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Weekly Ponderings: People brought character and culture to Peace River – part 89

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We’ve learned, during the June 1939 visit of King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth, Peace Riverites of all ages traveled to Edmonton, by all means possible – cars, trucks, planes, and a special train with day coaches and pullmans for the lengthy journey. Prior to the royal visit, the Northern Gazette offered school students a contest in which they could express their reason for wanting to attend the visit.

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As it turned out, the town of Peace River and its neighbors were well represented along the royal parade route. On their return, travelers had many stories to tell. Some storytellers were almost too hoarse from cheering to muster the voice to tell of their experiences – many having seen and cheered Their Majesties more than once along the parade route – then, they were on their way.

The Record reported: “As the Royal Train drew away into the darkening night – the whole day’s event was a scene and a demonstration to fan into flame the tiniest spark of loyalty that anyone may have possessed and to bring to the people of Alberta, as never before, the full realization of the loyal and patriotic devotion of Western Canada as a whole.”

In the June 9, 1939, edition of the Northern Gazette, was a Message of Loyalty sent to the King and Queen on their visit to Edmonton, by Mayor Dr. FH Sutherland on behalf of Town of Peace River, through Lieutenant Governor Bowen, which ended “Long May They Reign”. To which, on their behalf, Their Majesties’ private secretary replied: “The King and Queen sincerely thank the citizens of Peace River for their kind message and good wishes.”

Once the King and Queen were safely back in Ottawa and England, one can rightly assume Lord Tweedsmuir heaved a huge sigh of relief. After all, he was a significant contributor to their Canadian coast-to-coast visit with a side trip to the United States capital for a state visit with President Franklin D. Rooseveldt, “calculated to shore up sympathy for Britain in anticipation of hostilities with Nazi Germany”, a threat of the Second World War to lives, including Their Majesties’, that loomed throughout their visit to Canada and the United States.

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Tweedsmuir’s Governor General’s duties continued and were amplified throughout their visit, summarized in earnest after their departure. These tasks he took on although exhausted from the preparation of and concerns during and following the royal visit. Although Buchan’s experience during the First World War “made him averse to conflict”, he tried to help prevent another war in co-ordination with Mackenzie King and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “He, however, found it necessary to authorize Canada’s declaration of war against Germany in September [9,1939]shortly after the British declaration of war and with the consent of King George, and thereafter issued orders of deployment for Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen as the titular commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces.”

In his book The King’s Grace, Buchan wrote: “The power of the throne lies in what it is: but the authority of the King lies both in what he is, and in what he has done. Some suggest this is true of a Governor General.”

As to be expected, his duties continued as his five-year tenure as Governor General wound down. However, at Rideau Hall, while shaving the morning of Tuesday, February 6, 1940, he felt faint, fell, and hit his head on the bathtub. He was attended by four physicians, two of whom were specialists from Montreal Neurological Institute. Initial diagnosis – cerebral thrombosis – stroke, and concussion and brain swelling.

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“Initial press releases regarding his health were upbeat.” The doctors reported a ‘steady improvement’ in Tweedsmuir’s condition and said he was conscious and resting comfortably. However, Tweedsmuir’s condition was serious. “Even prior to his fall from him, he had been in frail health. In fact, he went to New York the previous autumn for a complete medical, after which, on health grounds, he declined an offered extension of his term as Governor General.”

Prime Minister Mackenzie King went to Rideau Hall to personally check on Tweedsmuir, who was on round-the-clock surveillance. King was not allowed to see him and could only speak to the doctors. Updates on his condition were “regularly reported to an anxious Canada”, while “Rideau Hall switchboard was manned around the clock”.

As Tweedsmuir’s condition deteriorated, it became evident release of pressure on his brain was necessary – an emergency trepanning (boring of a hole in the skull) was performed. Since minimal, or no improvement was evident, he was transported from Rideau Hall to Montreal and the Neurological Institute for further emergency care.

From The Passing of Lord Tweedsmuir: “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 Honorable Alastair Buchan.

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“The Neurological Institute, considered one of the finest in North America, was built in 1933, and was attached to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Dr. Meakins, the hospital’s chief physician, and Dr. Wilder Penfield, Canada’s leading neurosurgeon, as well as Lt.-Col. 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 pm on Sunday, February 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, post-mortem revealed he had suffered a stroke that had caused acute swelling of the right side of his brain. His left side of him has also been paralyzed. ”

John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s 15th Governor General since 1867’s Canadian Confederation, was first Canadian Governor General to die in office since then.

Mackenzie King described him as “Canada’s adopted son.” King reflected the loss that all Canadians felt when he read the following words over the radio: “In passing of his Excellency, the people of Canada have lost one of the greatest and most revered of their Governors General, and a friend who, from the day of his arrival in this country, dedicated his life to their service.”

The Ottawa Citizen said the Governor General had “won the hearts of every person in the great Dominion in an unbelievably short period of time.” The newspaper added Tweedsmuir was “at once a statesman, and able administrator, a wise politician, a popular novelist, a scholarly biographer, a skilled historian, a clever soldier, and a masterful poet.”

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“I’ve always thought he should have been made a Canadian citizen, given that he rubber-stamped Canadian laws for years, including our declaration of war against Germany in 1939”, writes Robert Fulford, Canadian author, journalist, broadcaster, editor, and 1984 Order of Canada recipient. “In his last years of his, Lord Tweedsmuir made an impression on Ottawa as a vigorous and genial figure. He became, if not a citizen, at least a Canadian patriot. He argued for the 1939 cross-Canada royal tour of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, which turned out to be a great success. He tried to visit every corner of his assigned country and wrote a book based in Canada, Sick Heart River, about a winter in the Far North. It was published after his death. She [Susan}, along with John, instituted the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which are still our chief book prizes, and a totally appropriate legacy for a man of letters.”

More coming in next Ponderings.

Sources: Peace River Remembers, Jack Coulter, Frank Richardson; Turning the Pages of Time – History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts; Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Peace River Record-Gazette; Peace River Standard; Coots, Codgers and Curmudgeons – Hal C. Sisson and Dwayne W. Rowe; Edmonton Journal; Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; History Canada; Northern Gazette; Peace River Record; Northern Review; The Canadian Encyclopedia

Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.

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