Adrienne Clarkson (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 24, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 24, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

Clarkson, Adrienne (Profile)

HOW DO YOU judge office holders whose functions are predominantly ceremonial? Is Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, doing a good job? How about her representative in Canada, the governor general? What is the standard - and who is doing the judging? Such dignitaries aren't like politicians, whom voters appraise via the ballot box, or corporate giants whose performance is calibrated daily on the stock market, or even entertainers whose appeal is measured in receipts for CDs and multiplex tickets. What on earth do those exalted personages, with their courtiers, stiff backs, soft handshakes and perfunctory waves, do, anyway?

Few Canadians likely know. Yet when asked how Adrienne CLARKSON is performing as governor general, their response is almost universally positive. That includes even her one-time critics - and there were many. Her fans go as far as saying Her Excellency is the best governor general that Canada has had in a generation and may be among a handful of the most important ever. In the 3½ years she and her philosopher-writer husband, John Ralston SAUL, have resided at Rideau Hall, she - both of them, really, because they often operate in tandem - has brought elegance, intelligence, diligence, and a sense of purpose to the long-moribund office.

More to the point, people are talking about the GOVERNOR GENERAL. The office had dropped off the radar screens of most media. Now, Clarkson's speeches and the events she hosts are frequently covered. She also draws large crowds wherever she goes. "She's royal in the true sense," says John Aimers, dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada. "She's the most outstanding governor general in living memory, and my memory goes back to Georges VANIER."

It hasn't happened by accident. In an interview at stately, greystone Rideau Hall, the governor general's official residence in Ottawa's tony Rockliffe Park neighbourhood, Clarkson, 64, says she thought long and hard about what she wanted to accomplish. "We immediately said we were not going to be reactive" by waiting for invitations, she told Maclean's, and instead set about a plan to experience the way Canadians live. As governor general, she could travel as much as she wanted, so who better to bring a vision of Canada as a whole to communities separated by geography and experience? And who better to express admiration for what the country has achieved than the non-political de facto head of state? "So far," Clarkson says, "I'm happy with what we've been able to achieve."

Few would begrudge her self-assessment now. But there were plenty of skeptics in September 1999 when she emerged as Jean Chrétien's surprise nominee. Over a half-dozen safer candidates, including Herb Gray, Joyce Fairbairn, Bob Rae, Iona Campagnolo, Lloyd Axworthy - politicians all - were rumoured to have been in the running. Until then, Clarkson was best known for her storied, 28-year career as an award-winning television personality on such shows as Take 30 and Adrienne Clarkson Presents. She was also known for her controversial views, including opposition to free trade, and her cool hauteur - exemplified by Linda Cullen's impersonation, "I'm Adrienne Clarkson and you're not," which became a running joke on the CBC Radio comedy program Double Exposure. But when Clarkson got the nod, some praised Chrétien for his imaginative choice. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis, who in 1982 had appointed her as the province's agent general in Paris, always believed Clarkson would rise to the occasion. "I was very supportive of her," he said. "She did a great job in Paris, she had access to senior people there, she helped our business interests, and she was highly regarded by people in the French government and, just as important, by people in the French cultural community."

Still, the detractors were legion. Her appointment was met with a chorus of vitriol, much of it embarrassingly personal. Critics attacked her for suddenly making her long-standing common-law relationship with Saul official, a kind of shotgun marriage that Chrétien had gently suggested would be appropriate. Others dragged up her housing variance dispute with a neighbour in Toronto's swank Yorkville district, casting her as the villain (she settled out of court after she accepted the post). Most cutting was a portrayal of her as an unloving mother estranged from her 31- and 33-year-old daughters, following a bitter divorce in the mid-'70s from academic Stephen Clarkson, scion of an old-money Toronto family. Whether they have, in fact, reconciled is uncertain - she has made it clear the topic is off limits. "No one can know what really happens in a family," says a friend, who asked not to be named. "I do know that there's not a day goes by when she doesn't think about her children. It remains the biggest wound of her life."

