As Chrétien awkwardly explained: "I guess that over dinner they might between the two of them come up with a pretty good conclusion."

But strong opinions on everything from free trade (against) to public broadcasting (for) and equally strong determination could be a liability as well as a strength during Clarkson's five-year tenure. While she can be gracious and charming, she has also developed a reputation for her steely will - and high-handed behaviour. She and Saul are used to getting their own way: although they received variances to put additions on their house in the tony Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville in the late 1980s, they bitterly opposed their neighbours' request last year to fashion an addition. Along the way, they even managed to temporarily freeze all of their neighbours' renovations. The dispute was only settled when Clarkson accepted her new post.

In fact, within minutes of Chrétien's announcement a fierce ideological debate began raging: was Rideau Hall to be occupied by two left-wing, intensely nationalistic zealots or were they simply two confidently humane advocates of the new Canada? Had the Prime Minister played with Canada's future on the brink of another Quebec referendum on separation - or secured another force, in the proudly bilingual and bicultural pair, for its survival? "She is so proud to be a Canadian," maintains longtime friend Toronto lawyer William McMurtry. "She will probably attempt to go beyond the ceremonial to articulate the essence of the nation."

That brave approach may have its risks. Although the governor general must assume daunting responsibilities in times of constitutional crisis, the role has usually remained largely ceremonial. As an unelected representative, the sophisticated Clarkson must cut ribbons, entertain schoolchildren, endure numerous diplomatic dinners - and keep most of her strong opinions to herself. Last week, she deftly observed that "standing apart from the everyday political fray does not mean not having ideas." She added that she and Saul will eventually present those "ethical" ideas, perhaps on such topics as public education. Saul was equally optimistic that he would only need to temper "about one per cent" of his activities to protect his spouse from controversy.

Opinions of those optimistic assessments are mixed. One acquaintance says that Clarkson will be fine. Saul, the acquaintance adds, "will get into trouble: if there is another free-trade debate, there will be no stopping him." Others worry that both Clarkson and Saul lack the ability to reach out to ordinary Canadians. "I relate to warm people - and that just isn't her," frets a key political insider. "Politically it will wash - because of the categories - but with any public enthusiasm? No."

Their longtime friend Toronto lawyer Julian Porter counters that Clarkson will dazzle her audiences. "She is a magnificent performer - and that is a huge part of the job," he says. Veteran television producer Ron Haggart, who worked with her on the CBC's investigative TV show the fifth estate, adds: "She had the ability to put people at ease, such that they probably said more than they thought they were going to say." He adds pointedly: "That included her ability to know when to keep quiet."

Clearly, Chrétien had no worries on that score. Last week, he told reporters he first thought of appointing Clarkson more than two years ago. But other candidates were also in the wings. Maclean's has learned that Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy was approached - but preferred his current role. Chrétien's longtime political friend Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray could have had the job if he had wanted it. Former British Columbia cabinet minister Iona Campagnolo was also briefly in the running.

Chrétien seriously considered Alberta Senator Joyce Fairbairn. When the Liberals were left without any Nova Scotia MPs after the 1997 election, she resigned from her cabinet position as government leader in the Senate to open up a ministerial seat for a Nova Scotia senator. The Prime Minister felt that he owed her - and that the veteran political aide would be an asset in any campaign against Quebec separation. But Fairbairn's French-language skills are poor. And some advisers warned that Chrétien had sparked enough outcry when he appointed the avidly partisan LeBlanc in 1994, evoking charges that he had reduced the post to a patronage plum.

Earlier this year, key members of Chrétien's team floated the candidacy of former Ontario premier Bob Rae, brother of Chrétien's close adviser John Rae, an executive at Montreal-based Power Corp. of Canada. That was too much for many party loyalists: they did not want a New Democrat in the job. Meanwhile, women in the Liberal caucus said it was time for another female. Chrétien ran Clarkson's name past his tiny inner circle, including policy director Chaviva Hosek and former appointments director Penny Collenette. "She is a visible minority and a woman and she did a diplomatic stint in Paris," says a key insider recounting Chrétien's considerations. "She is held in high regard by the arts and academic communities. There is no taint of political affiliation. She carries herself with dignity."

