FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION
A part of our heritage...
The lives of Georges Vanier, his wife Pauline, and their son Jean are evidence that individual commitment can make the world a better place. The Vanier family is an outstanding example of social commitment and accomplishment in our century.
When the First World War erupted in Europe in 1914, Georges Vanier was a young Montréal lawyer. Reading the newspaper accounts of the events in Europe, he felt "a deep compassion and an active desire to right, as far as it was in my power, the heinous wrong done." Leaving his law practice, he helped organize Canada's first French-Canadian volunteer unit, the Vingt-deuxième Régiment (the famous "Vandoos") and served with them as an officer until he was wounded in battle. After losing a leg, he was awarded the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order.
Shortly after his return to Canada, Georges met the tall and beautiful young woman who was soon to become his wife. From the time she was a child, Pauline Archer had dreamed of devoting herself to great causes. Giving up her idea of becoming a nun, she found in her marriage a lifetime of service and commitment to humanitarian goals.
After the war Georges entered the diplomatic service, representing Canada at the League of Nations - in London and at international conferences. In 1939 he was named Canadian Minister to France, just as Europe teetered on the brink of another war. When the Germans marched into Paris, the Vaniers escaped to London, where they turned their energies to the thousands of European refugees escaping to England. Pauline joined the Red Cross and began visiting hospitals. "I set out everyday in an army car... to every hospital to find out where all the French wounded were. I found I could be particularly helpful to those who spoke no English, since only rarely did the hospital staff speak French." In 1941 the Vaniers returned to Canada, where they tried to convey the seriousness of the situation in Europe, and to encourage Canadians to get involved in the war effort. Georges lectured about the plight of the refugees and the victims of Nazi tyranny. This was a frustrating experience for the Vaniers, whose appeals were met with indifference and even hostility. In the words of Pauline: "We had been through so much, but when we returned home we realized that Canada had been so far removed from Europe that many Canadians could not grasp the seriousness of events over there - the cruelty and suffering of war, the German atrocities, the risks incurred by refugees, the nightly destruction of London. It all seemed far too remote to be believed." Many Canadians at that time, like their US neighbours, did not want to become involved in Europe's problems, nor did they feel obliged to act as the world's conscience in providing a refuge for the victims. Canadians were still recovering from the hardships of the Great Depression, and felt that lowering the immigration barriers imposed during the 1930s might threaten the precarious job market. Underlying the economic fears was also the widespread existence of anti-Semitism. Thousands of European Jews who had escaped the Nazi tide sought refuge in Canada, only to be turned away at the border.
In 1940, Georges Vanier wrote to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, pointing out that "Canada has a wonderful opportunity to be generous and yet profit by accepting some of these people." But despite their efforts in petitioning the government and many groups across Canada, the Vaniers were unable to bring about a change in Canadian refugee and immigration policy during the war years.
In April, 1945, George Vanier joined a group of American congressmen touring the infamous death camp at Buchenwald just one week after its liberation. Numbed and shocked by the indescribable horror of what he had witnessed, Vanier made a moving radio broadcast over the CBC expressing his shame at having done nothing. "How deaf we were then," he cried, "to cruelty and the cries of pain which came to our ears, grim forerunners of the mass torture and murders which were to follow." Vanier's shame is a mirror of Canada's shame in that regrettable chapter of our immigration history.
Back in Paris following the liberation of France, Georges continued to appeal to Ottawa to accept the many destitute refugees who besieged the Canadian embassy. Pauline organized reception services at the train station. "We greeted the refugees with drinks, refreshments, clothes and survival kits, and tried to reach their families, friends or anyone who might take them in. Many, however, had no idea whether anyone they knew was still alive, let alone their whereabouts. For them, we arranged temporary shelter. Then we took their photos and stuck these up on long panels lining both sides of the railway station in hopes that someone in the crowds would recognize the name or the picture of a long-lost relative or friend." In the years following the war, the plight of the more than a million "displaced persons" in Europe aroused the sympathy of many Canadians. The Vaniers, along with other advocates of a more humane immigration policy, pressed on with their campaign, and gradually the Canadian government liberalized its strict immigration regulations. Between 1947 and 1953, more than 186,000 European refugees settled in Canada.
The Vaniers returned to Montréal from their diplomatic posting in Paris in 1953, but retirement did not suit this active couple. In 1959, Georges Vanier accepted Prime Minister Diefenbaker's offer to serve as Canada's first French-Canadian Governor General.
Georges Vanier's years in office were turbulent ones, with economic problems plaguing the country, a succession of minority governments, and the rise of Québec separatism. But Georges and Pauline's obvious concern for Canadians won them enormous affection. They traveled to all parts of the country, speaking on behalf of the poor, youth, and the family. When Georges Vanier died in 1967 over 15,000 messages of sympathy flowed into Government House, many from children. Perhaps one young boy said it best when he came home from school and told his mother: "The flags are flying low today because a good man has died." The Vaniers' son, Jean, continued the spiritual and humanitarian tradition of the family, establishing "L'Arche" (The Ark), a co-operative self-help community with an aim to help those with mental handicaps to live full and productive lives. After her husband's death, Pauline Vanier joined her son in France, where she became resident grandmother at L'Arche. She died there in 1991 at the age of 93. Today, Jean Vanier's "L'Arche" movement has spread to many parts of the world, including Canada. Its communities continue to exemplify the ideal that love, understanding, and commitment can make a big difference in the quality of our lives and to the societies in which we live.
Heritage Minute Cast