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Biography

THE RT. HON. ADRIENNE CLARKSON, PC, CC, CMM, COM, CD

The 26th Governor General of Canada (1999-2005) since Confederation in 1967, when Canada became a nation, Adrienne Clarkson is universally acknowledged to have transformed the office during her six years at Rideau Hall, the official residence of Canada’s head of state, and to have left an indelible mark on Canada’s history. Her tenure as Governor General was remarkable for her passionate interest in Canada’s North, and in the circumpolar nations as a whole, which led her to establish the Governor General’s Northern Medal, awarded annually to an individual who has contributed outstandingly to our understanding and development of the North. In particular, her interest in the Aboriginal peoples was remarkable and has helped push the question of native peoples in Canada to the forefront of national discussion.

Madame Clarkson’s official titles include membership in the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (PC), Companion of the Order of Canada (CC), Commander of the Order of Military Merit (CMM), Commander of the Order of Merit of the Police Forces (COM) and the Canadian Forces Decoration (CD). National Post Columnist John Fraser remarked that Adrienne Clarkson “has the ability, unique among public officials, of making Canadians feel good about themselves and their country.” This talent was recognized by the Blood Tribe of Alberta who adopted her as an honorary chief. Madame Clarkson is proud to have the title “Grandmother of Many Nations.”

A leading figure in Canada’s cultural life, Madame Clarkson has had a rich and distinguished career in broadcasting, journalism, the arts and public service. Her television career is a remarkable and historic one. In 1965, at the age of 26, she auditioned for the host/presenter role on Take Thirty, a national Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Television public affairs programme that occurred daily. It was remarkable because she was a woman, and because she was the first visible minority to ever headline a national programme. It was very successful and she headlined the show for ten years, from 1965-1975, presenting every day at 3pm subjects of interest and concern to all Canadians. Nothing was considered too sacred a cow and there were many long series over a week which dealt with adoption, sex education for children, and the status of women. This magazine-type show was awarded one of the first television awards ever to be given in Canada. In 1975, with the success of this show behind her, she was asked to be part of a small team which conceived and brought forth the fifth estate, a public affairs primetime show modeled on the BBC’s Panorama and CBS’s 60 Minutes. In 2015, it celebrated its 40th anniversary on air. She was one of the two co-hosts and the show debuted in 1976. The fifth estate regularly garnered huge audiences and is the show for which Madame Clarkson is best remembered. In 1977, it won numerous awards both nationally and internationally: In 1977, she interviewed the Shah of Iran and spent three weeks in Iran just before his downfall. She also uncovered the machinations behind the 1976 Olympics in Montreal which lead to an enquiry into the finances of the Games and to charges being laid for financial problems. After eighteen years she left television to become Agent-General for Ontario in France, to return to create the first cultural programme the CBC had done in 20 years – Adrienne Clarkson Presents, in which she presented cultural events, featured artists, and created new works of drama. This much-acclaimed show garnered many awards, and she was still in charge as Executive Producer and host when she became Governor General in 1999. This television career, spanning a period of over 30 years, was unprecedented in Canada and unmatched to this day. The longevity and excellence of the television programmes with which she was associated are remembered still. She has a shelf full of awards from the United States and Canada. Her own distinctive style of interviewing was much admired and considered to be the optimum in the ability to elicit meaningful conversation and enlightenment.

In 1982, she had been asked by the Ontario Government under Premier Bill Davis to go to Paris to become the Agent-General for Ontario in France and Italy. She spent five years encouraging trade and culture between Paris and Ontario, which is the largest province in Canada with well over a third of the Canadian population living and working in it. Because she was truly bilingual from her education at la Sorbonne, she was able to achieve some notable triumphs: the establishment of the Renault19 factory for Brampton, Ontario, and the building of the new Paris Opera by the Toronto-based architect Carlos Ott, which was a surprise win for which she worked very hard. These two triumphs marked the high notes of her five years of mission there. From 1987-1989, she was president and publisher of McClelland & Stewart, Canada’s preeminent publisher at the time.

On returning to television, Madame Clarkson continued to do volunteer work, being consulted by government for many aspects of their cultural activities. She was appointed Chairman of the Board of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now styled the Canadian Museum of History) and remained in that position until her appointment as Governor General in 1999. It was a time when the museum was deciding to do two important things. First, to create a Canadian War Museum and to lay out the guidelines and seek the site for this. The museum, designed by Raymond Moriyama, is now an architectural jewel on the waterfront of downtown Ottawa and has gained many awards. Second, the museum negotiated throughout her tenure to return sacred objects to the Aboriginal Peoples which had been at the museum for decades. This delicate negotiation with the different tribes in Canada was a first in the world and is a beacon to many countries dealing with their Aboriginal Peoples’ sacred works. The delicate negotiations were important and were a pioneer move on the part of museums of the world.

Over the course of a decade throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Madame Clarkson was a member of the United Nations Association in Canada (UNA-Canada) Committee for the Pearson Prize Medal, a prize given in honour of Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1957, awarded to an individual who has contributed to the developing world, to mediation between those confronting one another with arms, succour to refugees and others in need, equal rights and justice for all humanity, and peaceful change through world law and world organization.

In recent years, she has served as the chair of juries for numerous awards including the Glenn Gould Prize, the Giller Prize for Literature (Canada’s most prestigious English-language fiction award), the Banff World Television Festival’s Awards, the Gold Medal for Architecture given by the Royal Architectural Institute, and the Man Asian Literary Prize (based in Hong Kong).

