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Former Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman in his office at Queens Park in Toronto, on Jan. 24, 2007. Bartleman was a long-time diplomat, successful author and staunch supporter of Indigenous youth and the power of literacy.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

It was late March of this year when Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell drove to London, Ont., to visit James Bartleman at his home to check on the former viceroy after he had missed some recent official events.

The two sat down for tea and spent an hour reminiscing about his experiences serving abroad. A lover of books and writing, he asked her to choose one or two volumes from his den to take back to Toronto. She chose two of his memoirs, one of his time growing up and another of his career as a diplomat.

During their conversation, Ms. Dowdeswell mentioned she would be going to the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, Mr. Bartleman’s home community, later in the summer as part of the Indigenous summer literacy program he began.

“He absolutely believed fundamentally in young people and particularly in the potential of young people that could be realized if they were literate and if they had education,” Ms. Dowdeswell said. She invited him to accompany her and they began to make arrangements.

Ms. Dowdeswell would end up taking the trip to Rama First Nation on her own, as this meeting with Mr. Bartleman was her last. She was fortunate, she said, to see him during his final months and listen to stories of his life spent in “another world.”

The trip to Rama First Nation, she said, which occurred just after his death, was an opportunity to pay tribute to him in his home nation.

Mr. Bartleman died on Aug. 14 at age 83 in London. A long-time diplomat, he was also a successful author and staunch supporter of Indigenous youth and the power of literacy.

As Ontario’s first Indigenous Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. Bartleman’s legacy comes from the millions of books he brought to Indigenous communities across Northern Ontario and the inspiration he gave Indigenous youth across the country.

Recognized for his achievements, he received 13 honorary degrees and many prestigious awards, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now the Indspire Award) in Public Service in 1999. He was also named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2011.

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Bartleman with a clock given to him by the children of the Pikangikum First Nation, at Queen's Park, on Dec. 7, 2006.SIMON HAYTER/The Globe and Mail

The importance of compassion and empathy in dealing with others are some of the biggest values Mr. Bartleman gave his son, Alain Bartleman. The younger Mr. Bartleman said his father truly believed in the importance of social service and being useful to your community, whether it is your province, country or local city or First Nation.

James Karl Bartleman was born on Dec. 24, 1939 in Orillia, Ont., to Maureen Florence (née Simcoe) and Percy Bartleman. Maureen was just 14 years old when she met and married Percy, a non-Indigenous man whose son described him as “a young, happy-go-lucky Orillia man who had spent the Depression years riding the rails across Canada.”

Maureen and Percy moved to Port Carling in the Muskoka Lakes in 1946 with their family, by which time included their children Robert, James, Janet and Mary. Percy, who only had a Grade 4 education, worked as a day labourer. Maureen found work as a cleaning lady and eventually bought the family a house, a “two-storey shack” with no electricity and an outhouse, for $275 in 1947.

Mr. Bartleman once wrote in The Globe and Mail that his mother, a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, “lavished love and attention on her children, insisting that we go as far as we could in school and instilling in us a pride in our native heritage.”

As a boy, James would cut grass for a wealthy American business executive named Robert Clause, who had a cottage in Muskoka. Eventually, Mr. Clause would subsidize his studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, Honours in History in 1963. In 1966 Mr. Bartleman entered public service with the Department of Foreign Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada).

For the next 35 years, Mr. Bartleman served in 18 countries and regions across the world, including as Ambassador of Canada to Cuba, Israel, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union and as High Commissioner to South Africa and Australia. From 1994 to 1998, he served as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s foreign policy adviser and assistant secretary to the Cabinet for Foreign and Defence Policy at the Privy Council Office.

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Bartleman is pictured in the early 1950's, when he would have been in Grade 6 or 7. As a boy, he cut grass for a wealthy American business executive Robert Clause, who had a cottage in Muskoka. Eventually, Mr. Clause would subsidize Bartleman' studies at the University of Western Ontario.

While flying between Brussels and Vienna to help prepare Canada’s positions for the Cold War’s Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1972, Mr. Bartleman met his future wife, Marie-Jeanne Rosillon, who was working for an airline. The couple married in 1975 and had three children, Anne-Pascale, Laurent and Alain.

In 1985, Mr. Bartleman was serving as director of security and intelligence at the Department of Foreign Affairs when a terrorist bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Toronto Pearson Airport killed 329 people, including 280 Canadians.

He testified in a federal inquiry in 2007 that he had received a document a few days prior to the explosion that showed the Air India flight would be targeted and handed the document over to an RCMP officer. The document was never found and no government officials could recall his warning. Mr. Bartleman was criticized for not coming forward with the information earlier.

While serving as High Commissioner to South Africa in 1999 Mr. Bartleman was brutally attacked in a hotel room in Cape Town, where he had travelled to attend Nelson Mandela’s final speech as president. He heard a knock at his door and answered to find a heavily built man who proceeded to taser gun and beat him.

Along with his injuries, which included a broken nose and foot, the incident left him in a deep post-traumatic depression. He said he was pushed “right over the edge to being very suicidal and not wanting to live.”

