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George Vanier: The Best of Us

Editor in Chief Father Raymond J de Souza writes a profound tribute to one of Canada's greatest citizens, General Georges Philias Vanier, Canada’s 19th Governor General.

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Topics: Leadership, Faith, Faith In Canada 150
George Vanier: The Best of Us March 10, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The fiftieth anniversary of the death of General Georges Philias Vanier, Canada’s 19th Governor General, fell earlier this week. Having lived the great Canadian life, he died in Canada’s centennial year. He has lessons to teach us in this year of Canada 150.

Vanier died on the morning of March 5 1967, just after Sunday Mass in the chapel next to his bedroom at Rideau Hall, where he and his wife Pauline attended Mass every morning, and prayed at length together each evening. He had visited the chapel for the last time the night before, having asked to be taken there after the happy conclusion of the Montreal Canadiens game on television (they beat the Detroit Red Wings).

When Georges Vanier arrived at Rideau Hall in September 1959 as the first French-Canadian Governor General, he had two simple requests. He wanted a bilingual sign at the entrance to the Rideau Hall compound, and a chapel where Mass could be offered daily. He would spend the next eight years until his death living according to those two principles: Seeking God’s strength for his service to the country, and advocating tirelessly for the unity of Canada. At a time when the Governor General was a central figure in public life, he and his wife Pauline earned nothing but accolades for their sacrificial service, all the more remarkable given that he was 71 upon assuming office.

Reading his addresses at a distance of fifty years, it is remarkable how fresh they are due to the deep theological and political wisdom that informed them. Since his death, public addresses of such quality have rarely been heard in Canada. Claude Ryan, editor of Le Devoir when Vanier was in office, said that “he set his sights on the goal of giving to Canadian public life a sort of supplement for its soul, an infusion of high patriotism, even of pure and simple spirituality.”

Vanier’s extraordinary love of God and his country matured during a uniquely Canadian life. Born in Montreal in 1888, only twenty-one years after Confederation, he qualified as a lawyer, and then was deeply engaged in Canada’s coming-of-age in World War I. He joined the famous “Van-Doos” 22nd Regiment at its creation in 1915, winning medals for his courage in battle. While he did not fight at Vimy Ridge, he was shot in the chest and both legs in August of that same year, 1917. His right leg had to be amputated. Decorated for bravery and wounded in war, he was given leave to return to Canada after his recuperation from the amputation. He declined, electing to remain with his regiment to serve in whatever way he could.

“I simply cannot go back to Canada, while my comrades are still in the trenches in France,” he wrote to his parents.

After the war he married Pauline Archer in 1921. They had five children, including Jean Vanier, now 88, the founder of L’Arche, the international network of small Christian communities where the mentally disabled are cared for by full-time volunteers. After the Governor General’s death, Madame Vanier left behind high society in Montreal, and lived the last 18 years of her life in Trosly, France, together with her son at the original L’Arche community, becoming something of a grandmother to residents and those who cared for them.

After the First World War, Georges Vanier moved into diplomacy, serving at the League of Nations and in London before representing Canada to Charles de Gaulle’s Free French in London during World War II. He then served as Canadian ambassador to Paris from 1945 to 1953, when he retired. Vanier also led efforts to recruit French-Canadians to serve in the Canadian military – a delicate task at the time. In 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker summoned him from retirement to serve as Governor General.

Heroic solder, military amputee, war-time diplomat, passionate defender of Canadian unity, a courteous gentleman, amateur political philosopher, student of theology, loving husband and successful father, devoutly religious – can any other figure be so easily proposed as a model for Canadians today? Indeed at a time when Canadian soldiers are deployed overseas, when the question of Canadian identity and values is on our political agenda, when Canadian families are increasingly fractured, when Canadian public life has been too often stripped of a sense of higher purpose, it is essential to recall from our own history those figures that call us to our better selves. And this is widely recognized. After Sir John A. Macdonald, and perhaps Winston Churchill, no other Canadian has as many schools, colleges, institutes, scholarships, prizes, roads and parks named after him. He was not our first prime minister, but he was our most outstanding citizen.

That’s not my judgment, though I do not demur from it. For Dominion Day 1998, Maclean’s magazine commissioned a panel of historians, publishers, artists and scholars to list 100 individuals they considered the most significant in the history of Canada, those who made an indispensable contribution and who could be considered heroic. They chose Vanier – decorated soldier, diplomat and vice-regal representative – for the premier spot.

His lifetime of exemplary service was motivated by both patriotism and his deep Catholic faith, summarized in the motto he chose upon his appointment by Queen Elizabeth in 1959, Fiat Voluntas Dei (May God’s Will Be Done). The Maclean’s panel wrote:

A man of courage and sacrifice, in war and peace, he exemplified the best in his countrymen. Duty, obligation and service – Vanier epitomized all these noble ideals. And as Governor General he represented in his person all those who went overseas to risk their lives for abstract concepts like democracy and freedom – and, yes, duty, obligation and service to a higher ideal than self. Vanier was Canada’s moral compass … an unquestioned man of probity and honour. He is the leading Hero – the most important Canadian in history.