Critics kept the knives out following her installment. An early story had her haughtily ordering Rideau Hall staff to refer to her as Madame, as if she had taken on airs. But an aide explains that there was a valid reason: since she no longer goes by the name Mrs. Clarkson, the only alternative in keeping with protocol is Her Excellency. There was a royal scandal when she was barely a month into the job and stayed at the Empress Hotel in Victoria - at public expense, no less - rather than at Government House, where the Queen stays on visits. Again, the aide says his boss's actions were justified: she was chairing the annual lieutenant-governors conference being held on site, and the provincial representatives had also booked rooms in the hotel. Clarkson was also criticized for travelling on the government Challenger, attacked for praising Louis Riel, accused of too vociferously championing the poor and homeless. In turn, Saul was pilloried for describing George W. Bush in his best-selling 2001 book, On Equilibrium, as "frail" and "awkward" in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. And on it went. If there was more than one interpretation of their actions or words, many chose the blackest and least sympathetic.

Clarkson now dismisses the criticism as the price she had to pay for her celebrity. And then, as she set about performing her duties as though this was the job she had been born to do, her critics gradually fell silent. One former doubter, Deborah Grey, is typical. The blunt Canadian Alliance MP, who initially complained about the couple's left-wing partisanship, now says Clarkson "has brought a whole lot of class to the job."

And a sense of mission. Wherever she was needed, Clarkson seemed to be there. In Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu, consoling two native communities afflicted with hopelessness, teenage suicides and gasoline sniffing. In Ramstein, Germany, comforting six Canadian soldiers wounded in Afghanistan as they disembarked from a U.S. military transport, then returning the next day with magazines and pastries. In the Gulf region, where she spent Christmas with the young men and women engaged in the war on terrorism. In homeless shelters across Canada, listening to unwed mothers, drug addicts and others who had dropped out, or been left behind by society. In the first year alone, Clarkson, usually accompanied by Saul, visited 81 communities and travelled 115,000 km. They've quickened the pace since. And the two have opened Rideau Hall - they refer to it as "Canada's house" - to the public as never before, welcoming well over 200,000 visitors a year. One suspects they want to meet every living, breathing Canadian before the traditional five-year stint is up.

GREETING ME in her wood-panelled rotunda office overlooking the gardens and tennis courts on the Rideau Hall grounds, Clarkson looks impeccable - multicoloured, quilted jacket over skirt, every hair in place, lipstick expertly applied. She and Saul live in three rooms upstairs - a bedroom, living room/study and kitchenette - but downstairs she's dressed for business. And so is Canada's house. Vases of fresh flowers brighten each room, befitting her love of gardening. The walls are hung with Canadian art, representing every style and era, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada and galleries across the country. And Saul, a wine connoisseur, has amassed what he calls the country's best all-Canadian wine cellar, decreeing that nothing but Canadian vino is to be served at state functions. (He even holds blind taste tests to convince skeptics the vintages can stand up to anything the world produces.) Saul joins us mid-interview, and is soon joking that he has made it difficult for any of his successors to reverse the grown-in-Canada policy. "It's going to make," he says, "a very negative story."

Clarkson quickly warms to her favourite subject - Canada. She was three when her parents, William and Ethel Poy, moved to Ottawa from Hong Kong in 1942 with her and her elder brother, Neville, fleeing the Japanese invasion. Perhaps because she's an immigrant, she has an unapologetically rosy outlook on Canada as a country of infinite possibilities, and a sober view of how newcomers should adapt. "Canada has given me everything," she says. She believes in multiculturalism, but not necessarily the mushy, politically correct version that places no requirements on immigrants to become part of the Canadian experience. There's that controversial side, again, but hear her out. "I think the problem with hyphenated Canadians is the label makes others feel you're not really Canadian, and you yourself think you have a loyalty to where you come from that is bigger than the loyalty you have to Canada," she explains. One's allegiance to Canada must be paramount, she says, otherwise why are you here reaping the benefits of medicare, public education, freedom and safe streets? "I really believe you have to say, 'Now that I am Canadian, all of the country as it has always existed - the triumphs and the tragedies - is my responsibility.' If you say, 'I'm not responsible because I wasn't here, when this or that happened,' it's a perverse kind of citizenship."

