Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The office of governor-general of Canada was a colonial office, originally created to place ultimate executive power in the hands of a representative of the British home government. Vincent Massey was the first native Canadian to hold the office, bolstering Canadian nationalism and signaling the demise of the British imperial mentality.

Summary of Event

Vincent Massey’s appointment by the British crown, on February 28, 1952, as Canada’s first native-born governor-general honored a Canadian who had given distinguished service to both Canada and Great Britain and also recognized growing Canadian nationalism at the conclusion of World War II. By appointing a Canadian governor-general, the Crown looked to strengthen its ties to Canada by ending British overseas appointments that could be interpreted internationally as treating Commonwealth countries more as colonies than as equal partners. Nationalism;Canada Canada;governor-generalship[governor generalship] Postcolonialism;Canada [kw]Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General (Feb. 28, 1952) [kw]Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General, Massey Becomes (Feb. 28, 1952)[Canadas First Native Born Governor General, Massey Becomes] [kw]Native-Born Governor-General, Massey Becomes Canada’s First (Feb. 28, 1952)[Native Born Governor General, Massey Becomes Canadas First] [kw]Governor-General, Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born (Feb. 28, 1952)[Governor General, Massey Becomes Canadas First Native Born] Nationalism;Canada Canada;governor-generalship[governor generalship] Postcolonialism;Canada [g]North America;Feb. 28, 1952: Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General[03770] [g]Canada;Feb. 28, 1952: Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General[03770] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 28, 1952: Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General[03770] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Feb. 28, 1952: Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General[03770] Massey, Vincent Alexander, Harold (first Earl Alexander of Tunis) George VI

Massey was born in Toronto on February 20, 1887. The Massey family owned and managed Massey-Harris, a company founded by Massey’s great-grandfather Daniel Massey Massey, Daniel in 1847 that was the largest manufacturer of farm implements in the British Commonwealth. Massey’s younger brother, Raymond, became a distinguished actor on the stage and in motion pictures in both Canada and the United States.

Massey was educated at the University of Toronto, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1910. He received a master of arts degree from Balliol College, Oxford University, in 1913. He then became a lecturer at Victoria College at the University of Toronto until 1915. During World War I, Massey served as a captain in the army’s University Officers Corps, eventually earning the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Massey entered public life in 1918 as the associate secretary of the War Committee of the Cabinet in Ottawa. In 1919, he was promoted to secretary of the government’s Repatriation Committee. From 1921 to 1925, Massey was president of the Massey-Harris Company. He resigned in 1925 to join Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet as a minister without portfolio, but Massey’s failure to win a seat in the Canadian parliament forced his resignation.

Conservative Canadian governments appointed Massey as Canada’s first minister to the United States (1926-1930), Canadian high commissioner to Great Britain (1935-1946), Canadian delegate to the League of Nations (1936), and privy councilor of the United Kingdom (1941). However, some Canadian prime ministers contended that Massey excelled more in the social side of his political appointments than in diplomatic negotiations affecting imperial issues.

At the end of World War II, Massey returned to Canada and accepted the post of chancellor of the University of Toronto (1947). He founded the National Council of Education and served on the board of governors for Ridley College and Upper Canada College. During his lifetime, Massey was awarded fifteen honorary degrees from colleges and universities in Canada and Great Britain.

Vincent Massey’s career in diplomacy and education led to his 1949 appointment as the head of Canada’s Royal Commission on National Development and the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. The commission found Canadian culture to be anemic and dependent upon the United States. The commission’s 1951 Massey Report Massey Report (1951) recommended government financial aid to cultural institutions, the arts, and the universities; a permanent Council for the Arts, Letters, Humanities, and Social Sciences; and retaining the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a public radio and television corporation regulating private stations.