That’s a secular canonization. There has long been talk that General and Madame Vanier ought to be proposed for canonization as saints in the Catholic Church. It would be most fitting, and most encouraging. Georges and Pauline did not withdraw from our common life in order to serve God; they served God in the very midst of it. They would be suitable patron saints for our Convivium project here at Cardus, to say nothing of our Faith in Canada 150 project.

Most commentaries about Vanier as a model of faith in common life cite the opening lines of his inaugural speech in September 1959:

My first words are a prayer. May Almighty God in His infinite wisdom and mercy bless the sacred mission which has been entrusted to me by Her Majesty the Queen and help me to fulfil it in all humility. In exchange for His strength, I offer Him my weakness. May He give peace to this beloved land of ours and, to those who live in it, the grace of mutual understanding, respect and love.

Our current Governor General, the Right Honourable David Johnston quoted the conclusion of that same speech in his own inaugural speech in 2010:

I recall the closing lines of my predecessor, General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier’s inaugural address: “In our march forward in material happiness, let us not neglect the spiritual threads in the weaving of our lives. If Canada is to attain the greatness worthy of it, each of us must say, ‘I ask only to serve.’”

Re-reading that speech in this sesquicentennial year, I was struck by another dimension of Vanier’s life, highlighted in the same inaugural speech. Vanier took office on the eve of the Quiet Revolution. He would serve in office while militant, even violent, separatism took root in Quebec. This greatest of French Canadian patriots would be accused – as would become a common insult hurled at many Quebec federalists – of being a sell-out, a traitor to his own people.

In 1959, Queen Elizabeth made a royal visit to Canada, and presided over a meeting of the federal cabinet in Halifax. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had only one item on that cabinet agenda – the appointment of Georges Vanier as Governor General.

On that same visit, Her Majesty would also visit Quebec City, and anniversaries, then as now, were on the mind. Vanier remarked upon that in his inaugural speech:

You have drawn attention, Mr. Prime Minister, to the significance of this day. How right you are. Two hundred years ago, a certain country won a battle on the Plains of Abraham; another country lost a battle. The present Sovereign of the victorious country, Sovereign also of Canada now, returns to the same battlefield, two centuries later, and presents colours to a French-speaking regiment, which mounts guard over the Citadel of Quebec, a regiment of which Her Majesty is colonel-in-chief.

And how is the battle of 1759 commemorated? By a monument, erected in 1828, to the memory of both commanding generals, who died in action. It bears the Latin inscription: Valour gave them a common death, history a common fame, posterity a common monument. Is there a better way to heal the wounds of war, to seal the bonds of peace?

… The future of Canada is linked with this double fabulous heritage. Canadians of Anglo-Saxon and French descent, whose two cultures will always be a source of mutual enrichment, are an inspiring example of coexistence. They go forward hand in hand to make Canada a great nation, hand in hand also with Canadians of every origin, with their heritages, irrespective of race or creed. We are all God’s children.

Canada at 150, unlike Canada at 100, is not preoccupied with the national question. English-French relations, Canada-Quebec, constitutional reform – all this would dominate Canadian politics for the three decades after Vanier’s death. So it was suitable for the first French-Canadian governor general to comment upon what it meant for him to assume office two hundred years after Montcalm was defeated by Wolfe.

Today, we might read that history in a different key, not of national identity but of religious freedom. Vanier did not remark upon that as it was not then the issue that it is now. It remains true though that religious pluralism and toleration were an essential part of the Canadian founding, first established in law by the Quebec Act of 1774, and confirmed a century later by the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act) of 1867.

The resolution of the 1759 battle for Quebec in favour of the French population being able to maintain their religion, language, education and civil law was a major step forward in the world’s development of religious freedom. It is true that the American Bill of Rights (1789) would soon enshrine religious liberty in their new constitution but the reality was different in daily life. Recall that Darcy McGee, the fierce Irish nationalist, traveled to Boston, seeking to emancipate himself from living in 19th century Montreal under the British crown. He was shocked to find Catholics in Boston living under all sorts of official discrimination, while Catholics in Montreal had more ample civil rights. He would return to Canada and become a Father of Confederation.

The religious pluralism permitted in Quebec in the 1760s was more than what was permitted in Britain itself at the time. And to be sure, the British crown did not grant the French Catholics in their newly-acquired colonies civil rights out of high-minded principle; it was thought that no other course was possible. Yet the precedent was established. The crown could respect the practice of a different religion, as a matter of law and practical application.

As Canada congratulates itself at 150, it behooves us to remember the best of ourselves. Georges Vanier is certainly that. So too is our heritage of religious pluralism and liberty.

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