She is a woman who travels the country from its cities to its remotest regions, warmly clasping hands and drawing excited crowds wherever she goes. She has described her mission as ‘bringing the crown to the people’. As a former refugee she embodies the great Canadian dream of inclusion, of a nationalism based not on ethnicity but on humanity and global citizenship. Monarchists call her ‘truly royal’ and republicans call her ‘inspirational’.
That is just a few ways outgoing Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson has been described as her term draws to a close this year. While Australia was voting on a republican model in 1999, Canada was welcoming a new Governor General intent on transforming the vice regal office into a modern and popular national institution. The appointment last week of Michaelle Jean, a successor in a similar mould as Clarkson, is a testament to the success of that mission.
Clarkson is interesting to Australia on several levels. Unlike Australia, Canada has had female governors general before. Clarkson, however, was the first to be descended from neither the French nor British ‘founding nations’. Her family fled to Canada as refugees from Hong Kong. Today her coat of arms pays tribute to that new beginning with a phoenix rising from the ashes flanked by two tigers.
While Australian commentators once again urge cultural integration upon minorities by attacking them in the media, Canada has done far more for its national unity by showing immigrants that they too can aspire to the highest office in the land. Repeatedly on her tours of Canada, Clarkson has encountered immigrant families who use her as an example to their children of what they can one day achieve as Canadians.
Far more important than her family heritage has been Clarkson’s engaging message and style. Clarkson talks about Canada’s heritage in terms of inclusiveness and involvement, thereby inviting both old and new Canadians to share in its ownership. Clarkson threw open the vice regal residence to the people throughout the year, once again making Rideau Hall a living centre of national culture, exhibiting history and modern Canadian art. In her wide ranging tours of the country, her particular concern has been reaching out to rural and isolated Canadians in the north. Her equally high profile husband and ‘consort’ John Ralston Saul, one of the world’s leading intellectuals, has balanced this by focusing his itinerary and speeches on ‘urban regeneration’ in the nation’s cities.
Clarkson has been well equipped to carry her message by her distinguished twenty year career in journalism and broadcasting. She is comfortable with all kinds of people and settings, and takes to each occasion with the same enthusiasm, whether it is the state opening of parliament or an ice hockey match. With a natural flair for communication, a distinctive mission and a sincere human touch, Clarkson thus has all the ingredients that make a successful modern royal.
While her appointment sparked controversy, six years later it is clear that what was at first considered radical was in fact the institutional regeneration needed for the office to carry out its function as a symbol of national unity and aspiration. Clarkson outlined this vision at her accession speech in 1999, when she pointed out that ‘institutions have never been static’ but ‘organic – evolving and growing in ways that surprise and even startle us.’
Michaelle Jean assumes the vice regal role on 27 September on the expiry of Clarkson’s extended term. Jean is a childhood immigrant from Haiti, a journalist and an active social worker, having helped establish women’s refuges in Montreal. Like Clarkson, Jean is married to a philosopher. At 37 she is also remarkably young, with a six-year-old daughter who appeared by the podium at her first public address. It is too early to preempt Jean’s success in the role and she and Clarkson, naturally, have many differences. But the fact that Prime Minister Martin has followed and expanded upon the Clarkson appointment, points to its overwhelming success in embodying Canada’s national story.
Canada and Australia share the same Queen but their governors general, and the national stories they represent, seem worlds apart.
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