The office of governor general is a curious one. It is a historical anomaly, a relic of colonial times, a surrogate for a foreign head of state and a constitutional irrelevancy, which it has mostly been since Mackenzie King won the 1926 election on the back of the GG of the day, Baron Byng of Vimy.
That the office endures is less a testament to its authority or its utility and more an admission that no one can figure out what, if anything, to do with it. (In that sense, it is a bit like the Senate of Canada.) Canadians know they do not want a powerful, elected American-style president. Nor, it seems, are they entirely content with an appointed figurehead whose legitimacy rests on a tenuous connection with a hereditary monarch across the Atlantic.
Be that as it may, the purpose of this small essay is not to call for the abolition of the governor general (or even the Senate, tempted though I am). My purpose is a more modest one: to comment on The Golden Age of Liberalism: A Portrait of Roméo LeBlanc, a new book by Carleton University historian Naomi Griffiths about one of the 28 individuals who have served as the monarch’s representative in Ottawa. Griffiths’s subject is number 25, who was the first Acadian to become governor general and presided at Rideau Hall from 1995 to 1999. He came after Ray Hnatyshyn, whom most Canadians probably do not remember, and before Adrienne Clarkson, Michaëlle Jean (whom the Harper Conservatives will not soon forget) and David Johnston, the incumbent.
Let me declare my bias. I liked Roméo LeBlanc, who died in 2009. I knew him in my days in the press gallery in Ottawa. He was a first-rate television journalist with Radio Canada in London and Washington, a helpful and honest press secretary to prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau (honesty being a less universal quality among press secretaries than one might desire), and an effective, and probably undervalued, minister of fisheries in Trudeau’s Cabinet.
The title of Griffiths’s book is somewhat misleading. It does not tell readers much about the “golden age of Liberalism,” whenever that was, although the author’s admiration for the progressive policies of the Pearson and Trudeau governments does shine through. It is much more what she calls “a portrait of a very dear friend”; it is not a conventional biography.
Read as a portrait, the book works. It paints a picture of how Roméo, the youngest of eight children in a French-speaking family of subsistence farmers from the tiny village of Memramcook in southeastern New Brunswick, pulled himself up by his bootstraps. In a speech at Mount Allison University, he reflected on his roots: “[I] learned to speak English in primary school because I had to … In my daily life there was no French radio, no magazines, few books in my native tongue … I was French. I was also poor, and rural.”
Starting as a school teacher in rural New Brunswick, Roméo pulled himself up: to scholarship winner and promising scholar at the Sorbonne in Paris, to foreign correspondent, to press secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, to member of Parliament and Cabinet minister, then speaker of the Senate and, finally, governor general.
It was quite a ladder. Roméo did not climb it effortlessly. But climb it he did—with brains, determination, loyalty, perfect fluency in both French and English, and an open, friendly personality that treated other people with respect and consideration; if Roméo had any enemies, I never heard of them. Although it is rare for a politician to avoid making at least a few devoted enemies along the way, LeBlanc seemed to manage it.
Where the book falls short, in my view, is that it does not get close enough to its subject to present a full portrait. It does not reveal enough of the fabric of his life—his challenges as a television correspondent, his struggles (and there were some) in the high-pressure job as prime ministerial press secretary, the battles he won (and lost) in Cabinet or how he felt about the mind-numbing ceremonial side of life as governor general. The book also slides over the disintegration of LeBlanc’s first marriage, although the circumstances were not without political significance in Ottawa.
A biographer would have to grapple with issues like these. Where a portraitist can get away with a measure of superficiality, a biographer does not have that luxury.
Such caveats aside, The Golden Age of Liberalism succeeds in two important particulars. It reveals the deep and abiding love that LeBlanc, a francophone, felt for Canada in an age when Quebec nationalism, even separatism, was fashionable among the chattering classes. It also shows his lifelong commitment to his Acadian people, whom he cherished as an identifiable and important, if often overlooked, minority in Canada.
As Naomi Griffiths concludes: “The service he offered as governor general was no more and no less than the service he had given throughout his life to the people among whom … he lived and worked.”
In the final analysis, in whatever position he occupied, Roméo LeBlanc was a dedicated public servant, and a good one. He was a governor general worth remembering.