This address was given by Adrienne Clarkson, 26th Governor-General of Canada, at the national commemorative ceremony for Queen Elizabeth on Monday at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa.
One day in 1952, when I was in Grade 9 at Lisgar Collegiate Institute here in Ottawa, I went to assembly and the principal told us that the governor-general of Canada, Vincent Massey, was going to address us. The governor-general came out on stage and told us in gentle but solemn tones that the King had died and that we now had a Queen. Shakily, for the first time, we sang God Save The Queen. He then explained that Canada acknowledged the Queen as Sovereign and that the Crown in Canada was the basis of our constitutional democracy.
I had no idea then, having arrived nine years before at the age of 3, a Chinese refugee from a defeated part of the British Empire called Hong Kong, that 48 years later I would occupy the office held then by Mr. Massey. But Canada is a remarkable place, an astonishing place. Things happen here, not just to me but to the millions of refugees and immigrants who come here.
For 70 years, the Queen as the embodiment of the Crown has been the symbol of democratic legitimacy. Those of us who revere the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy know how central the evolution of our democracy has been to our growth as the people of Canada.
In the library of Windsor Castle, after a dinner with fellow governors-general celebrating her Golden Jubilee year in 2002, the Queen joined me as I stood alone looking down at an antique white linen shirt with brown stains in a glass case. The label read: “Shirt worn by Charles the First at his beheading.” In a neutral and level voice, the Queen said, “He was my ancestor,” and then walked away to join the rest of the party. Several days ago, we saw the Queen’s coffin taken to Westminster Hall where Charles the First was tried and sentenced to death; where Oliver Cromwell’s disinterred head hung for 20 years.
The way that democracy, consensus and justice works is very hard-come-by. And all through the history of our country, we have lunged and lurched, sprinted and sauntered through a forest of ignorance, hatred and bigotry and yet hacked out for ourselves a path towards a clearing, a lighted place, which – make no mistake – can only remain a clearing if we maintain it, if we agree to enlarge it, if we promise ourselves and pledge to each other that it is worth our efforts. If we fail in this, that forest will take over, and the darkness will come and envelop us.
During 70 years of this Elizabethan era, we as Canadians have been weaving a new tapestry through the solid threads of our inheritance of the Magna Carta. Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Freedoms of 1215, when the common people were promised concrete protection from injustice by King John.
In 1982, Queen Elizabeth II came and signed the repatriation of our Constitution, for which Canadians had worked for decades. We gained our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians will always remember the Queen for coming to sign over to us what is rightfully ours – our human rights, our human freedom. It preserves that clearing in the encroaching forest; it provides the light that exposes ignorance and bigotry.
On the occasion of her Golden Jubilee in 2002, the light shone when she came for several days to Rideau Hall and we had a luncheon featuring 50 guests – each a Canadian who had excelled in an endeavour during each year of her reign: John Polanyi, Nobel Prize winner; Norman Jewison, Oscar winner; Jean Béliveau, Paul Henderson, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Douglas Cardinal, Zacharias Kunuk. We lit up the dining room at Rideau Hall for Queen Elizabeth with the luminaries that our country Canada had produced in her first 50 years as queen. It was an exciting moment for us as Canadians to celebrate.
In one of my last visits with her at Sandringham, beloved by her because she raised her horses there and Prince Philip enjoyed training for his carriage racing, we were speaking quietly after dinner. Suddenly, focusing very directly on me with her sharp blue eyes, [she said]: “I shall never abdicate.” I was rather taken aback and replied: “I wouldn’t have expected you would.” And she said, “It is not in our tradition. Although I suppose if I became completely gaga, one would have to do something.” But she held the course to the end – focused, dutiful, calm. The essence of equanimity. Like her remarkable mother and her heroic father, her life was guided by intention.
Now, 20 years later, she has suddenly left us. We did not expect this. We expected that she would live as long as her mother, who lived to be over 100. She gave us that remarkable platinum framework, which helps us to see how we changed and evolved over 70 years. Each of us remembers important things in our own lives against the backdrop of these 70 years.
My most significant memory as governor-general is giving Royal Assent to the Nisga’a Treaty on April 13, 2000, as Chief Joe Gosnell observed from the gallery of the Senate – a millennial landmark helping to lead us towards acknowledgment of all the past injustices to Indigenous peoples. In the new century, it was a step towards bringing to pass healing and reconciliation. As a Canadian, I am so proud that Mary Simon, our Governor-General, is an Inuk.
The life and reign of Elizabeth II has been witness to our struggle, our effort as Canadians to become what we are meant to be: the true, the North, the free.