Virtual Exhibit

Roland Michener

Rooted in West

On July 5, 1967, the Lacombe Globe announced that the newly installed Governor General, Roland Michener, was planning to come for a visit in November of that year.

This visit did indeed come to pass, and Roland Michener and his wife Norah spent a busy afternoon in Lacombe on Thursday, November 2. Their fast-paced itinerary included a Civic Reception at the Lacombe Memorial Centre, a visit to school students at the Lacombe Composite High School, the opening of Michener Centennial Park, a visit to the Senior Citizen’s Lodge, and a Community Dinner back at the Memorial Centre. This was the first time since becoming Governor General on April 17th, 1967, that Roland and Norah wife had been able to make official visits across Canada as their duties at Canada Centennial Celebration in Ottawa had kept the pair extremely busy until the end of October.

Young Roland

Roland Michener’s parents, Edward and Mary Michener were married in Ontario in September of 1897. Edward’s first placement as a Methodist Minister was at a church in Banff, but he developed debilitating headaches, so the family moved to a farm near Lacombe during the summer of 1898. After some time farming, Edward’s headaches disappeared and he accepted the position of Methodist Minister in Lacombe in June 1899. The position came with living arrangements, namely the small two-story manse located to the north of the Methodist Church. It was here that, on April 19th, 1900, Mary Michener gave birth to their second child, Daniel Roland Michener, in the upstairs bedroom of the manse.Roland Michener’s entrance into the world was rather unceremonious. With the mid-wife unavailable at the time, Dr. Stampe delivered Roland. Eliza MacMillan, who was only 14 at the time, was called over to look after Marie, Roland’s two-year-old sister.

Dr. Stampe asked the girl to heat some water downstairs while he was delivering Roland. He called Eliza to the stairs . . . , and handed her the new-born baby. ‘What shall I do with him?’ Eliza asked. ‘Take it away and wash it,’ Dr. Stampe told her.

Growing Up in Red Deer

The Michener home in Red Deer was effectively out of town. Throughout their childhoods, the Michener children spent a great deal of time roaming outside and Roland hunted prairie chickens, rabbits, ducks and geese when he became old enough. Roland also had a team of ponies, the first of which he got when he was 7 years old, and these proved to be popular with the neighborhood children as the Michener children drove them around town pulling various sleighs and wagons.
Roland also joined the Boy Scouts in Red Deer in 1911, and the group soon experienced an unusual adventure. On June 1st, 1911, Arthur Kelly shot Police Chief George Bell and then escaped into the woods. The next morning, the Scouts were called to help with the man-hunt near the Exhibition Grounds.

Well here I was at age eleven with not even a staff in my hand . . . and going in open formation with the other Boy Scouts across the kind of scrubby land, vacant land between the Exhibition Grounds to the south and the nearest house and we sprung this man out from where he slept, he was behind a small bush and jumped up, he had his gun in his hand and ran down into the swamp, into the bushes and there were a couple of shots, and we were all curious to know who it was and what! Nobody was hurt, but they captured him. . . Many parents weren’t very pleased with that use of the Scouts.” Roland Michener, Interview.

University

When he was seventeen, Roland began his post-secondary education at the University of Alberta. The University was a comparatively quiet place at that time because so many people had joined the war effort. Michener himself left in the spring of 1918 and enlisted in the Air Force, but he was not called up for training until September and, although he got a few rides in airplanes, he did not receive any piloting instruction prior to the end of the war. Following his discharge, Michener went back to University and graduated with First Class Honours in a general Bachelor of Arts. Michener then became a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, which took him to Hertford College at Oxford from 1920-1923.

While at Oxford, Michener and other Canadian students often met together at the Canadian Colonial Club, and this is where Michener met Lester B. Pearson, and the two soon became good friends. Traveling around Europe during the holidays was a particular highlight for Michener while he was at Oxford. Both him and Pearson played on the Oxford hockey team, which was made up almost entirely of Canadians. Over Christmas holidays, the team went to Switzerland to play against other hockey teams, and they defeated every team they came against. Far from making them unpopular, this success made the team an attraction for guests and the hotels allowed them to continue staying there for free.

We skied and skated and we were the darlings of the girls from the finishing school, who were following the season around, the daughters of the wealthy and of their families, and so we were very well treated, and we entertained them, in return. All we had to pay was our bar bills and our laundry bills otherwise the hotel was provided and we moved about Switzerland.” Roland Michener, Interview.

The Young Lawyer

When Roland came back to Canada in 1923, he moved in with his family, who were living in Toronto at this time due to his father’s job as a Senator. Michener articled as a lawyer and then attempted to start his own law firm, which was not particularly successful because he was unable to attract many clients. In 1927, Michener joined with Daniel Webster Lang, who had more clients than he could handle, and their firm was called Lang & Michener. The company largely worked with mining companies and became quite successful.

1927 was an important year for Roland Michener. Two months after he formed his business partnership with Lang, he also married Norah Evangeline Willis. Norah, who had come to Toronto to study music, was educated in history and economics and spoke French very well. Roland picked a rather dramatic occasion to propose to Norah in April, 1926. It was a Ball held at the Art Gallery of Toronto, and Norah was directing the orchestra. In accordance with the theme of the evening, Roland was wearing a 14th century style Florentine doublet, complete with tights and sword. According to Michener, “the theme was a mask of dead Florentines and it was quite a romantic event so that may have helped the process along.”

