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(Originally Published Sept. 23, 2004)

Clarkson Embarrasses Herself in Vancouver

But she can recover if she takes action

It was everybody else who was not amused.

Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson's tour of Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside earlier this week was an embarrassing and undignified display; it also underscored the sorry trip Clarkson has been taking down that road paved with good intentions.

Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson reviewing
Canadian troops in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, 2003
(Photo: MCpl. Brian G. Walsh)

Canadians woke up Wednesday to photos of the Queen's representative in this country peering down at a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk. Clarkson defended the visit to one of Canada's seediest neighbourhoods by saying it was "what the Governor-General should be doing, being with people. No matter who they are. No matter what they do. And living and witnessing what their lives are."

That may be so. But what exactly did she learn by peering at the homeless the way you might look at caged animals at the zoo? And what is the difference between what she saw on one visit and what many hundreds of thousands of Canadians see every day on the streets of all our biggest cities? Your excellency, we know there is poverty and homelessness here. We see it every day, too.

There were mighty expectations when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed the former journalist and diplomat to the post five years ago. Since then, those hopes have turned to disappointment. Her notorious circumpolar "northern identity" tour of Russia, Finland and Iceland last year in the company of some 50 prominent Canadians aroused a furore because of its cost.

It is easy to dismiss this Governor-General as irrelevant; the only public attention she seems to attract is negative. But those missteps obscure an ambitious effort -- one that has failed -- to make the office more relevant than it has been.

Governors-General usually fill their calendar with prosaic events -- a flower show, a citizenship swearing-in, the handing out of bravery and literary awards. Clarkson has tried something different.

The circumpolar trip is a case in point. Nothing riles Canadians like the idea that someone is living high off the hog, especially on their nickel. The clamour grew loudest 20 years ago when the costs of then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's foreign trips were dissected and he was found to have stayed at the best hotels abroad.

"I'm the Prime Minister of Canada," he replied, not unreasonably. "Where would you have me stay? The 'Y'?"

That trip to the other cold countries was, if nothing else, a great idea. We do have much in common with Russia, Finland and Iceland. Yet we don't know them very well and they don't know us. It was an interesting idea to bring some of our most accomplished citizens on a tour headed up by our country's head of state. The execution, though, was deeply flawed. It was difficult to see what, exactly, this multitude of ambassadors accomplished on the visit. And Clarkson failed miserably to defend the tour properly, leaving the impression that she was unable to refute the criticisms.

Now she's looking at poverty. Does anyone remember her predecessors touring soup kitchens and slums? They didn't. But here, too, she's not likely to turn this into a triumph.

She could salvage her good name, and preserve the office from irrelevance, by using the Vancouver tour as a starting point to engage Canadians -- and their governments -- on the issue of poverty. Is she ready to go beyond the concerned look in those photos to the loud proclamation that it is unacceptable for Canadians to sleep on the street?

In the end, Clarkson may not have a chance to redeem herself. Her five-year term is up in October. It's not unheard of for G-Gs to be reappointed to a second term. But it's not likely the Prime Minister will endorse this particular appointment of his predecessor.

That's really too bad. Because Clarkson's predecessor will likely take us back to flower shows and award presentations.

Email to joel@joelruimy.com

Copyright © 2004 Joel Ruimy

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