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Thursday June 25, 2009

'He was a very bright, but very humble man who was indeed a man of the people'

Canada's first Acadian governor-general, Roméo LeBlanc, prided himself on being a man of the people. His tenure, which included the perilously close Quebec referendum in 1995 and the creation of Nunavut in 1999, was low-key, affable and largely harmonious.

"Very few of us in this country share the same past, but all of us can share the same future. Especially if we refuse to permit the past to poison that future," he said at his installation as Canada's 25th governor-general on Feb. 8, 1995.

"If I am to be known for anything as governor-general, I would like it to be for encouraging Canadians, for knowing a little bit about their daily, extraordinary courage. And for wanting that courage to be recognized."

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, the man who advised the Queen to appoint Mr. LeBlanc to the post, said yesterday: "It was a good occasion to name someone who was francophone but who was outside of Quebec. And he was a very respected minister and respected by everybody. He spoke his mind but he never lost his temper. He had a very solid personality and remained close to people all his life."

Marc Lalonde, an old friend and cabinet colleague, said: "He never got into the concept of grandeur. He was a very bright, but very humble man who was indeed a man of the people."

Adrienne Clarkson, who succeeded Mr. LeBlanc at Rideau Hall, described him as "a man of great depth: seemingly casual but with great knowledge and experience behind the jovial exterior. We shared a background with the CBC and I always thought of him as a friend."

In an e-mail message from France, the former governor-general said: "One of the most important things he did was instituting the Governor General's Award for Caring Canadians - an award for the unsung heroes who volunteer their time all across the country to help others. He deeply appreciated that and it is his great legacy."

Nevertheless, the vice-regal appointment of the former Liberal cabinet minister, a little more than a year after he had helped orchestrate Mr. Chrétien's first landslide election victory in September, 1993, was controversial.

Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party, and Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois, condemned it as a patronage reward. Both men refused to attend Mr. LeBlanc's swearing in.

On the contrary, said Mr. Lalonde, the appointment was a "mark of recognition for the vitality and the persistence of the Acadians," while sending "a message to French-speaking Quebeckers that you have brothers elsewhere who deserve your support and whom you may need."

Nothing epitomized Mr. LeBlanc's folksy style more than his decision to tame the vice-regal flag by defanging, declawing, de-frowning and neutering the ferocious male lion with the roiling tongue.

He ordered the Canadian Heraldic Authority to transform the king of beasts into a bland, tongue in cheek, "Canadian" creature.

His successor, Ms. Clarkson, wasted no time in ordering the changes undone after she was installed as governor-general in October, 1999.

Other LeBlanc innovations have fared better. During his nearly five years at Rideau Hall, he dedicated himself to voluntarism and promoted awareness of our history, the stature of aboriginal peoples and the military.

A poor farm boy, who was the only member of his family to go beyond Grade 8 in school, Mr. LeBlanc began his working career as a teacher and a journalist and segued into politics as press secretary to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau when they were successively prime minister of Canada.

"I've known him since we were 20 years old," said Mr. Lalonde, who met Mr. LeBlanc when they were associated with the religious youth group Jeunesse étudiante catholique in 1948.

It was Mr. Lalonde, who was working in the Pearson PMO as a policy adviser, who proposed Mr. LeBlanc when the prime minister was looking for a new bilingual press secretary.

"He had a good sense of politics and media relations and when Mr. Trudeau was elected [leader of the party] and I became his principal secretary, I wanted to keep Roméo and he agreed to do so and the rest is history.

"He turned out to be a very effective politician and a very good one. He was unflappable and a pleasure to work with as a colleague either in the PMO or the cabinet. He had no enemies that I knew of, while I am sure I had a lot," said Mr. Lalonde.

It was a measure of Mr. LeBlanc's equanimity that he and Mr. Trudeau, although seemingly disparate as individuals, became lifelong friends. In fact, Mr. Trudeau's last trip before his death on Sept. 28, 2000, was a four-day fishing holiday with his son Sacha, and Mr. LeBlanc and his son Dominic at a secluded hunting lodge on the Miramichi.

Mr. LeBlanc first ran for the Liberals in 1972 in Westmoreland Kent (now Beauséjour). He held a variety of cabinet posts in the Trudeau era, but he was best known as Canada's longest-serving fisheries minister.

He imposed the 200-mile coastal fishing ban on foreign trawlers, expanded the salmon fishery on the West Coast, generally gave small operators a louder voice in fishery management and played a dominant role in the Law of the Sea conferences in the 1970s.

"His contribution to public life was immense," said Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance, because he represented the basic elements of this country, "whether it was English/French, urban/ rural, the working poor."

He remained loyal to a simple, coherent belief that these elements mattered, whether he was "a backbencher, a cabinet minister or the governor-general," Prof. Savoie said.

"That was Roméo. It defined him and because it defined him, it defined what he stood for and the policies he promoted, not always to the liking of the Ottawa system."