Because Canada’s military and financial contribution during World War II enhanced Canada’s international reputation, Canadians increasingly demanded the recognition of their own identity separate from Great Britain and the United States. In 1950, cabinet minister Lester B. Pearson Pearson, Lester B. approached Massey about becoming governor-general of Canada when the term of British-born Harold Alexander, then Viscount Alexander of Tunis, ended. Massey agreed to consider the position seriously. Alexander’s term was extended twice, perhaps because Massey’s wife died in 1950, and the work of the commission that Massey chaired remained uncompleted. By 1952, however, Vincent Massey was ready. Alexander was recalled to England to serve as the minister of defense and was created Earl Alexander of Tunis.

Massey has been described as an Anglophile who enjoyed the English aristocracy, a royalist who strongly defended Canadian rights and Canadian achievements, and a person who was not himself an intellectual, scholar, or artist but who cultivated those who were to foster a Canadian cultural identity. His distinguished career in education, diplomacy, government, and the private sector, his love of Great Britain but his passion for everything Canadian, and Canada’s increasing nationalism made Massey the Crown’s best choice for governor-general in the transitional era after World War II. Massey’s appointment reflected London’s willingness to accept a changing relationship between Great Britain and the Dominions.

Massey’s biographers and Massey himself wrote about his belief that the Crown was the most important reconciling force to enable Canada to maintain national unity and a pluralistic democracy. Massey thought that national unity needed to be seen in the human face of a governor-general who would function as the head of the Canadian family and connect the nation’s past with its present and its future.

Governor-general Massey later remarked that his appointment disturbed those Canadians who preferred a member of the British nobility or royal family to serve as governor-general, continuing the traditional linkages between Great Britain and Canada. Massey correctly believed, however, that if Canadians were excluded from the office of governor-general, the monarchy eventually would be regarded as an appendage to Canada and not a part of the political system. By appointing a Canadian as governor-general, the Crown became Canadian and the sovereign truly king or queen, that is, regent, of Canada. To the United States and other nations not a part of the British Commonwealth, the choice of British subjects as governor-generals perpetuated the belief that Canada was really run by London, not Ottawa. Although some Canadians objected to Massey’s appointment, hostility was not directed toward him personally.

Significance

As governor-general of Canada from 1952 to 1959, Massey was a symbol of unity in a multicultural Canada in which governments rose and fell during national crises. Although Canadians might be suspicious of class distinctions and pageantry, Massey believed that royalism had deep roots in all parts of Canada. Governor-general Massey not only continued existing ceremonial traditions in Canada but also restored those previously neglected, including the governor-general’s wearing a military uniform, the use of a coronation coach to open Parliament with a mounted escort, the changing of the guard at the governor-general’s residence, and the use of the curtsy by women at official functions. Vincent Massey always believed that the French population of Canada respected and admired the Crown as much as they did the British population. The Crown, in his view, kept a multicultural Canada unified.

Massey’s appointment as governor-general of Canada, finally, signaled a peaceful transformation in British-Canadian relations. Massey’s credentials as royalist and nationalist, diplomat, educator, and politician enabled him to steer Canada toward a stronger national identity while preserving Canada’s British heritage. Nationalism;Canada Canada;governor-generalship[governor generalship] Postcolonialism;Canada

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bissell, Claude. The Imperial Canadian: Vincent Massey in Office. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1986. Bissell’s second volume on Massey carefully chronicles Massey’s career from 1935 until his death in 1967.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Young Vincent Massey. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1981. Bissell’s first volume on Massey chronicles Massey’s early years and education as a member of one of Canada’s most prominent industrial families.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finlay, Karen A. The Force of Culture: Vincent Massey and Canadian Sovereignty. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Biography following Massey’s entire career from the point of view of his attitude toward and effect upon Canadian national identity. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Massey, Vincent. On Being Canadian. Toronto, Ont.: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1948. Massey’s autobiography carefully traces his Canadian upbringing, early service to the Crown, and his promotion of a Canadian national identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Speaking of Canada. Toronto, Ont.: Macmillan, 1959. A collection of addresses given by Massey as governor-general of Canada from 1952 to 1959.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. What’s Past Is Prologue. Toronto, Ont.: Macmillan, 1963. Massey’s memoir provides a detailed account of his service to both Great Britain and Canada.

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