In late November 2019, I was very fortunate to join the Official Canadian delegation to Italy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Canada’s role in the Italian Campaign during World War II. My father had died earlier in the month at the age of 99 and I was to accompany him there.
As my schedule was free, I offered to go and help with other old soldiers. I certainly knew how to do that as I had accompanied my father to Italy twice before and once to Holland at similar commemorations.
As the time to travel grew closer, I began to pay closer attention to the schedule of events. I noticed that we would be accompanied by Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAuley and Governor General Julie Payette. I was especially encouraged that we would be accompanied by the Governor General but I was nervous as I had read several media reports critical of her in her transition from astronaut- scientist to the largely ceremonial role of Governor General.
A Globe and Mail passage from Fall 2018 was typical:
“So many hands to shake; all those twee costumes and boring ceremonies; not being able to say what you think. Sure, the perks are nice; the argument goes, but what about the tradeoffs? The phrase “gilded cage” gets thrown around.
That’s certainly one way to make sense of Ms. Payette’s puzzling performance in the past 12 months as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Her missteps have led to a series of articles in this newspaper and others depicting a GG struggling to fulfill some of her most basic duties.”
I began to speculate about the many ways in which our visit could be diminished by missteps and puzzling performances. After all, at the 60th anniversary celebrations in 2004, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s speeches were fabulous. They were thoughtful and rich with a deep understanding of the complexities and sacrifice of war. Whether at Cassino or Cesena, Clarkson performed beautifully, her manner deft and experienced, her turns of phrase nuanced.
She was complemented by Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guanieri whose Italian heritage and fluency in the mother tongue of her father assisted greatly in performing her duties.
At the 70th anniversary celebrations in 2014, Governor General David Johnston was not able to attend but Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino accompanied the delegation for much of its journey. Minister Fantino has been, at times, a controversial figure in Canadian politics but as the senior representative of Canada in 2014, his presence and his performance in Italy were first rate.
Minister Fantino had the natural advantages of knowing the terrain. He was a young boy in Italy when the war raged. He speaks fluent Italian. He knows the immeasurable sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers to free his childhood homeland and he performed magnificently. His speech in Rimini in late 2014 at the ceremony and Service that took place on a rainy morning was filled with emotion and candor. It both suited and rose above the occasion in every conceivable way.
Now we were to embark on a journey to Italy with some very aged soldiers, a Minister who, unlike two of his predecessors, did not have the advantage of an Italian heritage and a Governor General who, from all reports, was having difficulty in becoming comfortable in her role. I was looking forward to the trip with some trepidation.
But my purpose in writing is to report that the performance of our Governor General was spectacular. If any of the earlier news reports had a grain of truth, then they are now simply ‘old news’.
If she has any discomfort in her role, it was utterly absent during the long days that she spent at each and every event in Italy. And she stayed for them all. The only day she missed was the last one and she had an excuse. She was back in Ottawa to read the Speech from the Throne to inaugurate the plans of Canada’s new government.
Whether it was in Cassino, in Ortona or Ravenna, her performances were superb. She visited with every single veteran over and again, taking the time to both listen and laugh with each of them as they recalled their lighter experiences of wartime, the ones more easily remembered.
She moved without hesitation between the three languages of our visit: Italian, English and French; comfortable and fluent in all three. Her speeches were both moving and informative with just the right hint of sentimentality when she recalled meeting Italian schoolgirls during her time as a student.
As a veteran herself, she understood fully Canada’s role in Italy and graciously accepted on Canada’s behalf the mellifluous thank you’s of very elderly Italians who awoke to freedom in 1943 and 1944 in the form of a young Canadian soldier’s grin. They talked of their surprise at the nationality of their liberators: Canadians? Why are Canadians here to help us?
Our journey moved towards its close in Ravenna where we attended ceremonies 75 years to the day after Canadian soldiers marched through the streets of the City that had been abandoned by its captors just a day or two earlier. Mme. Payette once again both rose to the occasion and surpassed it. By now, I had learned to revel in the calm and purposeful execution of her performances.
So many children and so many dignitaries, all who had never heard her speak before, understood quickly that they were standing before not just a leader but before a very special human being. I thought of my earlier sense of trepidation entirely manufactured by my own flawed interpretation of media reports. I should have been smarter and known better.
In closing, I want to relate a small vignette from the morning of November 30 2019 in the town square at Pontecorvo, just a few kilometres from Monte Cassino with its beautiful views of the Liri Valley and the road to Rome.
As I wheeled 94 year old Canadian Navy Veteran Don Stewart to the front of the area where a ceremony would take place, I listened as aides said that the Governor General would be available for photos with her. As she approached, I stepped out of the way so that the photo opportunity could take place. Her Excellency saw me backing away and approached me (correctly guessing) and asking in English:
“Don’t you want to be in the photo?”
I nodded and she quickly walked up beside me, put her left arm around my waist and placed her right hand on Don’s shoulder, looked up to the photographer and said: “I’m ready”.