Each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves.
Adrienne Clarkson was born in Hong Kong in 1939, the daughter of Ethel and William Poy, a prominent businessman who lost his property after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Clarkson arrived in Canada with her parents and older brother, Neville, as refugees in 1942. At the time, the Chinese Immigration Act excluded the arrival of virtually all Chinese immigrants. However, William Poy’s work at the Canadian Trade Commission in Hong Kong is believed to have helped him bring his family to Canada under “special circumstances” granted by the government.
“We arrived with one suitcase apiece and nothing else,” Clarkson said in a 2002 speech to the Joint Refugee Committee in Red Deer, Alberta. “I was very fortunate that my family never thought of themselves as having lost anything of real value. We lost only material things… We didn’t lose what we really believed in as human beings.”
Clarkson’s family settled in Ottawa, Ontario, where she grew up and attended public schools. She studied at the University of Toronto, where she received an Honours BA (1960) and MA (1962) in English Literature. From 1962 to 1964, she studied at La Sorbonne in Paris, France, which she credits for making her “truly bilingual.”
Early and Mid CareerIn 1965, Clarkson began an award-winning, 18-year career as TV host-interviewer, writer and producer for the CBC. She started as a book reviewer for the show Take Thirty, where she was quickly promoted to co-host. The promotion made her the first racialized Canadian to headline a national program. She remained there for 10 years, during which time she also wrote for many of Canada’s national print publications,
including Chatelaine and Maclean’s magazines. Clarkson also published two novels with McClelland & Stewart: A Lover More Condoling (1968) and Hunger Trace (1970), as well as a collection of interviews on the subject of marriage and divorce, True to You In My Fashion: A Woman Talks to Men About Marriage (1971), with New Press.
In 1974–75, she briefly hosted her own current affairs show, Adrienne at Large, which ran less than four months. The following year, she left Take Thirty and helped launch the CBC’s new program the fifth estate, a newsmagazine show modelled on CBS’s famed 60 Minutes and the BBC’s Panorama. Clarkson worked as a co-host and reporter for the show. Her reporting highlights included an investigation of the financing of the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal, an interview with the Shah of Iran, and a look into the McCain Foods’ business practices.
According to a profile of Clarkson in Maclean’s, her story on McCain’s irritated senator Josie Quart, who accused Clarkson of degrading “Canadians who had been successful” and for not being a naturalized Canadian citizen for most of her life — though Clarkson’s family had gained citizenship in 1949. Quart later apologized.
Clarkson was noted for her style of interviewing, which elicited strong, illuminating responses from the people she interviewed. According to Ron Haggart, a producer of the fifth estate, “[Clarkson] had the ability to put people at ease, such that they probably said more than they thought they were going to say…. That included her ability to know when to keep quiet.”
Clarkson left the fifth estate in 1982 and was appointed by Premier Bill Davis as Ontario’s first agent-general in Paris. In this role, Clarkson promoted Ontario’s business and cultural interests in France, Italy and Spainfor five years. On her return to Canada in 1987, she became president of McClelland & Stewart, where she remained until 1989. In 1988, Clarkson had returned to broadcasting as executive producer and host of CBC’s national arts showcase Adrienne Clarkson’s Summer Festival.
In September 1999, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Clarkson governor general on the advice of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. She took office on 7 October 1999, as the 26th governor general of Canada.In assuming the role, Clarkson became the first person without a military or political background, the first racialized Canadian and the first person of Asian heritage to be appointed to the vice-regal position. She was the second woman appointed to the role, after Jeanne Sauvé (1984–90).
Clarkson faced intense scrutiny from MPs and the Canadian public for what was deemed lavish spending during her tenure. A 2003 state visit to Russia, Finland and Iceland that cost $5-million provoked a great deal of anger. As a result, Clarkson’s officials were questioned by a House of Commons committee inquiry, resulting in a reduction in her budget. Others claimed that the 19-day circumpolar “northern identity” tour, which included 59 other prominent Canadians, was a resounding success, enabling Canada to foster a successful relationship with the northern European countries.
Clarkson’s dedication to the vice-regal role was also questioned during her notable absence from important national events, such as the funeral service of Alberta’s former lieutenant-governor, Lois Hole.
Clarkson’s tenure had many successes. She continued to be an ardent patron of the arts and travelled overseas to support troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Her speech at the burial ceremony for Canada’s Unknown Soldier, on 28 May 2000, was a stirring tribute that resonated among veterans. Clarkson maintained that she would attempt to forge stronger ties between Canada and northern Indigenous peoples during her time as governor general. She created the Governor General’s Northern Medal, awarded annually to a northern citizen whose work has helped affirm the Canadian North as part of the national identity. She also travelled throughout Canada, perhaps more than any other governor general, visiting its people and bringing a sense of modernity to the vice-regal position.
Though Clarkson’s term was to have ended in 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin asked that she remain in office an additional year, believing that continuity in the vice-regal role would offer Canadians a sense of stability in the face of an insecure minority government.
~ The Canadian Encyclopedia