9/9/99: National Post 9/9/99
National Post

Broadcaster has lived her life in the public eye

Jonathon Gatehouse

Picture caption: Adrienne Clarkson sings along with Moxy Fruvous.

Canada should brace itself for a change.

After more than 125 years as the almost exclusive domain of greying earls, victorious viscounts, and career politicians, the office of governor-general is heading into uncharted territory.

Adrienne Clarkson, named yesterday as Canada's next governor-general, promises to be something of a rarity at Rideau Hall - a representative of the Queen that members of the public might actually recognize if they bumped into her on the street, and someone who has never hesitated to make her opinions known.

Only the second woman ever named to the position, and the first visible minority, Ms. Clarkson, 60, is already something of a national icon.

With a career as a novelist, television broadcaster, civil servant, and culture maven that has spanned more than 35 years, she has lived the majority of her life in the public eye, to the extent that she has been lampooned in sketches on such comedy programs as Double Exposure.

Born in Hong Kong, February, 10, 1939, Ms. Clarkson, nee Poy, came to Canada as a refugee with her family after the Japanese invasion of her homeland in 1941.

Settling in Ottawa, the Poys became part of the vanguard of the waves of "non-traditional" immigrants that have changed the face of the country over the last five decades.

Yesterday, Ms. Clarkson said her status as a standard bearer of multiculturalism has not been lost on her.

"I arrived in Ottawa when Ottawa was a very different city than it is now, in 1942. A town which was covered in white snow full of white people in 1942, to which our little family came is now the sort of place in which I can take my role," she told reporters.

"I am very honoured to be the first woman of neither founding nation to be the governor-general of Canada. It has deep meaning for me that I am the first immigrant, I am originally a refugee and I think this is a very important . . . evolution for Canada."

Educated at Ottawa public schools, Ms. Clarkson moved to Toronto in 1956 to study at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, winning a governor-general's medal in English, and becoming a vice-president of the University's administrative council.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1960, she went on a two-year extended voyage to the far east with her parents, travelling to Japan, Singapore, Malaya, and rediscovering her Hong Kong roots.

In 1962, she returned to Toronto to embark on Master's degree, writing her thesis on the poetry of George Meredith.

The following year, she married Stephen Clarkson, now a well-known political scientist at the University of Toronto. The couple had two daughters, Kyra and Blaise, before divorcing in the 1970s.

Always a lover of literature, Ms. Clarkson first seemed destined for the life of an author, like her U of T contemporary Margaret Atwood. In the mid-1960s, her poetry and short stories often appeared in publications like Saturday Night, Chatelaine, and Canadian Forum.

She published three novels between 1968 and 1971; A Lover More Condoling, Hunger Trace, and True to You in My Fashion. All are now out of print, but a search through Toronto public library archives yesterday suggests her career change may have been a wise decision.

"When I tell a man that he is a marvelous lover, I mean that he makes me believe he loves me when we are in bed together," Ms. Clarkson begins her 1970 work, Hunger Trace, the story of a torrid romance between young heroine Regina Adler, and Tiercel Margrave, a 56-year-old senator. "I once explained this to Tiercel and his bare shoulders shook with relieved laughter because he thought I had meant something to do with his technique or capacity or some of those other things that apparently haunt the post-adolescent male ego."

Perhaps betraying an already well-developed national consciousness, she continues:

"We met when I had just returned to Toronto with Jos, after that delightful passive period of looking at baroque churches, of eating with the eyes and sleeping with an empty head. I had began to work in Jos' stockroom, expediting gross upon gross of licorice sticks to deepest, darkest Manitoba."

Ms. Clarkson was to make her greatest mark in another medium - television.

From her debut in 1965, as the host of Take 30, a five-times a week current events magazine show, she became one of Canada's best-known broadcast personalities. In 1975 she moved to the public network's flagship investigative program, The Fifth Estate, further cementing her reputation as a top-class journalist and interviewer.

In 1982, Ms. Clarkson temporarily left the public airwaves to become Ontario's agent-general in France. By the time she returned home from in France in 1987, to start a stint as president of McClelland and Stewart publishing (she later headed an imprint for the publisher), her name had been sent through the rumour mill for every government appointment or position from head of the CBC to dark-horse replacement for outgoing Liberal leader John Turner.

Though Ms. Clarkson has never run for the Liberals, she has a long history as a supporter of the party dating back to her former husband's failed bid to become mayor of Toronto in 1969.

"There is no question she's going to be at Sussex Drive," Allan Fotheringham wrote in a 1985 column touting her as a future prime minister. "The only question is what job do we find for her in between."

The rumours, however, never panned out. In 1988, Ms. Clarkson quit publishing and returned to television as the host of a weekly CBC arts anthology that later became the long-running, Adrienne Clarkson Presents.

In 1995, she was named chair of the board of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.

Given her long-standing tradition of outspokenness, Ms. Clarkson may well need to marshall all her media savvy as governor-general. A well-known supporter of such diverse causes as women's rights, the anti-free trade movement, public broadcasting, and efforts to ban water exports to the United States, the new vice-regal yesterday served notice that she intends to continue to stir the pot.

"I think all our governor-generals have had public experience and have made a point of doing the things they wanted to do because they were interested and thought they were important," she said. "Will I take a certain type of political view etc?... Standing apart from the everyday political fray does not mean not having ideas."

Ms. Clarkson may also find herself defending the statements of her equally loquacious second-husband, John Ralston Saul. The philosopher and award-winning novelist has established himself as one of the country's foremost social critics in recent years.

Yesterday, Mr. Saul said he plans to curtail about "1%" of his activities in order to spare his wife any embarrassment.

And already the couple should have ample evidence that life in the public eye will not always prove easy. In recent months, the Globe and Mail, following up on a story first published in Frank magazine, has run a series of articles about the future governor-general's bid to stop an aged neighbour from adding an addition to her Yorkville home.

Still even if she proves to be controversial, Adrienne Clarkson should be a welcome breath of fresh air, the dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, said yesterday.

"Given that the profile of the vice-regal has been such a low one over the past few years, really only hitting the news when the vice-regal's lion is de-tongued," said John Aimers. "I hope she'll use that media savvy to bring a profile to the office so that Canadians better understand what the governor-general is and who she represents."

Adrienne Clarkson is best known to Canadians as a television personality since 1965. Top photo: Clarkson with Ian Parker, left, and Eric Malling of the fifth estate. Middle photo: She sings along with Moxy Fruvous. Far left: as host of Take 30. Left: on the cover of Chatelaine magazine in January, 1969. She also served as the first agent general for Ontario in Paris between 1982 and 1987. Most recently she headed the board of Canada's Museum of Civilization.


Quotations from Adrienne Clarkson, governor-general designate

- On Canada-U.S. relations: "Our problem with the U.S. is not insufficient access; it is debilitating dependence."

- On free trade and guns: "When a gun lobby sees there is a wonderful market of 25 million people here who do not have hand guns, do you not think they are going to start wanting to have that kind of market?"

- On free trade, communism, and urban violence: "We [are] more like the Europeans to them in our ability to understand and employ state capitalism, our ability to distinguish between social democracy and communism, our social programs, and our lack of urban violence. I think if we go through with this deal, those arguments are going to be no longer possible to put forth to Europeans."

- On hiring policies that favour women: "99 times out of 100 it's going to happen the other way around so a little bit of redress doesn't hurt."

- On Toronto municipal amalgamation: "A manifestation of a kind of cruelty women are best able to understand."

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