There have been 11 Canadian-born governors-general since 1952. Of these, Georges Vanier holds a very special place, partly because he was the first francophone to hold this high office, but also because of his spectacular courage and dignity, as well as the overt and deeply spiritual dimension he brought to everything he did.
At least he holds a special place for those who remember him. Too often, Canadians, mostly through forgetfulness but sometimes from ingratitude, sell our unique history and good fortune short. No one ever exemplified better the very finest that the word “Canadian” stands for than this extraordinary soldier who saw service in two world wars, and who died in office during 1967, our centennial year, a shining example of duty, service and loyalty.
Mary Frances Coady has rightly joined him in her careful, comprehensive new biography with his extraordinary wife, Pauline, without whom he could never have been the inspirational figure he became. It was Pauline, according to Coady, who restored the young soldier’s self-confidence – both his sense of himself as a “full man” after he lost his leg, and also his shattered heart after the deaths of so many boon companions.
Vanier’s story comes dramatically alive when Coady deals with his passionate fight to help Charles de Gaulle’s beleaguered “Free French” mission on both sides of the Atlantic after the humiliating fall of France in 1940. During the war, Quebec was inclined to support the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. While General Vanier interceded in London, where de Gaulle was initially regarded as a pariah, Madame Vanier went on the hustings throughout the province to tell the truth about the Nazi regime. It was often lonely work for both of them.
Years later, this loyalty was viciously and repeatedly dismissed by de Gaulle when he declined to invite Governor-General Vanier to come on a state visit to France, refused to send anyone from France of significant rank to the great man’s state funeral and then, to crown it all, lectured Madame Vanier at a private lunch at the Élysée Palace – barely five weeks after her husband’s death – on the ridiculousness of Canada as a “concept” and the “inevitable” independence of Quebec.
This was almost immediately before the official trip by de Gaulle to Canada during 1967 and the “ Vive le Québec libre” speech from Montreal City Hall, which de Gaulle always maintained publicly was a spontaneous response based on the enthusiasm of his reception. Coady’s account breaks new and important ground about de Gaulle’s pre-planning and the poisonous betrayal both of the man who championed him in his need and the country that helped to rescue France from occupation, servitude and shame.
The other reason to remember Georges Vanier was his overriding humanity in the face of catastrophe. Twice during the war years, he appealed to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and anyone else in government who might listen, to help the helpless in Europe – first in 1939, as he saw the deluge of refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied lands, and later at war’s end, when he saw first-hand the full horror of the Holocaust. In both cases, his appeals were dismissed as overwrought.
The couple showed courage too in 1964, when they were subjected to separatist taunts during the Saint-Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in Montreal. This founder of the Vingt-Deuxième Régiment (the famous Vandoos) heard himself taunted as a “ vendu” (traitor) and “ fou de la reine” (queen’s jester). He didn’t flinch once. He was the same man who answered a journalist when he was asked if he spelled his first name (Georges) with an “s” or without: “Take your choice. I am a Canadian either way.”
So this is a timely and often tender book about an extraordinary couple Canadians have every right to feel enormous pride in. The Roman Catholic Church is in the process of turning them both into saints, which is fine and good, but plain Canadians can simply rest secure in the knowledge that the best among us rose to the highest office in the land.
John Fraser is the Master of Massey College and the author of The Secret Crown: Canada’s Long Affair With Royalty, to be published next March.