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Lord Tweedsmuir: Governor General Embraced Canadian Diversity Ahead of His Time

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rae and lois By Rae Fleming

On September 21, 1936, Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir told Ukrainian-Canadians in Fraserwood, Manitoba, that “people with traditions as strong as yours will be all the better Canadians if you are good Ukrainians.” On the same trip, he told Icelandic-Canadians at Gimli, Manitoba, much the same thing.

His appreciation of Canadian multiculturalism was well in advance of its time. He loved the vastness of the landscape and the fishing that its myriad lakes provided him. His travels took him to most parts of Canada, including an extensive trip, during the summer of 1937, down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Circle. The Toronto Star was correct when it predicted, in February 1936, that, given Tweedsmuir’s “breadth of sympathy and varied experience,” he might just “help Canadians to understand their destiny better…”

Long before he acquired a title, in 1935, John Buchan had enjoyed a distinguished career as a lawyer, scholar, journalist, diplomat, author, publisher, churchman, politician and propagandist during the First World War. Born the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, he quickly rose to the top of the British establishment. As governor general, Lord Tweedsmuir was an outstanding role player.

A great communicator, he was at ease with anyone from farmer or fisherman to statesman and politician. He was respected by the First Nations he visited. He tried to bridge the sometimes quarrelsome regions and provinces of Canada. His modest ability in French, however, was not enough to impress Québec militants — in October 1936, some of them called for his resignation because he was “not acting as a governor of Canada, but an agent, paid by us, in the service of financiers and the English marine.”

Having witnessed the horrors of both The Boer War and The Great War, he worked to avoid another. With his personal connections, during the years when Germany rose to near global supremacy, he brought together the old empire of Great Britain and the new empire led by the Untied States. He was a personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt.

He never completely mastered the art of managing Prime Minister Mackenzie King. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived in Québec City in May 1939, the first visit to Canada of a reigning sovereign, Lord Tweedsmuir and his advisors believed that the Governor General should be the first to greet the royal couple on Canadian soil. Using the Statute of Westminster as his guide, the prime minister objected. Passed by the British Parliament in 1931, the statute was one of the last steps in creating independent countries of the Dominions: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, all of them recognising the monarch as their head of state. Now, instead of representing the monarch and his or her government at Westminster, a governor general represented the monarch and the government of Canada.

A Canadian compromise took the governor general on board The Empress of Australia, where he greeted the king and queen. However, once they stepped off the ship, it was the prime minister who officially welcomed them to Canada, and it was the prime minister who accompanied them across Canada, to Washington and New York. The two men, Mackenzie King and Lord Tweedsmuir, ended up respecting each other. Perhaps they appreciated their mutual origins in Scotland.

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Upon learning of Tweedsmuir’s appointment, the literary world of Canada was elated. Here was a man whose publication list was remarkable, more than one book per year, including poetry and a multi-volume history of The Great War. This included biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Caesar Augustus and Walter Scott, as well as best-selling novels. He was a master of the murder-mystery novel, most notably The 39 Steps, which was adapted for the screen in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, and further adapted, in the 21st century, for the stage. Currently playing in London’s West End, The 39 Steps has also been produced in 40 or so other countries.

Buchan’s novel, Prester John, first published in the 1920s, and also made into a movie, was based in part on Buchan’s two-year term with Lord Milner, High Commissioner of Southern Africa. Buchan’s task was to relieve suffering in post-Boer-war “refugee” camps holding hungry Boer women and children. Prester John, whose main plot deals with an uprising against British colonial authority, used to be on reading lists in English-Canadian high schools, including the one I attended, Lindsay Collegiate Institute. My copy lists my name and the fact that I was in Grade 9, which means that I read the novel (and underlined unfamiliar words such as prodigious, bondage and sedentary) when I was 13. Though I knew little of South Africa, how I must have enjoyed the fast-paced adventure of the novel, its suspense, its descriptions of exotic landscapes, and its cast of near-mythological characters.

Not surprisingly, Lord Tweedsmuir was a great promoter of Canadian literature, and the arts in general. He was instrumental in founding the Governor General Awards, which date from 1936-37, at least for English Canadian writing. He was happy to encourage young writers, and, as patron of the Dominion Drama Festival, founded by his predecessor, Lord Bessborough, Tweedsmuir supported one of the principal drama organizations of Canada.

For her part, Lady Tweedsmuir promoted the work of organizations such as the Women’s Institutes, founded in Canada in 1897. Today, “Tweedsmuir Community History Books,” often bear a message from Lady Tweedsmuir, who, in 1947, urged these organizations of Ontario “to guard the traditions of their homes.” The books are maintained by most Institutes across the country.

John Buchan was never a robust man. In February, 1940, as his term as governor general was coming to an end, he collapsed at Rideau Hall. A few days later, he died in the Penfield Neurological Institute of Montréal. He was sixty-five. Word of his death saddened Canadians and non-Canadians alike.

Few Canadians appreciate their country as well as did our 15th Governor General.

 – Rae Fleming is a biographer and historian whose extensive published works include The Railway King of Canada (a biography of Sir William Mackenzie) and Peter Gzowski: A Biography. Rae lives in the Lindsay area and is president of The Lindsay Canadian Club.

John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, was Governor General of Canada from 1935-1940.

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