The couple had three daughters: Joan, born prematurely on October 3rd, 1927; Diana, born April 13th, 1932; and Wendy, born on March 8th, 1935. After Norah and Roland’s three daughters were properly started in school, Norah resumed her own studies part time at the University of Toronto, eventually earning her Doctorate in Philosophy in 1952. Norah firmly believed in the value of women continuing their educations after marriage. She had many interests including homemaking, scholarship, and an interest in cooking and etiquette. Under the pseudonyms Janet Peters, Frances Carey, Elizabeth Roland, and Deirdre Soames, Norah wrote for Chatelaine, Brides Book, and Canadian Bride. Through these avenues, Norah became very well known.

According to Joan Michener Rohr, Norah and Roland were very affectionate parents who made music a regular part of the family life by playing the piano and singing together. Joan claimed that she “had a very happy childhood.”

Michener continued practicing law with Lang & Michener until 1957, with a break between 1946 and 1948 when he served as a Minister in the Government of Ontario. He even continued to work part-time as a lawyer on weekends from 1953-1957 when he was a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons and spending Monday to Thursday in Ottawa.

Did you know?

Roland Michener joined the Canadian Reserve Artillery during the Second World War? While he never saw active combat, Michener trained as a gunner on weekends for three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and rose to the rank of First-Lieutenant in the 15th Field Battery.

Moving Into Politics

Having been brought up in a very political family, Roland always had an interest in politics. In fact, Roland pursued a career in law partially because he felt it would be good preparation for entering a “public career.” Around 1942, Michener began to become more actively involved in politics by participating the Port Hope Conference where he was part of a group who sought to rewrite the Canadian Conservative Party policy to make it more “forward looking.” This policy was extremely influential on the Conservative Party, which was soon renamed the Progressive Conservative Party.

The following year, in 1943, Michener made his first attempt at becoming an elected member of the Ontario Legislature, but he lost the election to the C.C.F. Candidate. However, in the 1945 provincial election, Michener won the election in St. David’s riding for the Conservative Party. He held this seat until 1948 when the riding swung back to the C.C.F. As a friend of Premier George Drew, Michener was part of a delegation sent to Ottawa to negotiate the return of provincial taxing powers that had been ceded to the federal government during the Second World War. While the provinces never regained their major taxing powers, it was nonetheless a series of important conferences.

Michener was also known for his efforts to help the Chinese population in Toronto, particularly by reuniting family members who had become separated as the men often came to Canada first. Consequently, Michener gained a significant amount of support from the Chinese Canadians of Toronto.

After his defeat in the provincial election of 1948, Michener returned to work at Lang & Michener, but continued to be involved in politics as an official for the Conservative Party. Michener tried again for elected office, this time federally, in 1949, but was defeated. In 1953, however, he won his riding in Toronto, despite alleged attempts by liberals to interfere with the election, which Michener and his team caught and reported. The Progressive Conservative Party was the Opposition at this time. During these first four years in federal politics, Michener continued to work as a lawyer on the weekends because he was not making enough money as a Member of Parliament.

Speaker of the House of Commons

In the 1957 federal election, the Progressive Conservatives won a minority government under John Diefenbaker, ending 22 years of Liberal governments. Michener’s interests were more in the area of foreign relations, but the session was starting soon and Diefenbaker’s first choice for the Speaker had turned down the offer, so the Prime Minister surprised Roland and asked him to take on the role. Roland accepted the position. Michener decided that, having taken the role of the Speaker, he would never go back to a “Party position” in politics.

The opening of Parliament on October 14th, 1957 was a grand event, for Queen Elizabeth opened it for the first time. Michener’s primary memories of the event seem to have been the length of the Queen’s speech, which she read in French as well as English, and how he was “[s]weating under the cleague lights, [and] she didn’t, perspire even, she seemed cool and collected, but you know it was quite an ordeal.”

While Roland was Speaker of the House of Commons, Norah spent most of her time living in Ottawa and supporting Roland in his work. She wrote a guide for the wives of MPs on proper etiquette for all the new situations that they might find themselves in. Norah also spent a great deal of time in the House of Common and was known to send notes down to reprimand members when they did not follow the rules of proper behavior.

An important innovation that occurred during Michener’s time as the Speaker was the introduction of simultaneous interpretation between French and English that allowed members who only spoke one language to understand what was being said in real time consistently, as opposed to having to read the translation later in the Hansard. Additionally, there was talk of making an arrangement to allow the same Speaker to continue in a more permanent capacity. Michener supported this idea as performing the role of Speaker involved a steep learning curve for any new individual. However, no arrangement was ever agreed upon. Michener served two terms as the Speaker between 1957 and the 1962, when he lost his seat in the general election.

