Skip to main content

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."

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

"I've known him since we were 20 years old," said Mr. Lalonde, who met Mr. LeBlanc where they were both associated with the religious youth group, Jeunesse Etudiante Catholique in 1948. He was a very jovial and pleasant fellow with a great sense of humour that he kept all his life."

It was Mr. Lalonde, who was working in the Pearson PMO as a policy adviser, who suggested Mr. LeBlanc when the prime minister was looking for a new bilingual press secretary.

"He had a good sense of politics and media relations and when Mr. Trudeau was elected [leader of the party]and I became his principal secretary, I wanted to keep Romeo and he agreed to do so and the rest is history.

"He turned out to be a very effective politician and a very good one. He was unflappable and a pleasure to work with as a colleague either in the PMO or the cabinet. He had no enemies that I knew of, while I am sure I had a lot," said Mr. Lalonde.

It was a measure of Mr. LeBlanc's equanimity that he and Mr. Trudeau, although seemingly disparate as individuals, became life long friends. In fact, Mr. Trudeau's last trip before his death on Sept. 28, 2000, was a four-day fishing holiday in the first week of August with his son Sacha and Mr. LeBlanc and his son Dominic at a secluded hunting lodge in the Miramichi area of New Brunswick.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. LeBlanc first ran for public office in 1972 in Westmoreland Kent (now Beausejour), a New Brunswick riding that he held for the Liberals for more than a decade. He held a variety of cabinet posts in the Trudeau era, but he was best known as the fisheries minister who imposed the 200-mile coastal fishing ban on foreign trawlers, expanded the salmon fishery on the west coast and generally gave small operators a louder voice in fishery management. He was also a key figure in the dominant role Canada played in the Law of the Sea conferences in the 1970s.

"His contribution to public life was immense," said his old friend and fellow Acadian Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance, because he represented the basic elements of this country, "whether it was English/French, urban/ rural, the working poor" and he remained loyal to a simple, coherent belief that these elements mattered, whether he was "a backbencher, a cabinet minister or the Governor-General," said Prof. Savoie.

"That was Romeo. It defined him and because it defined him, it defined what he stood for and the policies he promoted, not always to the liking of the Ottawa system."

Romeo-Adrian LeBlanc was born Dec. 18, 1927, in Memramcook (now L'Anse-aux-Cormier), New Brunswick. His Acadian ancestors, who had refused to take sides in the Seven Years War, had been expelled by the British in 1755 from what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. By 1770, some of them had trickled back and settled in Memramcook, which is now considered the cradle of the New Acadia.

His father, Phillias Leblanc, a mechanic who worked at the CNR railway yards in Moncton, also had a small family farm. He and his wife Lucie Leblanc had eight children, of whom Romeo was the youngest. She died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when he was six years old. His father never remarried so his oldest sister, Irene, became the maternal figure in his life.

Mr. Leblanc went to a one-room school house through grade eight and then attended Collège St-Joseph (now the University of Moncton), a Collège Classique run by the Holy Cross brothers. Two of his older sisters, who were working as maids in Boston, sent money home from their wages to pay his tuition, which his father augmented by cutting and delivering firewood to the priests. Mr. Leblanc never forgot this loving debt, which he repaid several times over when his older siblings and their families needed his help in later years.

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. Romeo Leblanc

After graduating with a bachelor of arts in 1948 and education in 1951, he taught high school for two years and then won a scholarship to study French civilization at the Université de Paris from 1953-55. He wanted to come back to Canada and study law at McGill University, but his family's economic resources had been taxed to the limit by then, so instead, he found a teaching job at the New Brunswick Teachers' College in Fredericton from 1955 to 1959.

He switched from teaching to journalism in 1960 when he was hired by Radio-Canada, working for the francophone network in bureaus in Ottawa, Britain and the United States. In 1967, centennial year, he used his journalistic skills to get a communications position as press secretary to prime minister Lester B. Pearson, a position he continued to hold, after Mr. Trudeau became prime minister in 1968.

