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Paul Benoit

The Imperial Canadian: Vincent Massey In Office, Claude Bissell, University of Toronto Press, 1986, p. 361; Her Excellency Jeanne Sauvé, Shirley E. Woods, MacMillan, Toronto, 1986, p. 242.

Biographies of two Canadian Governor Generals, Vincent Massey and Jeanne Sauvé, have appeared recently. The former, by Claude Bissell, is more scholarly and authoritative; the latter, by Shirley Wood, more journalistic and ephemeral. Both are agreeable to read - Bissell's even attaining a certain elegance - and both are, above all, respectful of their subject. There are no revelations here about the character of either; nor are there any insights to be gained into their entourage, the times they lived in or the office they occupied. The only exception, at least for this reader, was Wood's chapter on Maurice Sauvé in which one realises to what extent he was an isolated transitional figure: at home neither with the old style St.-Laurent Liberals, nor with Trudeau's new guard. Yet in many ways he was an indispensable figure who provided a link between one of the major social movements contributing to the Quiet Revolution and the federal government in Ottawa.

To return to Bissell's biography, the more important of the two, there is something frustrating about a book that is so well written yet which sheds so little light. The succession of leading roles which Massey was called on to play - as High Commissioner in London, patron of the arts, Chancellor of the University of Toronto, Chairman of a Royal Commission on the Arts, and Governor General - are all delineated with great skill. A sound organisation of material (papers, diaries, official minutes of meetings) has been fleshed out by the sensibility of an artist and a gentleman. Yet the book never comes alive. After putting it down we have no idea of what the world must have been like to Vincent Massey. What motivated him? He occupied the highest offices in Canada, he was familiar with the highest strata of British society, but one gets the impression that he may have been a disappointed man during the latter half of his life. A political career, or more precisely a ministerial career in which he could directly shape the cause of public affairs, eluded him. Continuously thwarted by Mackenzie King his high appointments appear to be so many consolation prizes. In any event this relationship with King should have been explored more fully: in so doing lie may have provided us with a glimpse of the personal as distinct from the official being that was Massey. Nor is any light shed on the social and political significance of Vincent Massey's career. Why is it that everything he stood for - support of the arts, our ties with Britain, the theatricality of public life, the need for social distinctions - while being granted lip service, was eventually eclipsed by what Bruce Hutchinson has called Mackenzie King's "triumph of mediocrity". Why did his vision of Canada, which was a cultural, contemporary extension of the Fathers of Confederation's vision, not carry the day? Why were some of the generation of ' Canadians who came into their prime during the inter-war years, like Massey, so at home in Britain and so uneasy in the United States, while others of the same generation and similar backgrounds feel just the reverse? These are the larger questions, clues to which are nowhere to be found in the Imperial Canadian.

Paul Benoit, Vice-Chairman Ottawa Branch Monarchist League of Canada

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 10 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-09-14