Diplomatic Postings

Roland Michener received an important diplomatic posting in 1964 when he was appointed High Commissioner of India by his old friend Lester B. Pearson, who had become the Prime Minister of Canada. According to Roland Michener, this appointment was made with the understanding that it would prepare Michener for later taking on the role of Governor General. In fact, despite the interest that both Roland and Norah had in India, Roland later stated that he likely would not have taken the post had it not been for the possibility of becoming Governor General afterwards. Norah felt that Governor General would be an appropriate role for her husband.

Soon after arriving in India, Michener also became Canada’s first Ambassador to Nepal. While there, Norah became fast friends with Indira Gandhi, who later became the first female Prime Minister of India.

”There’s a simple little story, . . . she [Norah] was having lunch with Mrs. Ghandi and Mrs. Ghandi said to her, now, you’re settled down, is there something you’re lacking or that I can do for you? And my wife said, she’d like a Siamese cat and so, Indira said, that’s very fortunate! My Siamese cat just had kittens! So they brought in two little Siamese cats and my wife chose one, that started a pair, which we brought home with us.” Roland Michener, Interview.

Becoming Governor General of Canada

George Vanier was the Governor General of Canada from September 15th, 1959 until his death on March 5th, 1967. The well-liked Governor General had increasing health problems but had wanted to continue in his role through the Canadian Centenary Celebrations of 1967. However, Vanier passed away in March of 1967.

After some delays, it was announced that Roland Michener was to be the next Governor General of Canada and the Micheners had to rush back to Canada for the Investiture Ceremony on April 17th. Wes Jackson, then Mayor of Lacombe and later a good friend of Roland’s, flew to Ottawa for the ceremony.

Once back in Canada, both Norah and Roland found themselves hosting a dizzying array of official guests to Canada as part of the Centennial Celebrations. They had to host approximately 2.5 official state visits a week, and Michener barely had time to read the briefs on every guest. This schedule of official visits lasted for 6 months, and had been planned well in advance.

“[i]t was quite, quite strenuous but most exhilarating to have this sequence of visits from all over the world, Commonwealth and foreign countries, kings and queens, president and the list was really quite a list and they came, beginning with Haile Selassie on the 27th of April.” Roland Michener, Interview.

After the Centennial celebrations and official visits were over at the end of October, the Micheners began travelling across Canada, visiting as many places as they could with the goal of strengthening national unity. Lacombe, the location of Roland Michener’s birth 67 years prior, was one of the very first places that the Micheners visited. This was only the first of many visits that the couple would make to Lacombe. Roland believed that the Governor General was to represent all of Canada and thought that it was important to travel Canada and meet Canadians.

Norah was an important part of the success of Roland’s time as Governor General. Roland later stated that “‘I could have been Speaker without her help; I could not have been Governor General without her. We were a team’” (quoted in Memories of a Governor General’s Daughter).

Norah’s Siamese cats, Ram and Sita, followed Roland when he went for his morning runs each day after Norah and Roland returned to Canada from India. Roland was not a cat-lover, but her learned to like those two cats.

However extensive their travels within Canada were, the Micheners were not limited to Canada. The role of the Governor General was evolving, and Queen Elizabeth promoted the idea of the of “the Canadian government” using “the Governor General as an . . . official visitor to foreign states.” This was a significant change in the role of the Governor General, who had not been authorized to make official state visits to other nations prior. With Pearson and later Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau also in support of the idea, the Micheners began making official state visits abroad in 1969, starting with Jamaica, Trinidad and Tabago, Guyana, and Barbados. The experiment was well received by both Canadians and the host nations, so another trip was made to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1971, which was also successful. A final official trip abroad was made later in 1971 to the 2,500th Year of the Foundation of the Imperial State of Iran celebrations.

Post-Governor General Life

Roland Michener remained the Governor General until 1974 when he was replaced according to normal procedure by Jules Léger. During his retirement, Michener continued to be associated with Lang & Michener and to support a variety of causes across Canada.

“You know, I was away from law for twenty years in public life and I had no confidence to go back . . . I wouldn’t dare appear in the Supreme Court of Ontario as an Ex Governor General, the judges would be scandalized and so would I. They’d think I was trying to intimidate them. (laughter).” Roland Michener, Interview.

Another project that Roland Michener become involved in was the purchase and restoration of the Michener House Museum by the Lacombe & District (then Maskipitoon) Historical Society. Numerous letters between Roland and Wes Jackson document Michener’s interest and involvement in the purchase and restoration of the Michener House Museum.

Promoting fitness was another cause the Michener continued to champion after his post as Governor General.

“I think perhaps one unplanned interest of mine has occupied more of my time than anything else and that is my, my interest in fitness.  . . . when I found that my jogging became an item of newspaper interest, I played on it a bit, you know, because I realized that Canadians as a whole were not very up with the standard they ought to maintain in fitness and in health.” Roland Michener, Interview.

Norah had Alzheimer’s Disease towards the end of her life and was hospitalized in 1984. She passed away on January 12th, 1987. At the closing of a memoir interview conducted in March of 1984, Roland gave the following tribute to his wife:

“I’d like to say one thing more. . . . And this is essential in my life, that my wife played a full part and as you know, she’s not well now, so that’s it.” Roland Michener, Interview.

Daniel Roland Michener passed away on August 6, 1991.

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