Upon leaving the office of Governor General in 2005, Madame Clarkson co-founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) with her husband, John Ralston Saul. The Institute seeks to accelerate the acculturation of new citizens into Canadian life so they can participate fully and add their important voice to our pluralistic society. Among the ICC’s many practical programmes, there has been outstanding success with the Cultural Access Pass (CAP), which encourages new citizens and their families of up to four children to enter more than 1,400 cultural institutions and national and provincial parks for free for one year from the date of their citizenship. CAP members also receive 50% off the lowest train fare to travel the country for one year. The foundation of the ICC’s many programmes has helped to integrate new Canadians into the mainstream of Canadian life successfully. In September 2016, in inaugural 6 Degrees Citizen Space was launched in Toronto, an annual global forum on citizenship, immigration, inclusion, and diversity in the 21st Century. Intended to make Canada the ‘Davos of citizenship’, for three days 5,000 people from all over the world spoke together in an innovative conversation platform about belonging, exodus, and prosperity. The firm belief in Canada is that immigration and immigrants becoming citizens is the way forward for a prosperous and egalitarian world.

Since its inception in 2007, the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP) has been part of Madame Clarkson’s activities. This initiative is the outcome of a partnership between His Highness the Aga Khan and the Government of Canada with a global mission to serve the world by fostering informed dialogue about the benefits of diversity as a global value. The GCP is an international centre for research, education and exchange about the values, practices and policies that underpin pluralist societies. Based in Ottawa, the Centre seeks to assist the creation of successful societies and was founded on the premise that tolerance, openness and understanding towards the cultures, social structures, values and faiths of other peoples are now essential to the survival of an interdependent world. As Chair of the GCP’s small Executive Committee, she is part of a Board of Directors of 11 members, which include Kofi Annan, Huguette Labelle, Eduardo Stein, and other significant world leaders.

On March 17, 2007 Madame Clarkson became Colonel-in-Chief of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), the first Canadian to be Colonel-in-Chief of a Canadian regiment. As Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces when she was Governor General she developed a close tie with the Armed Forces and enjoys the connection with this small but proud and effective force today through her Regiment. 

In 2009, realizing that more and more girls were wanting to play the national game of Hockey, Madame Clarkson established the Clarkson Cup as the Championship Cup for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which is semi-professional, and many of whom whose members play on the Canadian Olympic women's hockey team. This establishment of a Cup was commissioned by Madame Clarkson to be designed by Inuit silver artists in Nunavut and was subsequently donated to make the reality of championship hockey concrete. It has been played for seven years now and the Canadian Women's Hockey League and women's hockey are growing exponentially in popularity. The Clarkson Cup now resides permanently in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In 2004, Massey College, the graduate college at the University of Toronto, established the Clarkson Laureateship for Public Service to be awarded annually to three post-graduate fellows. The intent of this Laureateship is to recognize the incredible achievements of the Laureates in honour of Madame Clarkson's long public service as a volunteer, and in her ultimate service as Governor General. Madame Clarkson is also a Senior Fellow at Massey College in addition to being an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Trinity College at the University of Toronto, and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. She has also been honoured abroad with the Grand Cross of the Order of Pleiades from France (2001) and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation (2006), the only Canadian to be so honoured.

An eminent writer, Madame Clarkson has also written several books since she was Governor General, including her bestselling memoir Heart Matters that was received with acclaim in 2006. In the Ottawa Citizen, Janice Kennedy wrote, “Clarkson’s book is more than a memento mori but it is also more than a sweet and lyrical celebration of all the affairs of the heart that have constituted her life to date – her love of Canada and of Canadians, her love of immediate and extended family, her love of all those transcendent values that give grace to our moment on Earth.” Her biography of Dr. Norman Bethune for Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series was published in 2009. “[Clarkson’s] strength is her knowledge of Canadian social, cultural and political history, into which she inserts Bethune,” wrote Judy Stoffman from the Globe and Mail. “Clarkson’s Norman Bethune is perhaps the most inspired pairing of author and subject in Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series to date.” Stories of the Canadian immigrant experience entitled Room for All of Us was published in 2011, in which ”Clarkson provides encouraging and optimistic stories of struggle and survival from the perspective of some remarkable people who have come to transform our nation despite their hardships. Room for All of Us is an intimate and insightful narrative, reflective of Canada’s rich immigration past and present,” is how Ottawa Life described the work. In 2014, she delivered the CBC Massey lectures, a cornerstone of Canadian public life. Broadcast on CBC radio, the national public broadcaster, her five lectures were also released as a book, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, published by House of Anansi Press. Publisher’s Weekly shared, “For Clarkson, society is more than just a group of individuals; it is shaped by people's desire to belong. Her analysis stresses the interdependence among people, who are at their most human when they commit to their community. One of her key messages is acceptance: people need to acknowledge that there are other citizens with backgrounds different than their own, and these differences need to be included in citizenship. The great strength of Clarkson's work is the range of examples that she cites. Her discussion includes a tribe in Uganda, Icelandic chieftains, black loyalists in Nova Scotia, and many other groups. […] Her work stretches across time and countries and will inspire further debate and discussion.”

Madame Clarkson was born in Hong Kong and arrived in Canada as a refugee in 1942 with her family and one suitcase apiece. Her family settled in Ottawa, where she attended public schools until graduating from Lisgar Collegiate Institute in 1956. She obtained both an Honours B.A. and her M.A in English Literature from the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, followed by studies at La Sorbonne. Her work has been recognized with dozens of awards in Canada, the United States and Europe including 32 honorary doctorates from universities in Canada and abroad.

Adrienne Clarkson is married to the writer John Ralston Saul and has two children and four grandchildren. Her work continues and she is continually inspired by the words of the great 19th Century Canadian politician Joseph Howe, who said “I ask myself what is right, what is just, what is for the public good?”