In short, she was viewed as the near-perfect solution: the PMO needed to put a modern spin on a job that many Canadians view as an anachronism - and required a fast learner for a role that is clearly in transition. And Clarkson is a fast learner: even in high school, she could memorize a 15-minute speech in 15 minutes. Back then, both parents fostered their immigrant dreams for their children: they encouraged them to excel in school - and to fit gracefully into their new country's elite. Clarkson's brother, Neville Poy, retired in 1995 after a stellar career as a Toronto plastic surgeon, often working with burn victims. (Chrétien appointed his wife, Vivienne, a former fashion designer, to the Senate last year.) Clarkson herself was equally driven. At Ottawa's Lisgar Collegiate Institute in 1955-1956, she was head girl, a member of the girls' club, which did everything from performing concerts to assisting needy families - and an accomplished public speaker. "Undoubtedly Lisgar's busiest person," lauded the yearbook.

Her path seemed golden. She took her bachelor of arts degree in English literature and language at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, then a master's in English literature at the University of Toronto. From 1962 to 1964, she did postgraduate work at the prestigious Sorbonne in France, polishing her French-language skills. It was in Paris that she became reacquainted with a Toronto friend, academic Stephen Clarkson, scion of a wealthy old-Toronto family. In 1963, they wed. By the early 1970s, she was the budding star of an afternoon TV interview show, Take Thirty, the author of two novels, the mother of three daughters (two of them twins) and a magazine columnist. While her counterculture contemporaries dropped out of society, she worked ferociously hard to drop in. Impeccably and expensively dressed, cultured and carefully contained, she was the very embodiment of an immigrant success story.

And then it all fell apart. One of the twins died of sudden infant death syndrome. Reeling, Clarkson worked even harder. In the mid-1970s, her marriage to Clarkson disintegrated. After a bitter divorce action, he took custody of the girls. Friends say that Adrienne rarely, if ever, sees them. To this day, her official biography and Canadian Who's Who entry make no reference to her children. "It's the huge wound in her life," says a close friend. The damage was profound. Although she has been with Saul for almost two decades, she vowed never to remarry. The pair only wed this summer in response to the PMO's gentle hints.

Clarkson has always pushed her learning curve - and occasionally her colleagues - to the limit. Goal-driven, she can be brutally demanding. Poised and aloof, she can be arrogant. But she has always been toughest on herself, grasping new challenges with cocky assurance. From 1976 to 1982, she was an investigative journalist. After a hard-hitting look at the New Brunswick McCain family's business practices, one senator actually accused her of being an unnaturalized Canadian for most of her life (the Poy family became citizens in 1949). From 1982 to 1987, she served as Ontario's agent-general in Paris, promoting the province's business and cultural interests. On her return, she rashly accepted a job as president of the McClelland and Stewart publishing house - even though she had little experience in that complicated business. Overwhelmed, she returned to the CBC in 1988 as a host of cultural programs, most recently of Something Special.

Meanwhile, she and Saul have fashioned what they always craved: interesting lives. They own a small, cherished island in Georgian Bay, where they spend much of their summers in a rustic, tastefully appointed retreat. They are avid gardeners. Their circle of friends is cultured; life is well lived. How the pair will survive the transition to Rideau Hall depends on how willing they are to adjust to that life.

But if others, as well as Clarkson, have sometimes paid a price for her ferocious will, Canadians may also become the beneficiaries of that iron resolve. Friends believe that Clarkson and Saul could transform Canada's highest office into a sparkling bicultural Camelot where even the magnificent gardens receive more attention. The couple intend to alternate time between Rideau Hall and the governor general's residence in Quebec City, honouring the achievements of their fellow Canadians and urging them to celebrate their heritage as a multicultural nation that works. "We always had this strong feeling in ourselves that we would do well and succeed," Clarkson once mused. "Our parents put their whole life into that and when you have that kind of push, you have to go straight up. There was no other way."

Maclean's September 20, 1999