In January 2024, Andrea Bissonnette, Ben Weiss and myself had an extraordinary experience—the opportunity to sit down with Madame Adrienne Clarkson at the Château Laurier Hotel to have tea and chat about her past and Ottawa history more generally. For those who might need a reminder, after a stellar career as a journalist, Madame Clarkson was Canada’s governor general from 1999 to 2005, and the Historical Society of Ottawa’s patron.
The story began in the spring of 2023 when Andrea contacted the Historical Society of Ottawa regarding an old family photograph album that had originally belonged to her grandmother, Marie Albina Guilbeault. Andrea had inherited it following the passing of her mother, and offered the photos to the Society.
Although the Society no longer maintains a photo archive, we agreed to go through the album, scan photographs of interest, and then send the collection to the City of Ottawa Archives. Among Andrea’s fascinating photos was a picture of her great-grandfather, Arthur Guilbeault, who was a mayor of Eastview (Vanier) in the 1920s, and another of Zoë Laurier, the wife of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
It took us some months to go through the album in detail. In January, Ben Weiss read a number of newspaper clippings, snipped by Andrea’s grandmother, about her son, Andrew (André) Bissonnette, who was Andrea’s father. Representing the Ottawa Technical Institute, Andrew had won third prize in a Rotary Club public-speaking contest held on April 1, 1955 at the Château Laurier Hotel. Perusing the articles more closely, Ben recognized the name of the second-place winner—16-year-old Adrienne Poy, the young immigrant girl from Hong Kong who was to become Canada’s 26 th governor general.
Ben contacted Madame Clarkson’s office and offered to send the newspaper clippings to her as a gift. Instead, Madame Clarkson graciously volunteered to receive them in person as she was soon to be in Ottawa to give an address on leadership at Carleton University.
After meeting at the City of Ottawa Archives where Andrea officially donated her grandmother’s photographs, Andrea, Ben and I trooped down to the Château Laurier, expecting a brief meeting with Madame Clarkson. Instead, she spoke with us for more than an hour. It seemed like she would have happily chatted longer had it not been for another appointment (which turned out to be with none other than Randy Boswell, the well-known journalist, professor and Society member!).
Madame Clarkson was delighted to receive the clippings and recalled the Rotary contest in detail. In the lead-up to the event, she had practised under the direction of her English teacher, Mr. Mann. She entered the Rotary inter-school contest by winning a similar public-speaking event at her school, Lisgar Collegiate. Madame Clarkson said that Mr. Mann had had a profound influence on her, giving her skills that had served her well through her life.
The topic of her young Adrienne Poy’s twelve-minute presentation was “The Problem of China.” She also had to speak extemporaneously for two minutes on the postal system. She clearly impressed the judges and the reporters covering the event. Indeed, her speech garnered more press coverage that that of the first-place winner, Tony Reynolds from Glebe Collegiate, who spoke on “Moral Rearmament.” Madame Clarkson recalled that “moral rearmament” had been a popular, neo-fascist philosophy during the 1950s. (A 1967 article that appeared in The Harvard Crimson called the movement simplistic, anti-intellectual, emotional, and irrational.) Madame Clarkson said that her second-place finish had come as a disappointment; she had hoped to take first place. Indeed, there had been a general feeling that she had performed better than Reynolds but lost owing to her gender. In the 1950s, women did not come first.
Responding to a question from Andrea, Madame Clarkson admitted that while she knew Andrea’s father, Andrew Bissonnette, she did not know him well. She gave Andrea a hug when Andrea revealed that she had never met her father as he had tragically died while her mother had been three months pregnant with her. To talk to somebody who had known her father, even a little bit, was very special.
Madame Clarkson went on to speak about her early life in Ottawa after her family arrived as refugees from Hong Kong in 1942. Her first recollection was falling off the steps of a streetcar. Landing in a snowbank, three-year old Adrienne Poy was fortunately uninjured. She also recalled that her mother didn’t know how to cook when they first arrived in the city. Francophone neighbours taught her how to prepare Western food. Later, Mrs. Poy learnt how to cook Chinese cuisine at a Chinese restaurant. Subsequently, the Poy family ate Chinese food on weekdays and Western food on weekends.