It was also during this time in South Africa that Alain remembers his father taking him for a drive to the Soweto Township, one of the larger informal communities, with “miles and miles of shanty towns,” where the two got out of the car and walked around for a bit.

“I remember him sort of gesturing and saying, ‘Remember Alain, you’re no better than anyone living in this township. You just have a different standard of life,’” he said of the memory that has stood with him since.

Mr. Bartleman once said of his career as a diplomat that he never felt his Indigenous background “either helped me or hindered me.” Instead he thought, “It gave me, as an individual, a much richer life, knowing what Aboriginal life was like.”

In March 2002, Mr. Bartleman was made Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, the first Indigenous person to hold the position, as well as a member of the Order of Ontario and was promoted to the Knight of Justice in the Order of St. John.

Being the province’s first Indigenous viceroy was incredibly important to Mr. Bartleman and an integral part of his identity, his son said. Of his father’s official portrait in Queen’s Park among many depicting others in a suit and tie, Alain said, “you’ll see my father dressed in buckskin with a painting in the woodland style of a marten behind him.”

As viceroy, Mr. Bartleman became a strong advocate for Indigenous literacy and led several initiatives to bring books to remote communities. In 2005 he launched the first Lieutenant-Governor’s Book Drive which collected 1.2 million books for First Nations schools and Friendship Centres throughout Ontario. In 2007, he completed a second book drive that collected 900,000 books for Indigenous children in Ontario, Northern Quebec and Nunavut.

Most notably, his greatest contribution to Indigenous literacy was the establishment in 2005 of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Summer Aboriginal Literacy Camps in five remote First Nations communities with the non-profit Frontier College (now United for Literacy). Today, the camps continue to operate in over 90 Indigenous communities across Canada, reaching thousands of Indigenous children aged five to 12.

United for Literacy’s manager of the summer camps since 2009, Cathy Mehagan said Mr. Bartleman’s philosophy for the camps was always about building connections between communities.

“Mr. Bartleman felt that it wasn’t just about the kids learning, it was about the young people that we hired, both from the north and the south, working together for the entire summer and learning from each other and ultimately building bridges,” she said.

Mr. Bartleman visited every remote, fly-in community in Ontario through his initiative to fill libraries with books for Indigenous youth. In 2007 as he prepared to step down as viceroy, he visited Wunnumin Lake First Nation to deliver 12,000 books with then-governor-general Michaëlle Jean.

“It was a program that was near and dear to his heart,” Ms. Mehagan said. “He very much supported the fact that it should be something that kids have access to, especially kids in remote communities.”

Beyond encouraging Indigenous youth, Mr. Bartleman’s other priorities as Lieutenant-Governor included eliminating the stigma of mental illness by sharing his own experiences and fighting racism and discrimination. Having suffered from depression since 1995, which deepened after the 1999 attack, his efforts to reduce the stigma around mental illness led to him receiving the Dr. Hugh Lefave Award in 2003 and the Courage to Come Back Award in 2004.

While at Queen’s Park, he began another career as an author and published four memoirs: Out of Muskoka in 2002 and Raisin Wine: A Boyhood in a Different Muskoka in 2007, both focused on his Port Carling childhood, while On Six Continents: Life in Canada’s Foreign Service 1966-2002 in 2004, and Rollercoaster: My Hectic Years as Jean Chretien’s Diplomatic Advisor, 1994-1998 in 2005 focused on his career in foreign affairs.

In 2007 he stepped down as viceroy at the age of 67 and served as chancellor of Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University) until 2012. He and his wife retired to Perth, Ont., living there for seven years before selling their home to member of Parliament Scott Reid and his family in 2014. Mr. Reid asked Mr. Bartleman to leave a signed copy of each of his books at the house, “with the intention that his presence will still be in the house, even after we too are gone.”

In 2008 the annual James Bartleman Indigenous Youth Creative Writing Award was created to recognize up to six youth each year for their creative writing talent and has been awarded to 77 recipients.

“Books in general, were always a very important part of his life and that’s something that he transmitted to the other kids as well as myself,” Alain said.

In retirement, Mr. Bartleman wrote another five books, including four works of fiction, As Long as the Rivers Flow in 2011, The Redemption of Oscar Wolf in 2013, Exceptional Circumstances in 2015 and A Matter of Conscience in 2018; and a final memoir, Seasons of Hope: Memoirs of Ontario’s First Aboriginal Lieutenant Governor in 2016.

Most of his works of fiction focus on Indigenous characters as they face struggles through Canada’s troubled history with Indigenous peoples.

“He thought that fiction can be a good tool to not only entertain but also to transmit this message of social justice, of empathy, of compassion and also awareness for First Nations issues and culture,” Alain said.

After leaving Perth, Mr. Bartleman and his wife moved to London, Ont., to be near their daughter, Anne-Pascale Bartleman, a physician. He leaves his wife, Marie-Jeanne; Dr. Bartleman; and his two sons, Laurent and Alain Bartleman.

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