Canada's first Acadian governor-general, Romeo LeBlanc, has died of Alzheimer's disease at his home in Grande-Digue, New Brunswick. He was 81. Mr. LeBlanc is survived by his wife Diana Fowler-LeBlanc, his son Dominic, his daughter Genevieve, his step-grandson, Selby Evans, his older sister, Emilie Gallant, and many nieces and nephews in his extended family.
"He never, ever lost his roots, and he loved the part of the world that he came from...a small place at the end of nowhere for a former governor-general, but he just loved it," said his old friend and cabinet colleague Marc Lalonde. "He never got into the concept of grandeur. He was a very bright, but very humble man who was indeed a man of the people."
Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, who succeeded Mr. LeBlanc at Rideau Hall, described him as "a man of great depth: seemingly casual but with great knowledge and experience behind the jovial exterior." In an email message from France where she is vacationing, Ms. Clarkson said: "We shared a background with the CBC and I always thought of him as a friend. One of the most important things he did for Canada as governor-general was instituting the Governor-General's Award for Caring Canadians - an award for the unsung heroes who volunteer their time all across the country to help others. He deeply appreciated that and it is his great legacy."
A fiercely partisan Liberal organizer and former federal cabinet minister from New Brunswick, Mr. LeBlanc, was installed as governor-general on Feb. 8, 1995, a little more than a year after he had helped orchestrate former prime minister Jean Chrétien's first landslide election victory.
Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party, and Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, loudly condemned the choice as a patronage reward to the Liberal politician who had supported Mr. Chrétien for the leadership of the party as early as 1984. Both men refused to attend Mr. LeBlanc's installation ceremony.
Not so, said Mr. Lalonde, arguing that the appointment of Mr. LeBlanc had nothing to do with political rewards or soliciting the Acadian vote, which was already solidly Liberal. Rather, it was a "mark of recognition for the vitality and the persistence of the Acadians," while sending "a message to French-speaking Quebeckers" in those sovereigntist times "that you have brothers elsewhere who deserve your support and whom you may need."
Despite a rocky start, Mr. LeBlanc's tenure as governor-general, which included the perilously close Quebec referendum in 1995 and the creation of Nunavut in 1999, was low key, affable and largely harmonious. "Very few of us in this country share the same past, but all of us can share the same future. Especially if we refuse to permit the past to poison that future," Mr. LeBlanc said in his installation speech.
"If I am to be known for anything as governor-general, I would like it to be for encouraging Canadians, for knowing a little bit about their daily, extraordinary courage. And for wanting that courage to be recognized."
Nothing epitomized his folksy style more than his taming of the regal lion on the vice-regal heraldic flag. "I never liked that lion," Mr. Le Blanc said by way of explaining his decision to de-fang, de-claw, de-frown and neuter the ferocious male lion with the roiling tongue. He quietly ordered the Canadian Heraldic Authority to transform the king of beasts into a bland, tongue in cheek, "Canadian" creature. "When I was growing up, one thing was completely forbidden: Sticking your tongue out at someone," he said at the time. "If your grandmother or your great-aunt visited, and you stuck out your tongue, your mother would come after you. I'm a bit of that school."
His successor, Ms. Clarkson, wasted no time in ordering the changes undone after she was installed as governor-general in October, 1999. Other LeBlanc innovations have fared better. During his nearly five years at Rideau Hall, he dedicated himself to voluntarism, promoted awareness of our history, the stature of aboriginal peoples and the military by initiating Governor-General's Awards for Caring Canadians, Excellence in Teaching Canadian History and Visual and Media Arts; establishing National Aboriginal Day on June 21 as an annual commemoration; and issuing the Governor-General's Canadian History Medal for the Millennium, and the Governor-General's Millennium Edition of the Map of Canada, which was taken into space in 1999 by astronaut Julie Payette.
He never, ever lost his roots, and he loved the part of the world that he came from...a small place at the end of nowhere for a former governor-general, but he just loved it. Marc Lalonde
A poor farm boy, who was the only member of his family to go beyond Grade 8 in school, Mr. LeBlanc began his working career as a teacher and a journalist and segued into politics as press secretary to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau when they were successively prime minister of Canada.