She also described the social and religious divides in Ottawa at the time—English versus French, Irish versus Francophones in Lowertown, and Catholics versus Protestants. One thing she did not experience was anti-Chinese bias, possibly because there were so few Chinese in Ottawa owing to the 1923 exclusion law that barred most Chinese from emigrating to Canada until 1947. But, even within Ottawa’s small Chinese community—just two Chinese restaurants—there was a divide between those who had owned land back in China and those with a water, or fishing background. Her mother would not allow young Adrienne to bring home Chinese children with a fishing heritage.
One thing that was strong in the Poy household was their attachment to the Anglican Church. Madame Clarkson’s parents had been married in Hong Kong by Bishop Ronald Hall, who became famous for the ordination of Florence Li, the Anglican Church’s first woman priest, in 1944. After living in an apartment on Sussex Avenue, the Poy family later moved to Laurier Avenue west to be closer to Christ Church Cathedral where her parents were active members.
When asked about why her family remained in Canada after the war, Madame Clarkson said that her parents had considered going back to Hong Kong. Indeed, many Hong Kong friends were expecting and hoping that they would return. However, her father, William Poy, was concerned about the future of the British colony given the rise of Mao Zedong, fearing that Hong Kong could not last more than two years after Mao’s takeover of mainland China. While his fears later proved to be mistaken, the family stayed in Ottawa.
Noting that her upcoming birthday fell on the Chinese New Year, Ben asked Madame Clarkson if that had any significance for her. She laughed, saying that it did for her mother. Mrs. Poy spent the last three weeks of her pregnancy in bed in the hope that her child would be born a “rabbit” instead of a “tiger.” Failing in that endeavour, she despaired that young Adrienne’s character would be too forceful, making it difficult for her to find a husband.
Madame Clarkson also talked about senior government positions. She said she had turned down an offer to become a senator as she felt that she didn’t have the temperament for the job. While she could do committee work, it wasn’t her preferred type of activity. The role of governor general was more in keeping with her leadership skills. One position she has particularly enjoyed is being Colonel-in-Chief of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, a role she has had since 2007. Madame Clarkson noted that she was only the third Colonel-in-Chief since the formation of the regiment in 1914, and is proud to be the first Canadian.
With her assistant indicating that it was 3:30pm, and time for her next appointment, Andrea, Ben and I gave our thanks and said our goodbyes. Before going, Ben gave Madame Clarkson a copy of Dorothy Phillips’ book on the Duke and Dutchess of Devonshire, Victor and Evie, British Aristocrats in Wartime Rideau Hall as well as Bill Galbraith’s work on Lord Tweedsmuir titled John Buchan: Model Governor General. He also gave honorary membership certificates to both Madame Clarkson and Andrea. We hope that both are able to join us for future events.
Our meeting on April 28, 2021, was as much a romance story as it was a history lesson. HSO member Dorothy Phillips has researched the life of the Duke of Devonshire, Victor Cavendish and his wife, Lady Evelyn Petty-Fitzmaurice, which the duke affectionately called “Evie”. In 2017, Dorothy assembled her extensive research into a book, Victor and Evie: British Aristocrats in Wartime Rideau Hall.
Unlike many of Canada’s governors general who accepted their posting as just a stepping stone to better political opportunities in the UK, or to a future diplomatic assignment in a warmer part of British Empire, Victor Cavendish loved the time they spent in Ottawa. The couple contributed much to the city’s life. Evie was well known as a gracious host, holding twice-weekly dinners for government officials, and Saturday afternoon skating parties for the common folk. Victor and Evie spent their summers at a cottage at Blue Sea Lake, about 100 km north of Ottawa. Their eldest daughter Maud was the first child of a governor general to be married in Ottawa.
