Reviving Canada's royal loyalty


Appreciation: The queen's representative says her birth in Hong Kong and new life in the Great White North make her ideal to serve as governor-general.

January 08, 2000|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

OTTAWA -- Adrienne Clarkson might seem an unlikely choice for Canada's governor-general, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II.

An immigrant from Hong Kong who arrived here in 1942 without papers, Clarkson's background is not British, not French and not native Canadian. At age 60, she is a well-known TV journalist and author who has spent a lifetime crossing boundaries, not serving as a member of the political establishment that created them.

That, she says, is what makes her perfect for the job.

"My education, my formation, all the important influences outside my emotional childhood world were through Canadian public institutions," she says at her new royal residence, a 79-acre estate called Rideau Hall. "So there is no accident about the fact that I now really kind of represent it."

More than that, she is drawing new attention -- and support -- to the British monarchy, an institution that some have suggested should be allowed to pass away with the current queen.

Clarkson -- "Her Excellency," as she is now known -- became governor-general in October during a ceremony that included beaver-hatted Mounties, a plush scarlet throne and a 21-gun salute. A black limousine took her on a symbolic ride past the house where her fresh-off-the-boat family first lived and through Ottawa to the grand gates of Rideau Hall.

A new, varied approach

Earlier in the day, her investiture speech showed that she was going to add a little poetry and pizzazz to the pomp and circumstance. In an address spiked with richly varied references, from an Ojibwa chieftain's invitation to lyrics from songwriter and novelist Leonard Cohen, she set out to shake up the staid Canadian establishment while seeking to reinvigorate the fading monarchy.

"Canada's institutions have never been static. They are organic -- evolving and growing in ways that surprise and even startle us," she said. She recounted arriving as a refugee to a city that was "small and white." Borrowing the words of writer Mavis Gallant, she said Ottawa was marked then "with the mistrust of pity, the contempt for weakness, the fear of the open heart."

The message was clear: Her journey from immigrant to Canadian symbol mirrored the country's postwar evolution to a more inclusive present.

"We are constructing something different here," she said. Quoting a Canadian poet, Jean-Guy Pilon, she described the defiance, self-reliance and originality that define Canada old and new: "Tormented roots that defy the flames; spitting in the face of stars. Here the builders breathe, and grow."

The speech signaled a new activist approach to her post, which is largely ceremonial. In the absence of the queen, Clarkson fulfills royal duties -- from bestowing the Stanley Cup to the National Hockey League's champions to signing all legislation and warding off national political crises.

"It does not mean that you call the queen on a weekly basis," she says. "The role of the governor-general is to ensure political stability."

Traditionalists have bridled at the post being held by a woman from neither Canada nor its founding countries, Britain and France. Republicans say it should be filled by election. Journalists have dredged her past to unearth an estranged first husband and a pair of daughters she doesn't mention in her "Who's Who" listing.

She lived with philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul for nearly two decades before being nudged into marriage in July by hints of the impending appointment. ("We have been married a short enough time to be enjoying it, and a long enough time to be respectable," she says.)

Gossips spotlight her feuds with neighbors and point out echoes from her husband's books in her speeches. They scrutinize her spending habits, the new kitchen she installed in Rideau Hall and her dictate that only organic food will be served there.

As a former journalist, she tries to be understanding. "But pot-shotting at my personal life is not journalism," she says, "and it's not relevant."

`Articulate and dynamic'

Despite the carping, Clarkson has brought new support to the monarchy. A Gallup Poll conducted shortly after her appointment was announced showed a surprising rise in the queen's backing -- by 8 percentage points from the previous year.

"She captures people's imagination in a way that hasn't been done before," says John Aimers, the dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada. "Having the representative of the queen being as articulate and dynamic as she is, it not only helps the crown, but also causes Canadians to re-examine what it means to be Canadian and to be distinct."

As an outsider who has absorbed the essence of this nation, she has thought more than most about what it is to be Canadian. The Poy family arrived during wartime with one suitcase apiece, fleeing the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. It was a time before Canada allowed Chinese to become citizens, and she recalls their struggle to fit in and yet retain their heritage.

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