She's not afraid to tackle the sensitive subject in public as well. At a Canadian Club luncheon in Ottawa in January, she spoke of how immigrants must not merely embrace their new land, but leave old quarrels in the past. And those who already call Canada home need to put aside their wariness of others. "Mistrust, contempt, fear - this is the old language," she told a packed convention hall. "And we must articulate a new language that includes trust, compassion and openness. All of us, and not only those who've been here longer."

Typical of her speeches, which she writes herself, the Canadian Club address was brimming with intelligence and infused with a passion for the land and its history. Although Anne Golden, president of the Conference Board of Canada, could not attend, a staff member sent in her place described the effect Clarkson had on her listeners. "I got a memo from this person," recalls Golden, "which she sent to all 250 people at the Conference Board, about the privilege she had of listening to Madame Clarkson and how uplifting it was for her. She was moved to tears."

That's the thing about Clarkson, adds Golden. At a time when Canadians are questioning their place in the world as a mid-range country sharing the continent with the world's sole superpower, the Governor General has become the leading public voice for what she calls "this singularly Canadian dream." It is not a sentimental vision. She's clear-eyed enough to acknowledge Canada's failings, be it homelessness, the tragedy of Aboriginal communities, poverty, or intolerance. But wherever she speaks, she leaves audiences contemplating a nation that is capable of overcoming all its difficulties. "She's so inspiring, she dispels cynicism about our country," says Golden. "And isn't that what we want our governor general to do?"

A GOVERNOR GENERAL is constitutionally the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (but like most things to do with the office, that fact would probably stump most Canadians if it were included in a game of Trivial Pursuit). Clarkson, of course, is not involved in planning military strategy. But she takes all her duties seriously, and as the vice-regal couple, Clarkson and Saul made it a point early on to visit Canada's fighting men and women overseas. She recalls that upon being installed, Chief of Defence Staff Maurice Baril inquired whether she planned to visit the troops in the field, saying that had not been a tradition. "I was a little amazed no one had done that before," she says. She paid her first visit in late 1999 to peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo, then the following year visited the peacekeepers in Bosnia. She spent the Christmas holidays aboard the frigates HMCS Montreal and HMCS Winnipeg in the Gulf region, where she presented 670 South-West Asia Medals for their work combatting terrorism, and handed out promotions to the troops. "It means so much to them to be recognized," says Clarkson, "They are out there doing a very important task for our country, and I think Canadians consider it important that I do this."

Clarkson also refuses to give short shrift to the often tedious work of handing out civilian awards, greeting Canadians at levees and other routine functions. She usually manages to speak to everyone in attendance. Aimers says he was amazed at how much time she devoted to a Monarchist League service in February 2002 in Toronto, marking the Queen's Golden Jubilee. "She stayed and stayed, talked to every single person," he says. "I found out the next morning that was the evening her father was dying. She had gone earlier to visit him, came to the service and reception, and then went back to his deathbed. She would have had every reason in the world to say, 'I can't go to the reception, my father is dying.' "

Such functions are not burdens of the office to be dispensed with quickly, says Clarkson. Rather, they are the ceremonies and rituals that bind Canadians to their society. "Many people bring developmentally handicapped children," she says, "and it's very meaningful for them to say, 'This is Art, he's 32 and Art has Down's syndrome and we want him to meet you.' It's astonishing, it's as though Canada has witnessed their lives, and that they are part of the larger community and recognized."