Evie was already familiar with Rideau Hall when her husband became governor general in 1916. She had lived in the same Governors’ Mansion as a teenager when her father, The Marquess of Lansdowne was Canada’s head of state.
On April 28, 2021, Dorothy Phillips, author and longtime HSO member, told us about researching and writing the story of the Duke of Devonshire during his time as Governor General of Canada.
Lord Tweedsmuir was Governor General of Canada from 1935 until 1940. Tweedsmuir’s remarkable memory, writing capacity, and skill in working with people were what first drew the attention of Bill Galbraith, the speaker at the Ottawa Historical Society's afternoon meeting on January 29, 2020. Bill ended up writing a book about Lord Tweedsmuir, published in 2013, titled John Buchan: Model Governor General.
John Buchan, before being made a Baron by King George V in 1935, was a well-known journalist and author, having written over 100 books. He wrote the spy thriller The Thirty- Nine Steps in 1915. In 1935 Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie, which can still be seen on YouTube. Written over 100 years ago, the book has never been out of print. The Guardian newspaper places it 42nd on its list of 100 best novels written in English. The Ottawa Public Library still has 21 of Buchan’s books in its online catalogue.
John Buchan was born in 1875 to a Scottish preacher. His mother, Helen Masterson, was from a sheep farming family in the border area of southern Scotland. Buchan spent his boyhood summers on the farm where he developed a love of the outdoors, hiking, and fishing along the River Tweed.
At age 17, Buchan entered Glasgow University to receive a classical education. Even at this young age, he had a commission from a London publisher to edit a book on the philosopher Francis Bacon. Buchan’s first book, a collection of Bacon’s essays, was published in 1894, when Buchan was 19 years old. The next year he published his first novel. Winning a scholarship, he went on to Oxford University to continue his studies in the classics. After graduation he moved to London and started at a solicitor’s office. In June 1901 he was called to the bar, specializing in commercial law.
From September 1901 to July 1903 he was in South Africa as a secretary to the High Commissioner, working on reconstruction after the Boer War. While there he met Commonwealth troops, including Canadians, from whom he gained an appreciation of their strong sentiments and pride for their respective countries.
Returning to London, Buchan worked in law, wrote for the Spectator magazine, and became a literary advisor to Thomas Nelson publishers. In 1905 he met Susan Grosvenor, a member of an aristocratic family. They married in July 1907. They had four children, one of whom married a woman from Ottawa.
At the start of World War One in 1914, Buchan was rejected for military service because of a duodenal ulcer. This was to plague him for the rest of his life. He began to write a contemporary history of the war for Nelson, with a lag of only a few months. This brought him to the attention of the Times newspaper.
He became its war correspondent. In the fall of 1915, The 39 Steps and eight volumes of his history of the war were published. Now the military took notice. He was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps serving in France. In 1916, he published Greenmantle, another novel featuring Richard Hannay. Buchan was soon promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and returned to London to head an information department. In February 1917 his duodenal ulcer was operated on. In 1918 he became Head of Intelligence reporting to the Minister of Information, Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian. Buchan finished his 24-volume war history in 1919.
After the war, in May 1919, a chance meeting occurred between Mackenzie King and the Buchans in London. King was struck by Buchan’s “scholarly appearance and his delightful English manner”. They both had Scottish backgrounds. Later that year, King became federal Liberal leader.
In 1924, King invited the Buchans, on their way to the U.S. on business, to Ottawa. King showed them around Ottawa and his estate at Kingsmere. The visit cemented an intellectual and spiritual attraction to Buchan in King’s mind. This was a factor when a successor to Gov. Gen. Lord Bessborough was to be considered. In 1927, Buchan became a U.K. Member of Parliament.
