Early Life and Education
Bartleman was born in Orillia, Ontario, on 24 December 1939. His mother, Marie Simcoe, was Chippewa, from the Mnjikaning First Nation. She lost her Indian Status due to provisions of the Indian Act when she married non-Indigenous, Scottish-descended Percy Bartleman (see also Indigenous Women and the Franchise). Moving to Port Carling, Ontario, in 1946, the family spent summers in a tent close to the dump and wintered in a rented, ramshackle house. His father was a labourer and sold fish to nearby restaurants. His mother fought depression, something Bartleman later associated with the difficulty of balancing Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds. He faced similar challenges as he dealt with racism and discrimination in the small town and later recalled the wounds left from being called “dirty half-breed” as a youth. Despite this experience, he came to embrace his Indigenous heritage, saying, “I thought it gave me, as an individual, a much richer life, knowing what Aboriginal life was like.”
Trips to the local library with his father, an avid reader, opened new worlds to Bartleman and instilled a love of learning. Port Carling’s small school did not include Grade 13 (then the final year of high school), which would have ended Bartleman’s formal education. Bartleman spent the summers of his youth working for American Robert Clause, the chair of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and a Muskoka cottager. In 1958, Clause offered to fund not only a move to London, Ontario, so that Bartleman could complete high school, but his university education as well.
Bartleman enrolled in history at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) in London, where he again confronted racism and discrimination. As the only Indigenous student at the university, he soon observed “that mainstream Canadians were uncomfortable with Indians.” He recalled that the Canadian history lectures he attended often made generalizations about Indigenous peoples, simplifying their interactions with European settlers and largely erasing Indigenous contributions to the nation’s development. Still, Bartleman immersed himself in this new learning environment, focusing particularly on literature and history. He graduated in 1963 with an honours bachelor degree.
After teaching for a year in Southwestern Ontario, Bartleman set off for Europe, back-packing across the continent and travelling to countries such as Spain, Norway and France. He stopped to teach for a time in England and at The Hague and worked in centres for travelling students. His year abroad included events that helped inspire his career in the Canadian Foreign Service. On 6 December 1964, Bartleman arrived for an organ recital at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and instead found himself part of the congregation for a speech by American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s words resonated with Bartleman, stoking his growing belief that peace and cooperation were messages he wanted to spread. The next month, he was amongst the throngs lining London’s streets for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral procession.
Bartleman entered the Foreign Service in 1966, taking a position with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. This began nearly four decades of public service and world travels. In 1972, as acting high commissioner, he opened Canada’s first diplomatic mission in the newly independent Republic of Bangladesh. Bartleman was named to numerous diplomatic posts over his career, including ambassador to Cuba (1981–83). Bartleman was simultaneously high commissioner to Cyprus and ambassador to Israel from 1986 to 1990. He served as ambassador to the North Atlantic Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the following four years.
In 1994, Bartleman became foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and assistant secretary to the cabinet for foreign and defence policy, Privy Council Office. Relations with several nations in Africa were particularly tense in the mid-1990s, a period that included the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Bartleman later stated that he wished he had done more as the prime minister’s advisor and that Canada — like the United Nations (UN) — had been tarnished by its relative inaction in Rwanda. Bartleman worked with General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN’s Rwandan mission, and recalled later finding “it difficult to look into Dallaire’s eyes.” In 1996, hoping to avoid a similar situation in Zaire (Congo), the Canadian government — with Bartleman playing a key role — tried to organize an international rescue mission, but the international community largely rejected the mission. Bartleman served with the Chrétien government until 1998.
In 1998, he served for one year as the high commissioner to South Africa before moving to the high commission in Australia (1999–2000). From 2000 until 2002, he was ambassador to the European Union.
Air India Bombing
Bartleman was named head of intelligence for the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1983. He was in the position at the time of the Air India bombing in June 1985. The terrorist bombing of Flight 182, which took off from Toronto’s Pearson Airport, killed 329 people, including 280 Canadians. Sikh separatists from British Columbia planned the attack. The Canadian government began an inquiry into the official response to the bombing in May 2006.
In May 2007, Bartleman (then lieutenant-governor of Ontario) testified before the Air India commission, claiming to have seen an intelligence report warning of an imminent attack on Air India in the days before the tragedy. He stated that he had discussed it with an RCMP official but with none of his superiors in Foreign Affairs. He did not share this information for some 20 years. Bartleman’s disclosure rocked the inquiry, and he was criticized for not coming forward with the information sooner, while several intelligence and RCMP officials questioned the accuracy of his recollections. The inquiry’s final report found major lapses in communication between Canada’s government agencies, the RCMP and the intelligence community. Bartleman apologized publicly to the families after his appearance before the commission.
Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario
On 7 March 2002, Bartleman was installed as Ontario’s 27th lieutenant-governor. He was the province’s first Indigenous vice-regal. Bartleman focused on three initiatives during his time in office: fighting racism and discrimination; championing Indigenous youth education and literacy; and eliminating the stigma around mental illness.
During his first tours of Northern Ontario communities as lieutenant-governor, Bartleman noticed that the region’s school libraries had few books. In response, he established a book drive in 2004. Around 900,000 books were delivered to schools, with fly-in communities prioritized for delivery. A second drive in 2007 included deliveries to Nunavut and northern Québec.
In 2005, Bartleman initiated a twinning program between Indigenous and non-Indigenous schools in Ontario and Nunavut as a way to encourage cultural understanding and community-building. Students participated in exchanges and pen-pal programs, with supply drives for educational resources, including books and musical instruments.
In July 2005, he announced the creation of literacy camps for Northwestern Ontario Indigenous communities. The camps also included sports and Indigenous language and culture. In 2006, the camps expanded to fly-in communities, and about 3,500 children and youth across the region enrolled. Camp-goers became members of Club Amick, a reading program that eventually included 5,000 Indigenous participants.
Bartleman’s literacy initiatives were meant to help build youth esteem and provide opportunities, but he believed more should be done to improve mental health in Northern Ontario’s Indigenous communities. He therefore publicly shared his own experiences as a way to lessen the shame often associated with mental illness. This included witnessing his mother’s struggles as well as his own fight with clinical depression. Bartleman’s candidness extended to the post-traumatic stress and depression he suffered after surviving a brutal beating and armed robbery in South Africa in 1999: “I managed to escape with my life, but fell into a deep depression. I entertained suicidal thoughts … I wasn’t too ashamed to seek help.” With this openness he hoped to alleviate the stigma around mental illness that keeps many people from getting treatment.
Upon completing his term as lieutenant-governor in September 2007, Bartleman was named chancellor of the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University). He served in the position until 2012.
Bartleman is a bestselling author of non-fiction and fiction. He has detailed his diplomatic and personal life in four memoirs. Out of Muskoka (2002) and Raisin Wine (2007) are reflections on Bartleman’s childhood in Port Carling, Ontario, and the challenges of navigating non-Indigenous and Indigenous cultures, dealing with racism and discrimination and embracing his Indigenous heritage. He donated the proceeds from Out of Muskoka to the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, and those from Raisin Wine were used to ship books to northern communities. In On Six Continents (2004) and Rollercoaster (2005), Bartleman shares his decades as a diplomat and foreign policy advisor, with the latter focusing on his time working with the Chrétien government.
Bartleman has mined his life experiences for works of fiction as well. His first novel, As Long as the River Flows (2011), explores the generational impact of Canada’s residential school system on an Indigenous family in Northern Ontario. Exceptional Circumstances (2015) is a novel of diplomatic intrigue set amidst the October Crisis in Québec.
While posted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Bartleman met his wife, Marie-Jeanne Rosillon. They married in 1975 and had three children.
Honours and Awards
Bartleman has been the honorary patron for a number of organizations, such as the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, the Institute of Mental Health Research and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Bartleman has also had an award named in his honour. In 2008, the Ontario government established the James Bartleman Indigenous Youth Creative Writing Awards in recognition of Bartleman’s status as the province’s first Indigenous lieutenant-governor and his dedication to encouraging Indigenous youth literacy.
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award in Public Service (1999)
- Member, Order of Ontario (2002)
- Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
- Dr. Hugh Lefave Award, Ontario ACT Association (2003)
- Courage to Come Back Award, CAMH (2004)
- Arthur Kroeger College Award in Ethics in Public Service, Carleton University (2007)
- Raisin Wine, Joseph Brant Award, Ontario Historical Society (2008)
- National Child Day Award, Canadian Institute of Child Health (2008)
- Officer, Order of Canada (2011)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Honorary Doctorate, Western University (2002)
- Doctor of Laws, York University (2003)
- Doctor of Laws, Laurentian University (2004)
- Doctor of Laws, Algoma University (2004)
- Doctor of Laws, Queen’s University (2004)
- Honorary Doctorate, Ryerson University (2005)
- Doctor of Laws, University of Windsor (2005)
- Doctor of Letters, McGill University (2006)
- Doctor of Education, Nipissing University (2006)
- Doctor of Laws, Wilfrid Laurier University (2007)
- Honorary Doctorate, McMaster University (2009)
- Honorary Doctorate, Carleton University (2013)
- Doctor of Laws, University of Toronto (2016)