Every once in a while a mea culpa is in order.
Years back, I used to get a lot of flack from my late grandfather for my routine criticisms of our MP and, later, lieutenant-governor, the late Gordon Towers.
Towers and my Grandpa were friends for many, many years, and Grandpa felt that my criticisms of Towers for his loyalty to Brian Mulroney, and his strong monarchist leanings, were undeserved.
Towers took the time to talk with me at an event not long before his passing and we did find some common ground, mostly on the Mulroney legacy. Unfortunately, we parted ways still divided on the monarchy issue.
Now, I’m on the record as an unusually harsh critic of the monarchy and its attendant structure here in Canada. But a young woman from Haiti has forced me to rethink the way I look at the Queen and her representatives out here in the colonies.
It may be the simple fact that Canada’s involvement in a serious shooting war has pushed the role of the Governor General more to the front of the Canadian consciousness, but we can’t deny that Michaelle Jean has done a great deal to bring the Governor General’s office closer to Canadians.
Her predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, showed every indication of being a “business as usual” viceroy when she took office.
Most Canadians had no reason to sit up and take notice of the office simply because it had little daily value to them.
To people like myself, it represented Canada’s inability to grow up and be a mature nation, not one overseen by the Queen of a foreign land. It mattered little that the foreign land happened to be the one that gave us Sir Thomas More, Adam Smith, Shakespeare, Kipling and Churchill.
I think the Governor General’s office changed for many Canadians, and certainly for Clarkson, on the night that four Canadian soldiers were killed and another eight were gravely injured.
In a matter of hours, Clarkson embraced the role of the actual head of Canada’s military, and flew to Germany in the dead of night in order to meet the soldiers as they arrived at the NATO hospital in Ramstein.
From that point forward, Clarkson’s term as Governor General showed a subtle shift in focus away from the more glamorous aspects of the duty, and more towards a more traditional emphasis on public duty, as well as more emphasis on the relationship between the office of the Governor General and our military.
When Michaelle Jean was appointed to the office, I was among those who scoffed at the obvious political correctness at work, along with Jean’s roots at the notoriously left-wing CBC, and her husband’s potentially damning flirtations with the Quebec separatists.
Instead of disappointing those of us who had written her off as nothing more than a politically correct dilettante, Michaelle Jean has risen to the role in a fashion that forces us to respect her and the office she holds.
In her travels to visit our troops in Kandahar, she has eschewed upgraded accommodations and food, choosing instead to put up with the sand and grit just as they do. At the same time, she has consistently emphasized how it is the women and children of Afghanistan who are the real beneficiaries of Canadian sacrifice, along with the men of Afghanistan who do see a real future for their country, and are working towards that goal.
She has also been an outspoken advocate of Canada’s little-known role in helping her native Haiti mature into a self-sustaining democracy. In that role, she also strays from political correctness in reminding Haitians that Canadian efforts there represent true sacrifice, and it’s up to the Haitians to make the best of it.
But I think it was the eating of raw seal meat that really sealed the deal, in my view. It wasn’t just a symbolic gesture to Inuit tradition, it was also a symbolic gesture to the pampered Europeans who tend to look down their noses at the killing of seals while dining on veal and foie gras.
In Second World War England, then Princess Elizabeth managed to stake out her future role as that of a servant to the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, a role she has steadfastly maintained. In many ways, she has actually fomented the monarchy’s evolution within British society.
It appears that Michaelle Jean embraces that role as well, and in doing so compels me to acknowledge that Gordon Towers was right all along.
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.