Clarkson is also clearly conscious of the symbolism of her appointment. Canada has had a female governor general before, Jeanne SAUVÉ (1984-1990). And, of course, before the position was nationalized with Vincent MASSEY in 1952, all were born abroad (sent over from London, they went back home when they were done). But she is the first immigrant to be governor general, the first to truly encompass the multi-hued nature of the population. "People, Indians, Somalis, come up to me and say, 'It's so important to us that you are there because you represent our aspirations,' " she says. "They can tell their daughter or son, 'Look, you could be this.' "

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE Saul, 55, ever confronted such self-doubts. An accomplished writer with an international reputation, Saul - who has been Clarkson's companion for over a quarter century - is comfortable in the world of ideas and is not reticent to express them. But he too has surprised his critics with the enthusiasm with which he's taken on the role of vice-regal consort, treating it like it was an official position, delivering speeches and championing causes. His actions have raised eyebrows among those who believe a governor general's spouse should be seen and not heard. But Saul says his critics have not bothered to look into the tradition of the role. He points out that before Confederation, Lady Elgin took an active role in Canadian affairs, including championing the benefits of modern transportation as then exemplified by railroads. In the 1890s, Lady Aberdeen helped create the feminist movement and founded the National Council of Women of Canada and the Victorian Order of Nurses. Her successor, Lady Minto, raised great sums for public hospitals. "I'm sitting in a room where the women's movement was invented in Canada, where public hospitals were invented in Canada," he says, "so I don't feel I'm off track."

Saul's projects - which he initiated - include the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium, which each year brings together Canada's brightest minds to debate issues of democracy, and French for the Future, which puts French-immersion high-school students into discussion groups with high-achieving bilingual Canadians. As a couple, Clarkson and Saul often expound on the civilizing influence of Aboriginal culture in Canadian history. According to Saul, modern Canada is a success because it was founded on three pillars - Aboriginal, anglophone and francophone. "We don't realize how that influences us, but it's there," he says. The compromises that allowed the three communities to coexist and flourish, he says, seeped into the national psyche and explain why Canada, unlike many other nations, has largely avoided internal strife. "The most important thing I can do is go into a hall and create a sense that, if you're a citizen, you ought to be involved in whatever way suits you. LaFontaine-Baldwin, French for the Future, talking about public education, bilingualism, Aboriginal culture - all these things are ways of involving people."

CLARKSON AND SAUL may have transformed the office of governor general, but has it transformed them? They've continued to be outspoken, but they've hardly acted like the left-wing ideologues many expected, and even dreaded, would raise hackles in the House and the country's right-wing press. The difference, says Clarkson, is they've been conducting a dialogue of ideas with Canadians, while steering clear of politics. "Talking about homelessness, child poverty or battered women - I don't believe that's political," she says. "Show me a political party that is for those things."

And where is Clarkson's alleged haughtiness? Few who have met her fail to mention the humility and generosity with which she has comported herself. Friends who have known her since she attended the University of Toronto's Trinity College in the 1950s say her detractors have the wrong idea about her. "She's a perfectionist," says Toronto lawyer Bill McMurtry. "She sets very high standards, and she's not afraid of reaching for heights many others wouldn't even attempt."

McMurtry, who used to take Clarkson and Saul to Maple Leafs hockey games in the 1980s and early '90s, once proposed, only half in jest, that she run for politics. He would be her campaign manager, he told her. She never even contemplated the offer. "I sensed there was a shyness there," he says. "She's gotten over it, but I don't think she'd much like the idea of being a political figure, which is different from being a public figure." Told the story, Clarkson breaks into laughter. "You've been talking to Bill," she says, adding that she's worked at overcoming her reticence. "When I was a little girl, my father took me aside and said, 'You can't be shy. You've got to go out there and do things, you mustn't be shy.' I've always followed what my father told me."

Her father's advice has served Her Excellency, and Canada's highest office, well. "I'm a great believer in the institution, and she's given it a new dimension," says former Ontario premier Davis. "She works 24 hours a day, she never stops, she's always thinking, always wondering what more she can do." Would Clarkson be willing to continue her tenure beyond the traditional term in office? She points to the portraits of her predecessors hanging on her office walls. "Most of these people are separated by five years," she notes. "We started off this fast pace saying we've got five years to achieve whatever we can." As she skates around the question, it's pointed out she hasn't answered it. Clarkson laughs, but still gives no answer. Even her former critics would likely say Canada could do worse than Adrienne Clarkson as the face it presents to the world. Some may even grudgingly concede Canada could do no better.

Maclean's March 24, 2003