The Canadian and the Crown

How John Buchan paved the way for Vincent Massey, the first non-British governor general

J William Galbraith


Fifty years ago this month, Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born governor-general, moved into Rideau Hall. His appointment is generally considered to be the transition to Canadianising the office of the governor-general. It was, however, really only the achievement of a transition that seriously began 67 years ago, with the last governor-general before the Second World War. Mr Massey, as a well-known anglophile, was a compromise for those who doubted or mistrusted the Canadianisation of this tradition-bound office. He also happened to be close to the Liberals and had been chairman of the Liberal party during the 1930s. As governor-general, Mr Massey looked to one of his predecessors as a model, a man he had known since the 1920s. He wrote that he 'greatly admired' Lord Tweedsmuir's work as governor-general and 'learnt much from it'.

Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsefield was John Buchan, member of the British Parliament, novelist, historian and publisher, when he was appointed governor-general of Canada in March 1935. The appointment of plain Mr Buchan sparked a nationwide debate about who should be governor-general. Canadians were used to lords, if not members of the Royal Family itself. The break with tradition was a difficult one. Some said that if a commoner was to be governor, a Canadian could be just as good as any commoner from the 'old country'. It was ground prepared by the 1931 Statute of Westminster that gave the Dominions such as Canada equal status with Britain within the Empire, or Commonwealth, as it was also being called then. On the day of the announcement, the Senate debated who should be filling the position of governor-general itself. Seventy-year-old Raoul Dandurand, Liberal leader in the Senate, picked up the 1931 statute theme, pointing out that a Canadian being nominated as governor-general would be in keeping with Canada's new status 'of absolute equality'. His colleague, Rodolphe Lemieux, remarked that the idea of having 'a full-blooded Canadian as governor-general' was one that had been in the public mind for some time already. They were expressing an opinion heard in French-Canada and by pacifists in the rest of the country that a Canadian-born governor would be less likely to involve Canada in a European conflict, which was becoming more and more a distinct possibility. The senators were quick to note, however, that these views in no way detracted from the qualities of the highly respected popular novelist himself.

Similar views were reflected in some Quebec newspapers and voiced by individuals from Ontario through the Prairies to British Columbia, as well as by chapters of a nationalist group called the Native Sons of Canada. Others were content to reflect on t he significance of Mr Buchan's appointment. The Globe in Toronto suggested: 'Canadians will have reason to count themselves fortunate if the unadorned name of John Buchan is added to the list of Canadian governor-general'. 'Fortunate' because he was a self-made man of many talents and accomplishments, not someone appointed simply because of a title. This was a view that Mackenzie King, then leader of the opposition and who knew Mr Buchan, shared but did not voice at that time. He publicly noted only that he regarded the appointment 'an excellent one'. But the unadorned name was not to remain so for long. Two months after the appointment, King George V granted Mr Buchan a barony. This action assuaged somewhat the still very strong imperialist current in the Dominion. Many were now left disappointed, first that a peer had not been appointed, still others that it was not plain John Buchan who would be governor-general. His arrival in November 1935, shortly after Mackenzie King's Liberals were elected into power once again, provoked widespread debate. In the end, however, the vast majority welcomed this unique governor-general.

Tweedsmuir brought less formality to Rideau Hall. His approach to the job was to see as much of Canada as possible, drawing Canadians' attention to other parts of their country and, in particular, the North, all with a view to minimising the regionalism he witnessed. His speeches, written himself and generally delivered without notes, inspired his many and varied audiences. He promoted a strong sovereign Canada because he believed that the Commonwealth could not be strong if its component parts were not. This was also a strategic question, as war clouds gathered over Europe. John Buchan's appointment, then his work as governor-general Lord Tweedsmuir, acted as catalysts to Canadianising the Crown. Vincent Massey carried on that work. But contrary to many contemporary Canadianisers, the Crown was central to both Lord Tweedsmuir's and Mr Massey's vision for Canada. If Mr Massey was the most British of our Canadian governors-general, Lord Tweedsmuir was the most Canadian of our British governors. These two individuals constitute the transition to the Canadianisation of the post; albeit a transition interrupted by the war, during which ties to Britain and the Empire were practically and emotionally strengthened. The transition was completed in a wonderfully symbolic way, with Mr Massey using Lord Tweedsmuir's Windsor uniform that had been sent over by Lady Tweedsmuir. Mr Massey was very similar in stature to Lady Tweedsmuir's late husband, who had died while still in office, in February 1940, after a fall in which he struck his head. As we reflect on 50 years of Canadian governors-general, we should focus on the Tweedsmuir-Massey transition and on their approach and vision for inspiration to strengthen our distinctiveness, while still knowing properly where in the world we belong.

A version of this article was originally published in February 2002 in the Ottawa Citizen.


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