Finding a successor to Lord Bessborough, who was retiring, began in 1934 and ran into 1935. Opposition leader King was influential in having King George V select Buchan as a replacement. In March 1935, Buchan was named the future Governor General of Canada. King was happy, although a controversy arose. Buchan was a commoner, traditionally the appointment was of someone from the House of Lords. And why could the GG not be Canadian born? King George V wanted to be represented by a peer, so he raised Buchan to become a Baron. Buchan chose the name Tweedsmuir to reflect his Scottish roots.
The viceregal couple arrived in Canada on Nov. 2, 1935. Lord Tweedsmuir was sworn in as the 15th Governor General of Canada. Since he was well known for his popular books, people felt closer to him than they had towards any of his predecessors. Buchan knew the importance of his official role, but saw another role, too: to reach out to Canadians and encourage excellence. Susan Tweedsmuir soon became engaged in her own right. She took over speaking to women’s clubs to relieve John of certain duties.
Initially, discussions between King and Tweedsmuir were not smooth, but Tweedsmuir showed himself to be adroit in working with people. He provided assistance to King to better organize the office of the Prime Minister. He played a substantive role in the early stages of modernizing Canada’s machinery of government, helping to define the Prime Minister’s Office and the position of Clerk of the Privy Council.
Tweedsmuir was helpful during the abdication crisis of Edward VIII. He also was instrumental in having King George VI and Queen Elizabeth tour Canada in 1939 as a way of pointing out Canada’s independence from Britain. The visit was a huge success. It raised the country’s morale and boosted national unity.
John Buchan became a bridge between Britain and North America. He developed a strong relationship with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Due to isolationist sentiment in the U.S., it was easier for Roosevelt to deal with Tweedsmuir than with Britain directly.
In their first two years in Canada, the Tweedsmuirs travelled extensively. During a major train journey through western Canada in 1936, Lady Tweedsmuir asked people along the way what she could do for them. They requested books. Susan initiated and personally managed what became known as the Lady Tweedsmuir Prairie Library Scheme. Books, 40,000 of them, were collected and sorted at Rideau Hall and delivered to the Prairies, all funded through private foundations.
In 1937 they travelled to the Maritimes. In the same year Lord Tweedsmuir travelled along Alexander Mackenzie’s path down the Mackenzie River to Aklavik at the river delta, then flew to Great Bear Lake and on to Kugluktuk, called Coppermine at that time. These travels gave Canadians a better perspective of their own land. As well, it provided inspiration for Buchan to write further books. Also, through his travels, Tweedsmuir provided new visions for government action. After discussions with Canadian literary groups, Lord Tweedsmuir established the Governor General Literary Awards in 1936. Tweedsmuir’s incredible memory particularly impresses Bill Galbraith. Because of Buchan’s remarkable memory, he could speak to almost any group or profession. This helped to make him a man of the people.
On the morning of February 6, 1940 while preparing for another full day, Tweedsmuir suffered a stroke. Treatment by Dr. Wilder Penfield could not save him. Tweedsmuir died on February 11, 1940.
The outpouring of grief, gratitude, and admiration was enormous. John Buchan felt himself to be Canadian. He was known and loved across the country. He was a model Governor General.
Dear members of the Historical Society of Ottawa,
As patron of your organization, I wanted to send along my best wishes to you during these difficult times. I hope you are well.
Wherever you are and whatever you do, you are facing a historic and unprecedented challenge alongside people and organizations from around the world. And you are tackling it head-on.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything and it is affecting every aspect of our society. This invisible enemy is scary and strong, and it has forced us to change the way we live. It calls on each of us to sacrifice our freedom of movement and to accept demanding conditions. In many cases, at great cost.
To defeat the virus, it requires all of us to do our part. Every single one of us. No doubt you are already doing all you can. But what more can we do?
Continue to support everyone helping Canadians during the pandemic. The office of the governor general is proud to play a part in raising awareness and giving thanks. Please lend your voice too.
We can reach out to Canadians by relaying official information and instructions. I invite you to visit www.gg.ca and to share our content, particularly how organizations are making a difference in our communities.
Let’s be grateful.
