Originally Published in the National Post: Monday, March 05, 2007
Forty years ago today governor-general Georges Vanier died peacefully at Rideau Hall. It was a Sunday morning, just after the Sunday Mass in the chapel next to his bedroom, 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. His was an extraordinary life, so much so that when, in 1998, Maclean’s magazine selected the 100 Most Important Canadians in History, it put Georges Philias Vanier at the top of its list.
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 at the beginning of the centennial year 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 dominant figure in public life, he and his wife, Pauline, earned nothing but accolades for their sacrificial service (he was 71 upon assuming office).
Reading his addresses at a distance of 40 years, it is remarkable how fresh they are, and 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 21 years after Confederation, he qualified as a lawyer, and then was deeply engaged in Canada’s coming-of-age in World War One. He joined the famous “Van-Doos” 22nd Regiment at its creation in 1915, winning medals for his courage in battle. He was shot in the chest and both legs in 1918; his right leg had to be amputated.
After the war and his recovery, he married Pauline Archer in 1921. They had five children, including Jean Vanier, now 78, 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, Mme. Vanier left behind high society in Montreal, and lived the last 18 years of 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 war, 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 the Second World War. 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 â€“ a delicate task at the time. In 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker summoned him from retirement to serve as governor-general.
Heroic soldier, 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 â€“ can any other figure be so easily proposed as a model for Canadians today? Indeed at a time when Canadian soldiers are in battle again, when the question of nation(s)hood is on the federal 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. Yet aside from the schools and roads named after him, Canadians remain largely ignorant of both Georges Vanier and his equally impressive consort Pauline.
Herewith then a proposal on the 40th anniversary of his death. The custody of Vanier’s memory belongs to both the nation, whose vice-regal representative he was, and the Catholic Church, whose devoted disciple he was. For Canada’s “new” government, committed to military pride and recovering a sense of Canadian traditions and identity, a major effort should be made to put all the Vanier papers in order (there are some 130 boxes in the National Archives) and make them easily accessible online, collect testimonies from those still alive who knew them, and sponsor the symposia and seminars that would allow scholars and writers to produce biographies and films, and schoolteachers to highlight the Vaniers in their courses.
As for the Church, a major push is needed to promote the Vaniers as models of made-in-Canada holiness. For some 13 years, Ottawa priest Monsignor Roger Quesnel has done yeoman work, producing three volumes each on the spiritual lives of Georges and Pauline Vanier, some thousand pages based on archival material, letters and diaries, and interviews with those who knew them best. But Msgr. Quesnel, now in his eighties, has been working mostly alone, hoping that his labours would lay the foundation for a formal investigation that might lead to the Vaniers being declared saints by the Roman Catholic Church. That should be a high priority for the next archbishop of Ottawa (the incumbent retires in June).
Fiat Voluntas Dei (May God’s Will Be Done). That was the motto Georges Vanier chose for his coat-of-arms after his appointment was announced at a cabinet meeting in Halifax, presided over by a young Queen Elizabeth II. It was God’s will that he served his country with honour. The nation he not only served, but ennobled, should remember.
Â© National Post 2007