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The First Canadian-born Governor General

For the week of Monday February 20, 2012

On February 20, 1887, Vincent Massey, politician, businessman, philanthropist and first Canadian Governor General, was born.

Son of a prestigious family, Vincent Massey studied at the University of Toronto before attending Oxford. From 1913 to 1915, he taught history at the University of Toronto. Also in 1915, he married Alice Parkin, who died in 1950. He enlisted in the army during the First World War and became a staff officer in Canada. At the end of the war, he succeeded his father as president of the Massey‑Harris Company, a position he held for four years. The business, which manufactured agricultural equipment, was founded by his grandfather, Hart Massey.

The Honourable Vincent Massey (right), with Charles Lindbergh (centre) and the Honourable William Phillips (left)
© Library and Archives Canada / PA‑027584 / 1927

Vincent Massey’s political career began in 1925, when he joined the King cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Although unsuccessful in the election, he was appointed the first Canadian Minister to the United States in 1926 and then High Commissioner to London in 1935. When he returned to Canada in 1946, he became Chancellor of the University of Toronto and Chairman of the National Gallery of Canada. In 1951, while chairing the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, he published a report that led, a few years later, to the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Library of Canada.

In 1952, he marked a turning point in Canadian history when he became the first Canadian Governor General. Throughout his term of office, twice renewed, Vincent Massey spoke highly of Canadian diversity and bilingualism. He travelled extensively in Canada, even in remote areas. He also encouraged Canadian excellence in all fields. His efforts led to the creation of multiple bursaries and the founding of the National Arts Centre, which were established after his term of office. Vincent Massey is also known for having revived the use of the state carriage by Governors General at official ceremonies.

Governor General Georges Vanier, successor to Vincent Massey, riding in a carriage.
© Canada. Royal Canadian Mounted Police / Library and Archives Canada / e004665481/ 1960

Vincent Massey cultivated philanthropic interests throughout his life and, at the end of his term of office as Governor General in 1959, settled near Port Hope in Ontario, where he continued to chair the Massey Foundation, as he had since 1926. He died in England on December 30, 1967, but his body was repatriated to Canada for a state funeral.

Vincent Massey paved the way for the Governors General of Canada who came after him and were all Canadian citizens. In recognition for his political, artistic and philanthropic contributions, in 1974, Vincent Massey was designated a person of national historic significance.

To learn more about the Massey family, read The Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street. To learn more about the history of the Governors General, read the article in This Week in History, entitled Canada’s Governors General.

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