One cannot choose when hardship comes, but one can choose how to respond to it in times of crisis. Please visit Caring Nation, our new online forum, to contribute stories of solidarity and compassion from all over the country.
We are now steadfastly staying the course. It will take time, but when we return to brighter days, we will look back on these challenging times and realize that because we all did our part, we emerged stronger as a nation. Our collective resilience will lead to our collective victory.
In the meantime, as we hold the line, let us focus not on what we cannot control, but on the news that give us hope.
We are all part of the fight against COVID-19.
Yours most sincerely,
Governor General of Canada
Since the founding of what was then called the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa in 1898, the Society has always had a close relationship with Rideau Hall There is a belief that Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the 7th Earl of Aberdeen who was Canada’s Governor General from 1893 to1898, was the Society’s first patron. However, while we know that she took a close interest in the fledgling organization, her patronage was likely unofficial as she and her husband returned to Britain just a few days after the first regular meeting of the Society.
For certain, Lady Minto, the wife of the 4th Earl of Minto who succeeded Lord Aberdeen, consented to become the patron of the Society in February 1899. For more than fifty years, the wives of succeeding Governors General continued this practice. In more recent decades, Governors General themselves have fulfilled this role, continuing a tradition of more than a hundred and twenty years of vice-regal patronage.
(Drawn from Mullington, Dave, 2013. “To Be Continued…A Short History of the Historical Society of Ottawa,” HSO Publication No. 88.)
The ladies agreed to form the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa. As reported by the Ottawa Journal, they hoped “to resurrect from oblivion things of interest to every patriot Canadian woman, and preserve such things that are already treasures.”On June 3, 1898, thirty-one Ottawa women, united by a desire to preserve and conserve Canada’s historical heritage, assembled in the drawing room of the Speaker of the House of Commons located in the old Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Chairing the meeting was the prominent author and early feminist Lady Matilda Edgar (née Ridout) wife of Sir James Edgar, the Speaker. The cream of Ottawa society attended the meeting, including Lady Zoë Laurier, the wife of the then Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mrs Adeline Foster, the wife of the prominent Conservative politician Mr (later Sir) George Eulas Foster, and Mrs Margaret Ahearn, the spouse of Mr Thomas Ahearn, the famous Ottawa-born inventor and businessman.
Under its original 1898 Constitution, the objective of the Society was to encourage “the study of Canadian History and Literature, the collection and preservation of Canadian historical records and relics, and the fostering of Canadian loyalty and patriotism.” The Constitution also stressed that “neither political parties nor religious denominations” would be recognized. Adeline Foster was elected as the Society’s first president. Lady Aberdeen (née Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks), the wife of the Governor General, consented to be the Society’s patron, thereby establishing a link to Rideau Hall that continues to this very day. The annual membership fee was set at fifty cents. Initially, the Society was a women-only organization, though men sometimes participated as honorary members. This situation continued until 1955, when men were allowed to join the Society as full members.
During the early years of the Society’s history, particular attention was paid to the collection and preservation of important artifacts and historical documents. The Society put on its first exhibition of historical objects in 1899. This collection, which was to expand greatly over the coming decades, went on permanent display with the opening in 1917 of the Bytown Historical Museum, located in the old Registry Office on Nicholas Street. The museum was staffed and operated by Society volunteers. Other activities included regular lectures and the publication of historical research. The Society was also instrumental in the erection of the statue of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain at Nepean Point in 1915. To celebrate Ottawa’s centenary in 1926, the Society unveiled a memorial to Lieutenant-Colonel John By, the Royal Engineer responsible for the construction of the Rideau Canal, and the founder of Bytown. A replica of his house, which had been destroyed by fire years earlier, was also built at Major’s Hill Park.
