Adrienne Clarkson | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Adrienne Clarkson

Adrienne Louise Clarkson, PC, CC, CMM, COM, CD, 26th governor general of Canada 1999–2005, television personality, journalist, novelist, public servant, publisher (born 10 February 1939 in Hong Kong). In 1999, Clarkson was appointed as Canada’s 26th governor general by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. She was the first racialized person, the first person of Asian heritage and the first without a political or military background appointed to the vice-regal position. Her appointment came after an award-winning career in broadcast and print journalism, where she was best known as host and reporter of CBC’s the fifth estate. After her tenure as governor general, Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, launched the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, an organization that aims to accelerate the cultural integration of new citizens into Canadian society. She is the author of two novels and five works of nonfiction.
Adrienne Clarkson, 2011.
Image: \u00a9 Andrew Rusk/

Early Life and Education

Adrienne Clarkson was born in Hong Kong in 1939, the daughter of Ethel and William Poy, a prominent businessman who lost his property after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Clarkson arrived in Canada with her parents and older brother, Neville, as refugees in 1942. At the time, the Chinese Immigration Act excluded the arrival of virtually all Chinese immigrants. However, William Poy’s work at the Canadian Trade Commission in Hong Kong is believed to have helped him bring his family to Canada under “special circumstances” granted by the government.

“We arrived with one suitcase apiece and nothing else,” Clarkson said in a 2002 speech to the Joint Refugee Committee in Red Deer, Alberta. “I was very fortunate that my family never thought of themselves as having lost anything of real value. We lost only material things… We didn’t lose what we really believed in as human beings.”

Clarkson’s family settled in Ottawa, Ontario, where she grew up and attended public schools. She studied at the University of Toronto, where she received an Honours BA (1960) and MA (1962) in English Literature. From 1962 to 1964, she studied at La Sorbonne in Paris, France, which she credits for making her “truly bilingual.”

Early and Mid Career

In 1965, Clarkson began an award-winning, 18-year career as TV host-interviewer, writer and producer for the CBC. She started as a book reviewer for the show Take Thirty, where she was quickly promoted to co-host. The promotion made her the first racialized Canadian to headline a national program. She remained there for 10 years, during which time she also wrote for many of Canada’s national print publications, including Chatelaine and Maclean’s magazines. Clarkson also published two novels with McClelland & Stewart: A Lover More Condoling (1968) and Hunger Trace (1970), as well as a collection of interviews on the subject of marriage and divorce, True to You In My Fashion: A Woman Talks to Men About Marriage (1971), with New Press.

In 1974–75, she briefly hosted her own current affairs show, Adrienne at Large, which ran less than four months. The following year, she left Take Thirty and helped launch the CBC’s new program the fifth estate, a newsmagazine show modelled on CBS’s famed 60 Minutes and the BBC’s Panorama. Clarkson worked as a co-host and reporter for the show. Her reporting highlights included an investigation of the financing of the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal, an interview with the Shah of Iran, and a look into the McCain Foods’ business practices.

According to a profile of Clarkson in Maclean’s (see Clarkson Appointed Governor General), her story on McCain’s irritated senator Josie Quart, who accused Clarkson of degrading “Canadians who had been successful” and for not being a naturalized Canadian citizen for most of her life — though Clarkson’s family had gained citizenship in 1949. Quart later apologized.

Clarkson was noted for her style of interviewing, which elicited strong, illuminating responses from the people she interviewed. According to Ron Haggart, a producer of the fifth estate, “[Clarkson] had the ability to put people at ease, such that they probably said more than they thought they were going to say…. That included her ability to know when to keep quiet.”

Clarkson left the fifth estate in 1982 and was appointed by Premier Bill Davis as Ontario’s firstagent-general in Paris. In this role, Clarkson promoted Ontario’s business and cultural interests in France, Italy and Spainfor five years. On her return to Canada in 1987, she became president of McClelland & Stewart, where she remained until 1989. In 1988, Clarkson had returned to broadcasting as executive producer and host of CBC’s national arts showcase Adrienne Clarkson’s Summer Festival.

In 1995, Clarkson was appointed chair of the board of trustees of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History).

Governor General

In September 1999, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Clarkson governor general on the advice of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. She took office on 7 October 1999, as the 26th governor general of Canada.In assuming the role, Clarkson became the first person without a military or political background, the first racialized Canadian and the first person of Asian heritage to be appointed to the vice-regal position (see also Crown). She was the second woman appointed to the role, after Jeanne Sauvé (1984–90).

Clarkson faced intense scrutiny from MPs and the Canadian public for what was deemed lavish spending during her tenure. A 2003 state visit to Russia, Finland and Iceland that cost $5-million provoked a great deal of anger. As a result, Clarkson’s officials were questioned by a House of Commons committee inquiry, resulting in a reduction in her budget (see Committees). Others claimed that the 19-day circumpolar “northern identity” tour, which included 59 other prominent Canadians, was a resounding success, enabling Canada to foster a successful relationship with the northern European countries.

