THE BLOG

Happy Birthday to a Woman of Honour

10/03/2013 08:05 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Last July, I blogged about my work with First Nations in Ontario to honour the Crown's connections with Aboriginal Canadians and to bear witness to the people, their history, and their cultures.

I wrote about the Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal Summer Reading Camps and mentioned that, at the time, my wife Ruth Ann had just returned from visiting one of these summer camps at Eabametoong First Nation.

As always, she was excited and energized by all that she had shared and witnessed there. And I realized that, over the six years that I have been Lieutenant Governor, Ruth Ann had made 24 visits to Aboriginal communities.

When I first came into office, I pledged to continue the Aboriginal youth literacy initiatives of my predecessor the Hon. James K. Bartleman, but within a very short time, I discovered that I had a major problem.

The regions where these literacy initiatives are most needed -- home to communities where more than 90 per cent of students have little hope of graduating high school without significant help -- are also some of the most remote areas of Ontario. First Nations there are known as "fly-in" communities because they are accessible only by small aircraft during most of the year.

But until mid-2010, when a dedicated aircraft stair-climbing chair became available, small aircraft were inaccessible to me. And even after one was made accessible, I was severely limited in the trips I could make as the conditions in the fly-in communities were too rugged for my scooter to navigate. To put it bluntly: dilapidated infrastructure and third world living conditions do not an accessible community make!

I could have continued the Aboriginal literacy initiatives at a distance, but it would have been no different than sending a cheque. I knew it was vital for the success of the program that there be a personal connection between me, the Queen's representative, and the young people whose lives we hope to enhance.

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Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal Summer Reading Camps

And that is where my wife has made a significant contribution. In effect, Ruth Ann went North as my eyes and ears. As it turned out, she has also represented my heart. This I have learned from everybody who has encountered her unique warmth and empathy, not just from the camp counsellors and children, but also from the chiefs and elders who have invited her to visit and to witness events in their communities. And her musical talent has also been a precious boon on these trips: after reading to the children and discussing the pleasures of reading, Ruth Ann sings inspirational songs with them, which they really enjoy.

Mrs. Maryon Pearson, famously witty wife of Canada's 14th Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson, once said: "Behind every successful man, stands a surprised woman." Mrs. Pearson disliked politics and the demands public service placed on her husband and family.

I wish she could have met my wife.

Ruth Ann has been at my side throughout my term in office, and I have been blessed by her willingness to take on a large role. From the very first day I was approached to allow my name go forward for the position of Lieutenant Governor, she has been enthusiastic and supportive. Had Ruth Ann said no -- that such a role might put too much pressure on our family, that I would be walking away from a successful media career -- or put forward any one of a number of practical considerations, I would have let the opportunity pass.

However, true to her Biblical namesake Ruth, my wife's immediate response was one of whole-hearted support. And she made a conscious decision -- although it meant sacrificing her own growing success as a gospel singer -- to immerse herself in the role. She spent the next several months before my installation as Lieutenant Governor researching the history of the office, learning about the position and its demands and obligations, and she became a tremendous sounding board for my views on how I should fill the role.

In effect, she has doubled my efforts as Lieutenant Governor. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Aboriginal youth literacy program. Although she has frequently travelled North with Mr. Bartleman -- and on two occasions with Her Excellency Mrs. Sharon Johnston, the Governor General's wife -- I believe it is fair to say that Ruth Ann has single-handedly ensured a vibrant and caring viceregal presence in the North.

There are approximately 134 First Nations in Ontario. About half of Aboriginal people live in cities: some are part of an emerging middle class while others form a poor underclass. On reserves, conditions worsen as you move northwards into the vast area occupied by the Cree and Oji-Cree -- an area larger than Germany.

The Aboriginal people of this region are transitioning from their traditional hunting, gathering, and trapping society to our modern, globalized, wage-based economy. Their efforts are hampered by the weight of history and the shock of appalling poverty.

For most Ontarians, these communities in the far North of our province are out of sight and out of mind. So the importance of Ruth Ann's visits cannot be over-stressed. By carrying to the peoples of this region the message that we care for their young people, by honouring their history and cultures, and, most importantly, by transmitting what is witnessed to the larger public, she is performing an inestimable service to the office of the Lieutenant Governor and to the province of Ontario.

I am grateful that in May 1985 the decision was made to grant the title "Your Honour" to spouses of the sovereign's representatives. I love to hear Ruth Ann addressed thus because she so richly deserves to be honoured.

Despite all the trappings, the pomp and ceremony that surround the viceregal office, my wife cherishes, as I do, the immense privilege of having a role to play in the history of Ontario. And I believe her actions have caused many Aboriginal Ontarians to feel closer to this institution.

Today is my wife's birthday. I know my readers will forgive me for taking the opportunity afforded by this blog to thank Ruth Ann from the bottom of my heart for her love and support during this amazing passage in both our lives, and to publicly acknowledge the incredibly important contribution she has made to the Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal youth literacy initiative.

Happy birthday, Your Honour!