During the lean years of the Great Depression, the Society was forced to tailor its activities to suit the straitened financial circumstances. Its publications were cut back, and a ten cent fee began to be charged for museum entry. In 1930, the annual membership fee was also increased to one dollar. Notwithstanding the difficult economic situation, the Society continued to flourish. Its collection of historical artifacts and books expanded. Meetings, historical outings, and presentations were held regularly. In 1937, the Society was officially incorporated by the Province of Ontario. With the outbreak of World War II, Society activity slowed to allow members more time to support the war effort. The museum was closed for the duration. Nonetheless, membership meetings continued to be held, and the Society’s collection of antiquities grew through donation. Members also raised money for deserving wartime causes.
Following the conclusion of the war, Society activities picked up. Particular attention was paid to finding a new home for the organization’s growing collection of historical artifacts and books; the old Registry Building was no longer adequate. In 1951, the Society leased premises from the federal government for a nominal fee in the Commissariat building adjacent to the Rideau Canal locks. The building, the oldest stone structure in Ottawa, was built by Scottish stonemasons hired by Colonel By during the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s. Unfortunately, it was in a poor state of repairs; the building’s restoration and renovation occupied a considerable portion of the Society’s time, effort, and resources over coming years.
In 1955, there was a dramatic shift in the life of the Society. After vigorous debate, men were permitted to become full members of the Society in order to build a broader and stronger organization. The following year, the Society’s new name—the Historical Society of Ottawa—was officially adopted to reflect that change. Mr H. Townley Douglas, who had been previously active as an honorary member was elected as the Society’s first male director.
While the Bytown museum remained at the centre of the Society’s activities, the 1960s, under the leadership of Dr Bertram McKay, saw the HSO working hard for the erection of a statue in honour of Colonel By. Although Ottawa’s mayor at the time, Dr Charlotte Whitton, and City Council were supportive, it was up to the Historical Society to come up with the necessary funds. Raising $36,500 by 1969 (equivalent to more than $233,000 in today’s money), the Society hired the Quebec-born sculptor Joseph-Émile Brunet. On August 14, 1971, Governor General Roland Michener unveiled the bronze statue of Colonel By in Major’s Hill Park. Fittingly, the statue overlooked the Rideau Canal, itself a lasting memorial to the Colonel’s engineering abilities.
In 1981, the Society took a new step in its effort to increase public awareness of Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley’s rich history with the launch of a pamphlet series dedicated to that purpose. Its first publication was titled John Burrows and Others on the Rideau Waterway by a former Society president Charles Surtees. The pamphlet series continues to be an important feature of the Society’s efforts to increase public awareness about the history of Ottawa.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the museum became an increasing preoccupation and concern for Society members. Forced to relocate temporarily due to restoration work conducted by the federal government at the Commissariat building and Rideau locks, attendance plummeted. Even when the Bytown Museum reopened at the Commissariat Building, the number of visitors was subsequently adversely affected by the reconstruction of Plaza Bridge. Declining membership, fewer volunteers, and rising costs owing to inflation also strained the Society’s ability to sustain the Museum in the manner it deserved. After considerable soul searching and debate, the difficult decision was made in 2003 to transfer the Bytown Museum to a separate not-for-profit organization. Roughly half of the artifacts and rare books collected over more than a century were loaned to the Museum; the loan became a permanent gift two years later. Considerable funds were also transferred to the new Museum Board to help launch the new organization.
Although now legally separate from the Historical Society of Ottawa, the Museum and the Society continue to cooperate closely. Over the following years, the Society transferred its remaining collection of items to other heritage organizations, most importantly the City of Ottawa Archives. A large collection of military medals was also offered to Canadian museums. Those medals that could not be placed were subsequently sold. In 2011, the proceeds of the sale helped to launch the Historical Society of Ottawa’s Research and Development Fund to support research into Ottawa’s history.
In 2013, the Society reviewed and approved revised “purposes and objectives” (Article 2 of its Constitution) in light of the many changes to the organization in recent years. Remaining true to the spirit of its founding members, the Society remains focused on increasing public awareness and knowledge of the history of Ottawa, the surrounding region, and their peoples. In cooperation with other heritage organizations, it also works to conserve archival materials, supports and encourages heritage conservation, and preserves the memory of Colonel By.