POLITICS

Selection came out of the blue for Ontario's new lieutenant-governor

09/29/2014 01:29 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Elizabeth Dowdeswell was working at home one day in January when she received a call out of the blue and was told she was in the running to be the Queen's next representative in Ontario.

A woman with a long list of accomplishments and history of public service, Dowdeswell was nevertheless surprised, and has no idea how her name was first raised as a possible choice for the next lieutenant-governor of the province.

"I received a phone call from a member of the vice-regal search committee, which I didn't know existed," Dowdeswell says.

"The question really was: 'Is there any reason your name shouldn't be on the list?' I said, 'No.' I said, 'I'm very honoured.' That was the farthest thing from my mind. It certainly wasn't on my radar screen."

Eight months after that phone call, Dowdeswell was sworn in as Ontario's 29th lieutenant-governor. A few days removed from the pomp and circumstance of her "overwhelming" investiture ceremony last week, Dowdeswell took a break from work in her new office — and a break from her "first coffee of the morning" in a Keep Calm and Carry On mug — to talk about her new role.

Unlike her most recent predecessors, Dowdeswell did not declare as she was sworn in which causes she would champion during her term. She has many interests, Dowdeswell says, so instead she wants to hear from diverse groups of Ontarians.

"I've worked in culture and the arts, in education, science and technology, innovation, the whole realm of things," she says. "I've always learned that it's wise to listen first before coming in and saying, 'I'm going to do this' or 'I'm going to do that.'"

Dowdeswell, who has served as undersecretary general of the United Nations, has a broad range of experience in Canada and internationally, including positions as deputy minister of culture and youth in Saskatchewan, former assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada and was the first woman to head the UN Environment Program.

After working internationally, friends asked her if there were no constraints, where would she settle down, and she said she would choose downtown Toronto, Dowdeswell says.

"It's like a microcosm of the rest of the world," she says. "You can slip in and out of various neighbourhoods and they all feel like home."

The location also allows Dowdeswell to bask in the arts, one of her passions, she says. She loves the symphony, the opera, the visual arts, and reading everything from books that will ensure she is well-read as lieutenant-governor to mysteries.

If her first few days on the job are any indication there will be little spare time, Dowdeswell says, but her creativity comes out in the form of sewing. She still makes her own clothes. In fact, her creations — a black collarless jacket and patterned skirt — were on display as she spoke at a news conference in June after she was announced as the next lieutenant-governor.

Born in Northern Ireland, the 69-year-old moved to rural Saskatchewan with her large family as a child.

Dowdeswell started as a home economics teacher and moved up to deputy minister of culture and youth. She was president and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies when her appointment was announced. Prior to that she was the founding president and CEO of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Dowdeswell was appointed as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2012 and received a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in the same year.