History

A Refugee’s Life

Adrienne Clarkson

by Adrienne Clarkson

I
When it was announced that I would become Governor General of Canada in October of 1999, the shock was, I think, cushioned by the usual Canadian phlegmatic acceptance of whatever can come to you in a country with four distinct seasons and temperature variations on a spectrum of 70 degrees. The fact that a woman of Chinese origin who had been a refugee at the age of two and a half should be appointed the representative of the Crown and the ultimate authority in the parliamentary democracy – whose roots went back to the Magna Carta of the thirteenth century – simply did not register as seismic. However, deep underground I think there were volcanic eruptions which continue to this day. My life story leaves no one indifferent.

On the surface of it, Canada is a country which has accepted everything and changed much: a small white place with white bread and mostly white people at the time my family arrived, in my lifetime it has become a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that held on to parliamentary democracy, common law, and a composed equanimity albeit somewhat sullen.

I am now entering the ninth decade of my life, having just turned 80 years old. The course of ‘my times’ has seen the most interesting movement of populations that the world has ever seen – of which I was a part – and my own fate was vitally involved in the second of the World Wars which took place in the twentieth century. I have lived a life that started with me as the ultimate outsider –a refugee and a stateless person – and I finish my life with the resounding title of ‘Right Honourable’ which is only accorded to very few who have been Governors General, Prime Ministers, and Chief Justices of Canada. I have no clear answers to explain what has happened from 1939–2019, but I can reflect on the trajectory of my own life, and how it fit into these years of conflicting ideologies, staggering advances in technology, and the two-steps-forward one-step-backward progress of feminism.

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