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Remember This? The passing of Lord Tweedsmuir

He was the first Governor General to be appointed after the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 that effectively gave Canada its independence from Great Britain.
Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, 1935.

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.

Since Confederation in 1867, 30 individuals have held the position as Governor General—the Monarch’s representative in Canada. 

Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s Governor General from 1935 to his death in 1940, is also worthy of remembrance. Scottish by birth, Tweedsmuir is perhaps better known as John Buchan, the novelist. He was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield by George V on his appointment in 1935 as Canada’s Governor General. Buchan was the author of more than 100 fiction and non-fiction works, the most famous of which is 'The Thirty Nine Steps', a novel about a German spy ring in Britain at the outset of the Great War that he wrote in 1914. In 1935, the book was made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It has been remade at least twice, the latest in 2008 for television by the BBC. Tweedsmuir is considered by many to be the father of the modern spy thriller.  While he was Governor General, he somehow found the time to write three books—the novel 'The Island of Sheep', a biography of the Roman Emperor Augustus, the manuscript of which is housed at McGill University, and his memoirs, which were published posthumously.

Tweedsmuir was passionate about Canada, and all things Canadian. In turn, he was much loved by Canadians across the country. He was the first Governor General to be appointed after the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 that effectively gave Canada its independence from Great Britain. Reflecting Canada’s changed status, he was made Governor General by King George V on the advice of the Canadian Government of R.B. Bennett rather than by the British Government. A staunch supporter of Canada’s new autonomy, he was keen to foster the development of a distinct Canadian nationalism at a time when many in Canada still looked first to Britain for leadership. He earned the ire of Canadian imperialists by insisting that the first loyalty of Canadians was to Canada and its King, rather than the British Empire. He was also the main promoter of a Royal Visit that saw King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth come to North America in 1939 not as King and Queen of Great Britain but as King and Queen of Canada.

He also worked hard to foster Canadian unity, travelling extensively across the country. In one trip in 1937, he journeyed more than 12,000 miles, visiting people in every part of Canada, including the far north, a part of the country that entranced him. Instead of the elites, Tweedsmuir met with ordinary Canadian citizens of all backgrounds; he was an ardent supporter of Canadian multiculturalism. Reflecting his love of literature, he established in 1936, with the encouragement of his wife, the Governor-General’s Awards for literature, creating awards for the best English fiction and non-fiction writing. The awards subsequently expanded to cover seven categories, including poetry, drama, translation, and children’s literature (text and illustration) in both official languages.

Sadly, Tweedsmuir died a relatively early age of 64. At about 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 1940, he “took a weak turn,” and fell heavily in his bathroom at Rideau Hall. He hit his head against the edge of the bathtub, and suffered a concussion. Initial press releases regarding his health were upbeat. Four physicians, two of whom were specialists from the Montreal Neurological Institute, reported a “steady improvement” in Tweedsmuir’s condition. They also stated that he was resting comfortably, and that he was conscious. In reality, however, Tweedsmuir’s condition was grave. Even prior to his fall, he had been in frail health. He had gone to New York the previous autumn for a complete medical, and had declined an offered extension of his term as Governor General on health grounds. The evening after his fall, Prime Minister Makenzie King went to Rideau Hall to check personally on the Governor General’s condition. Although King spoke to the doctors, he was not permitted to see Tweedsmuir. The Governor General was put under 24-hour medical surveillance, with updates on his condition reported regularly to an anxious Canada. The telephone switchboard at Rideau Hall was manned around the clock. With his condition deteriorating, doctors performed an emergency trepanning operation on Tweedsmuir to reduce intracranial pressure.

On the Friday after his accident, he was taken to Montreal on a special three-car train, attended by five physicians. Arriving at Bonaventure Station, he was carried from the train on a stretcher, his head swathed in bandages, and driven by ambulance to the Montreal Neurological Institute. The entire fifth floor was set aside for him, his doctors, Lady Tweedsmuir and one of their sons, the Hon. Alastair Buchan.  The Neurological Institute, considered one of the finest in North America, was built in 1933, and was attached to the Royal Victorian Hospital. Dr Meakins, the Hospital’s chief physician, and Dr Wilder Penfield, Canada’s leading neurosurgeon, as well as Lieut.-Colonel Dr Russell, another neurosurgeon, performed a second trepanning operation on the fading Governor General. Briefly, he appeared to rally, but he suffered a relapse. After a third trepanning operation, which lasted four hours, Lord Tweedsmuir, died at 7.13 p.m. on Sunday Feb. 11, 1940. He had never fully regained consciousness. The proximate cause of death was a pulmonary embolism due to a clot that had formed in his leg. However, a post mortem revealed that he had suffered a stroke that had caused acute swelling of the right side of his brain. His left side has also been paralyzed.

News of his passing was taken hard by Canadians. Prime Minister King described Tweedsmuir as “Canada’s adopted son.” The Ottawa Citizen said that the Governor General had “won the hearts of every person in this great Dominion in an unbelievably short period of time.” The newspaper added that Tweedsmuir was “at once a statesman, an able administrator, a wise politician, a popular novelist, a scholarly biographer, a skilled historian, a clever soldier, and a masterful poet.”

A special funeral train brought Tweedsmuir’s body back to Ottawa, where it laid in state in the Senate chamber. His coffin was escorted to Parliament Hill by representatives of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the 4th Princess Louise Dragon Guards—the two household regiments. The closed casket was draped with the Union Jack. On top of it rested Tweedsmuir’s official Governor General’s hat and sword. At one end laid his medals and honours on a black satin cloth. A wreath of carnations from his wife rested at the foot of the bier. Officers of the Governor General Foot Guards and the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, with their head bowed and their swords reversed, provided a ceremonial guard. Over fourteen thousand men, women and children solemnly filed past his bier in two lines to pay their last respects during the short public visiting period. Many were kept waiting outside in sub-zero temperatures for a chance to enter the Centre Block.

On Feb. 14, just over a week after his collapse at Rideau Hall, Tweedsmuir was given a state funeral at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Wellington Street. Three thousand servicemen lined the route of the funeral cortege. His coffin was brought to the church from Parliament Hill by car. After the service, it was conveyed to Union Station on a naval gun carriage pulled by 60 ratings from the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. The chimes on the Peace Tower were muffled. Some 50,000 people packed every inch of the short route to the train station—a solemn counterpoint to the joyous throngs that had filled Ottawa’s streets the previous year when the King and Queen had visited the capital. Millions more listened to the funeral service broadcasted over CBC radio. Schools across Canada were closed to permit children to attend memorial services. Provincial legislatures closed, while municipal governments held remembrance services. Even Mammon took notice of Tweedsmuir’s passing, with the Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver Stock Exchanges either closing early or pausing for two minutes of silence.

Following the ceremony, Lord Tweedsmuir’s body was conveyed to Montreal for cremation. His ashes were returned to the United Kingdom, and buried in accordance with his wishes in Elsfield Church in Oxfordshire, England. Until the arrival of the Earl of Athlone, Tweedsmuir’s successor, some months later, Sir Lyman Duff, Canada’s Chief Justice, fulfilled the duties of the Governor General as Canada’s “Administrator.”

Today, Tweedsmuir is remembered in Canada by a provincial park in British Columbia, the John Buchan Senior Public School in Toronto, and streets named in his honour across the country. In Scotland, his life and works are kept alive by the John Buchan Society and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles. In 2015, he was named one of fifty Scottish heroes who changed the world.

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