Clarkson’s dedication to the vice-regal role was also questioned during her notable absence from important national events, such as the funeral service of Alberta’s former lieutenant-governor, Lois Hole.

Clarkson’s tenure had many successes. She continued to be an ardent patron of the arts and travelled overseas to support troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Her speech at the burial ceremony for Canada’s Unknown Soldier, on 28 May 2000, was a stirring tribute that resonated among veterans. Clarkson maintained that she would attempt to forge stronger ties between Canada and northern Indigenous peoples during her time as governor general. She created the Governor General’s Northern Medal, awarded annually to a northern citizen whose work has helped affirm the Canadian North as part of the national identity. She also travelled throughout Canada, perhaps more than any other governor general, visiting its people and bringing a sense of modernity to the vice-regal position.

Though Clarkson’s term was to have ended in 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin asked that she remain in office an additional year, believing that continuity in the vice-regal role would offer Canadians a sense of stability in the face of an insecure minority government.

On 8 July 2005, Clarkson was admitted to hospital with heart problems and was fitted with a pacemaker days later. She recovered quickly and was back to her scheduled duties later that month. She remained governor general until 27 September 2005, when she was succeeded by Michaëlle Jean, a social activist and journalist.

Views on the Vice Regal Office

In 2006, Clarkson published her autobiography, Heart Matters, which became a bestseller. In the book, she wrote that “many politicians don’t seem to know that the final authority of the state was transferred from the monarch to the governor general in the Letters Patent of 1947, thereby making Canada’s government independent of Great Britain.” She further argued that “the governor general is the head of state in Canada, and is treated as such when abroad.” Clarkson’s interpretation of the Letters Patent and the designation of head of state were subject to criticism and contrary to the views of some constitutional scholars and monarchists. Though the Letters Patent give the governor general the authority to act as head of state both domestically and internationally, they do not change the monarch’s status as Head of State (see Monarchism).

In 2009, Clarkson suggested that nominees for governor general should be approved by Parliament in a public process that could include televised confirmation hearings. “They're the embodiment of the nation, and I think the nation should see who is going to embody them,” she told The Globe and Mail. Clarkson also stated that she considered her role as governor general to include educating citizens on Canada’s parliamentary democracy.

Later Career and Life

In 2005, Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, co-founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which aims to accelerate the cultural integration of new citizens into Canadian society (see Citizenship).

In 2007, she was appointed colonel-in-chief of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Also in 2007, Clarkson became involved with the Global Centre for Pluralism, an international initiative of the Aga Khan and the Government of Canada, that promotes diversity worldwide. She continues to serve as chair of the executive committee and to sit on the board of directors alongside such dignitaries as Kofi Annan, Huguette Labelle and Eduardo Stein.

In 2009, Clarkson published a biography on Norman Bethune as part of Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series, which was edited by Saul. That same year, she established the Clarkson Cup, the championship trophy for the semi-professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where many of Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team members play. The cup is housed at the Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto.

In 2011, she published Room for Us All, a compilation of stories about the immigrant experience in Canada. Clarkson delivered the 2014 CBC Massey Lectures, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship. Her CBC Massey Lectures were also published by House of Anansi.

Personal Life

Adrienne Clarkson was married to Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, from 1963 to 1975. The couple had three daughters together, one of whom died of sudden infant death syndrome. After the couple divorced, Stephen Clarkson took custody of their daughters. In 1999, Adrienne Clarkson married philosopher and novelist John Ralston Saul, her companion of 15 years at that point. She has four grandchildren.


Clarkson has received numerous awards and recognition both during her career in broadcasting and her tenure as governor general. She has also received 32 honorary doctorates from universities, including the University of Ottawa, University of Prince Edward Island, Queen’s University, Acadia University, Dalhousie University, Lakehead University and University of Western Ontario. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Trinity College at the University of Toronto, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada.


Best Documentary, ACTRA (1973)

Best Public Affairs Broadcaster, ACTRA (1974)

Gordon Sinclair Award for outspokenness and integrity in Broadcasting, ACTRA (1976)

Best Television Documentary Writer, ACTRA (1977)

Best Television Host-Interviewer, ACTRA (1982)

Officer, Order of Canada (1992)

Best Host in a Light Information,Variety or Performing Arts Program or Series, Gemini Awards, Gemini Awards (1993)

Prix Anik Award for Best Entertainment Series, CBC (1993)

Meilleur Spécial des arts de la scène, Prix Gémeaux (1995)

Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Canada (1999)

Companion, Order of Canada (2005)

Chancellor, Commander, Order of Merit of the Police Forces (1999)

Chancellor, Commander, Order of Military Merit (1999)

Member, Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (2005)

Order of Friendship, Russian Federation (2006)

Further Reading