Mr. LeBlanc had married Joslyn (Lyn) Carter in 1966 while he was a Radio-Canada correspondent in Washington DC. Their eldest son Dominic was born in Ottawa on Dec. 14, 1967, the day Mr. Pearson announced his resignation as prime minister. Mr. LeBlanc, who was by then his press secretary, rushed from the news conference to the maternity hospital.

After weathering the October Crisis with Mr. Trudeau, he resigned as the prime minister's press secretary in 1971 and went back to New Brunswick, as assistant to the president and director of public relations at the University of Moncton. The following year he ran for Parliament, winning the riding of Westmoreland-Kent for the Liberals in 1972, about five weeks before his daughter Geneviève, now a civil servant in Ottawa, was born on Dec. 6, 1972.

Two years later he was made minister of fisheries in Mr. Trudeau's cabinet. At the time, he told Mr. Trudeau that he wanted to be for fishermen what Eugene Whelan was for farmers as the minister of agriculture. He represented various ministries for the next 10 years (except during Joe Clark's short-lived Progressive Conservative government in 1979) including environment and public works.

The LeBlancs separated in 1981, with Dominic living with his father and Geneviève with her mother in Ottawa. Father and son have remained extremely close. "He was the only parental figure I had," said his son. "He never pushed me to run for office," said Dominic LeBlanc, who is now the federal member of Parliament for his father's old riding. "He was at least as excited when I got my law degree and then a Masters in Law from Harvard."

As a cabinet minister, Mr. LeBlanc supported Mr. Chrétien's unsuccessful bid against John Turner for the Liberal leadership, in the wake of Mr. Trudeau's retirement. In one of his last patronage appointments before leaving office, Mr. Trudeau named him to the Senate in 1984, a position he held for the next decade. When Mr. Chrétien became prime minister in 1993, he made Mr. LeBlanc Speaker of the Senate and the following year, the Queen took Mr. Chrétien's advice and made his old friend and political crony her governor-general.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Leblanc had begun a serious relationship with Diana Fowler, sister of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. They had met in London in the early 1960s in London when they were broadcast journalists for the French and English branches of the CBC. Late in 1994, on the eve of Mr. LeBlanc's appointment to succeed Ray Hnatyshyn - after Hockey legend Jean Belliveau had declined the honour - the couple was quietly and quickly married.

As governor-general, Mr. LeBlanc was criticized for rarely travelling to the western provinces and sticking close to the familiar territory of Quebec, the Maritimes and the national capital region, but he did make a particular effort to bring a refreshed féderaliste brand to Quebec communities after the perilously close séparatiste referendum in 1995. He also made Rideau Hall and the office of the governor-general more accessible to Canadians by moving the annual New Year's Levée to various locations around the country, and expanding and improving access to both the vice-regal residence and the grounds. The number of visitors increased dramatically to about 125,000 people per year.

After hosting the eighth Francophonie summit in Moncton, N.B. in 1999 and squiring French president Jacques Chirac around his Acadian home town of Memramcook, N.B., Mr. LeBlanc retired as Canada's 25th governor-general after fewer than five years in office, citing fatigue and a desire to be gone before the anticipated pressures of the nillennium. He had received diplomats from 150 countries, pinned the Order of Canada on the chests of nearly 700 recipients, entertained close to 70,000 guests, delivered some 900 speeches, embarked on nine foreign trips and represented Canada at the funerals of three world leaders, including King Hassan of Morocco and former president Francois Mitterand of France.

Following a ceremonial and an emotional send-off from Mr. Chrétien and his wife Aline and several Liberal cabinet ministers, a final inspection of the Governor-General's Foot Guards and the Canada Grenadier Guards, Mr. LeBlanc and his wife returned to Moncton by train, although she has spent increasing amounts of time in Montreal in the last few years.

"I'm looking forward to doing nothing at all," Mr. LeBlanc told the throng of 200 well wishers who gathered at the station to welcome him home. That wasn't exactly true as he served as Chancellor of the University of Moncton for the next two years.

By then, he had long since lost the hearing in his right ear and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He has spent the last few years living with 24 hour care in the modified family cottage in Grande Digues, between Bouctouche and Shediac, on the Northumberland Strait.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to