Roméo-Adrian LeBlanc, the youngest of eight children, was born near Shediac, N.B., two years before the stock market crash that heralded the Depression. His Acadian ancestors had been expelled by the British in 1755, but by 1770, some of them had trickled back.

His father, Phillias LeBlanc was a farmer and a mechanic at the CNR railway yards in Moncton. Mr. LeBlanc was only six when his mother died of a brain aneurysm. He went to a one-room schoolhouse and then attended Collège St-Joseph (now the University of Moncton).

Two of his older sisters, who were working as maids in Boston, sent money home to pay his tuition, which his father augmented by cutting and delivering firewood to the college priests. Mr. LeBlanc repaid this loving debt several times over when his older siblings and their families needed his help in later years.

After graduating with a bachelor of arts in 1948 and education in 1951, he taught high school for two years and then won a scholarship to the Université de Paris.

From there he wanted to study law at McGill University, but his family needed him, so instead, he taught at the New Brunswick Teachers' College in Fredericton from 1955 to 1959.

He switched to journalism in 1960 when he was hired by Radio-Canada and spent the next several years working for the francophone network. In 1966, while posted to Washington, he married Joclyn (Lyn) Carter. Their son Dominic was born in Ottawa on Dec. 14, 1967, the day Mr. Pearson announced his resignation as prime minister. Mr. LeBlanc, who was by then Mr. Pearson's press secretary, rushed from the news conference to the maternity hospital.

After weathering the October Crisis with Mr. Trudeau, he resigned as the prime minister's press secretary in 1971 and went back to New Brunswick, as assistant to the president and director of public relations at the U. of M. The following year he ran for Parliament, winning the riding of Westmoreland-Kent for the Liberals in 1972. About five weeks later, his daughter Geneviève - now a civil servant in Ottawa - was born on Dec. 6, 1972.

When Mr. Trudeau made him minister of fisheries in 1974, he said he wanted to be for fishermen what Eugene Whelan, the minister of agriculture, was for farmers.

In one of his last appointments before leaving office, Mr. Trudeau named Mr. LeBlanc to the Senate in 1984, a position he held for the next decade. When Mr. Chrétien became prime minister in 1993, he made Mr. LeBlanc Speaker of the Senate and the following year, the Queen took Mr. Chrétien's advice and made his old friend and political crony her governor-general.

The LeBlancs separated in 1981, with Dominic living with his father and Geneviève with her mother in Ottawa. "He was the only parental figure I had. He never pushed me to run for office," said Dominic, who now represents his father's old riding. "He was at least as excited when I got my law degree and then a master's in law from Harvard."

In the early 1990s, Mr. Leblanc began a serious relationship with Diana Fowler, sister of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. They had met in London in the early 1960s when they were broadcast journalists for the French and English branches of the CBC. Late in 1994, on the eve of Mr. LeBlanc's appointment to succeed Ray Hnatyshyn, the couple quietly married.

As governor-general, Mr. LeBlanc was criticized for rarely travelling to the western provinces, but he did make a particular effort to bring a refreshed federalism to Quebec communities after 1995 referendum. He also made Rideau Hall and the office of the governor-general more accessible to Canadians by moving the annual New Year's Levée around the country and improving access to Rideau Hall and its grounds.

After hosting the eighth Francophonie summit in Moncton in 1999 and squiring French president Jacques Chirac around his Acadian birthplace, Mr. LeBlanc retired early, citing fatigue.

He had received diplomats from 150 countries, pinned the Order of Canada on nearly 700 recipients, entertained close to 70,000 guests, delivered some 900 speeches and embarked on nine foreign trips.

Following a ceremonial and an emotional send-off from Mr. Chrétien and his wife Aline and several Liberal cabinet ministers, a final inspection of the Governor-General's Foot Guards and the Canada Grenadier Guards, Mr. LeBlanc and his wife returned to Moncton by train, although she has spent increasing amounts of time in Montreal.

"I'm looking forward to doing nothing at all," Mr. LeBlanc told the throng of 200 well-wishers who welcomed him home. That wasn't exactly true, as he served as chancellor of the University of Moncton for the next two years.

By then, he was long since deaf in his right ear and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He spent the last few years living with 24-hour care in the modified family cottage on the Northumberland Strait.

"He never, ever lost his roots, and he loved the part of the world that he came from ... a small place at the end of nowhere for a former governor-general, but he just loved it," said Mr. Lalonde.

Roméo LeBlanc

Roméo LeBlanc was born in Memramcook, N.B., on Dec. 18, 1927. He died of Alzheimer's disease in Grande-Digue, N.B., on June 24, 2009. Mr. LeBlanc, who was 81, leaves his wife Diana, son Dominic, daughter Geneviève, step-grandson Selby Evans, one sister and many nieces and nephews.

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