Earlier this year, my wife Leanna and I were invited to Ottawa to attend an awards banquet for journalists at Rideau Hall, which is the Governor-General’s mansion. At the last minute, we were invited to stay overnight at Rideau Hall. No, I have no idea what we did to deserve this privilege, except that I’d recently won a minor literary prize. I don’t enjoy ceremonies, but I do adore my wife, so we accepted the invitation. At very least, I thought, it means someone in Ontario understands that I’m not the West Coast agent of Al-Qaeda, which seems to be the general opinion around Toronto even though I’ve now lived there for 13 years.
We flew up to Ottawa at our own expense, but we were met at the airport by a uniformed limousine driver who clearly had been given a photograph of me because he wasn’t holding up a placard with my name on it and didn’t seem anxious about finding us. This display of confidence naturally sent me into mild paroxysms of class terror: was I was about to be forced into my first ride in a stretch limousine? No problem. The Governor General’s limousine turned out to be an ageing Dodge Caravan, grey, with cloth seats.
I was so relieved at the sight of the minivan that it didn’t occur to me that we were travelling to Rideau Hall in the vehicle most people use to pick up groceries or to deliver rowdy kids to hockey practices or ballet lessons. I’m sure there is a black limo available for use when Saudi Princes come to visit Paul Martin Jr, (one of the services Rideau Hall traditionally provides for the federal government is accommodation for high-level dignitaries). But the Dodge Caravan, I was soon to discover, was much more appropriate, not just to us but to the spirit in which Rideau Hall operates.
The most conspicuous characteristic of Rideau Hall, you see, is that it is run without extravagance or ostentation. Another conspicuous characteristic is staff who know what they are doing and why you are there. They went about their jobs with careful efficiency and a degree of courtesy that was as understated as it was pleasant.
The room we stayed in is one of a half-dozen guest rooms at Rideau Hall, the Jeanne Sauvé Room, named after the former Trudeau-era Liberal cabinet minister, House Speaker and, between 1984 and 1990, Governor General. The room is roughly 14 by 22 feet, with 12 foot ceilings, and it is decorated in the pale blues and greys that were Madame Sauvé’s palette. The room’s centrepiece, not surprisingly given that people are meant to sleep in the room, is a king size bed. Just beyond it, an elegant but slightly uncomfortable chaise lounge is set in front of the tall windows. The small chair and matching settee closer to the door—all in pale blue—proved far more comfortable for lounging—not that I have much expertise in lounging.
The windows caught my interest very quickly. They are original, with secondary panes of glass retrofitted into each frame for insulation—some time ago, methinks, since the inserts need repainting. The room lighting is unfashionably incandescent, the wall sconces and lamps well-crafted but hardly high design. The six foot walnut desk set against the wall is nice enough, but I pulled a drawer knob off investigating it, as I’m sure every other visitor has since the desk was placed in the room. On the desk surface was a rectangular glass vase filled with pussy willows and purple iris, tasteful and correct for the season but hardly flamboyant. The small marble fireplace has long ago been bricked in, and above the small mantelpiece is a 30 by 48 inch mirror of ornate etched and bevelled glass. I wouldn’t have chosen it for my own house even though I had to acknowledge its fine craftsmanship.
The bathroom contains a surprise of the same sort. It features a blue toilet and bathtub (apartment size) that are at least 40 years old, such that the clearly newer toilet seat doesn’t match colour and didn’t quite fit. Both, along with the white and more modern sink, were spotless, and everything works fine. The towels and washcloths are plentiful, brilliant white, and scented with something quite a lot more agreeable than Downy, as are the bedsheets. I did not count percale on the sheets, but it was clear that they hadn’t been purchased at CostCo.
Modern technology? There is a telephone on the desk, no detectable internet access, but a 27 inch Sony television is set up across from the bed. It even comes with a set of wireless earphones.. I didn’t test-drive them to see if they worked. There are no ashtrays in the room, and no instructions one way or the other about smoking. I suppose if I were there on a diplomatic passport, I’d have lit up, but since I’m a Canadian, and smoking is banned in public buildings throughout Ontario, I obeyed the rules, and cheerfully.
A monogrammed royal blue folder in the desk drawer provides stationary, three postcards and some stamps. The interesting fine detail here was that the stamps featured Queen Elizabeth’s visage. I noticed this because I’ve been trying to obtain this particular stamp for some time without success. Yes, of course I filled out the postcards. But I didn’t summons an aide-de-camp in order to get them mailed. I addressed one card to my six-year-old daughter, another to my father, and the third to Leanna’s parents. I mailed them from the Ottawa airport as we were leaving.
The other memorable thing about the room is its silence, which is solid without looming. In the future of humankind, silence is likely to become the most sought-after of luxuries. Here—still—it is part of the fabric. Like the furniture in the room, it doesn’t make you think you’re in the palace of Louis XIV, but it doesn’t make you feel like you’re at a Travelodge, either.
Since this is a review of a destination and not an event, I won’t regale you with any of the social details of the evening we spent at Rideau Hall. Like the room décor and building atmosphere, the awards presentation and the banquet that followed were restrained and without ostentation. The food served at the banquet was proudly Canadian and better than good, with nary a pheasant’s tongue or wig-wearing servant in sight. The wine was Canadian, of very fine quality, and the servers were polite but not obsequious. During the award presentation the Governor General was articulate and intellectually elegant, and it occurred to me while I was listening to her speak that it could be a generation before writers will again be welcome at Rideau Hall, and that after her term is finished, a lifetime could easily pass before another public official of her stature gives a speech as free of platitudes and clichés as the one she gave that evening.
I liked it. I also felt, at that moment and throughout the subsequent banquet, the most firmly Canadian I have felt in my now semi-long life, and I have since experienced no compensatory cynicism about my visit there. Those who know me well can attest to how rare such a response is.
One more thing deserves to be said. Those who regard the office of Governor General as a costly superfluity, and Rideau Hall as an extravagance that we can do without should spend a couple of hours in the Jeanne Sauvé room doing some fairly elementary arithmetic and observing what goes on at Rideau Hall, and why. As a political institution, the Governor Generalship frees the Prime Minister and his cabinet of several hundred ceremonial duties a year, allowing the elected government an efficiency and freedom to concentrate on public administration that few executive apparatuses enjoy, and for an astonishing small annual cost. Compare it for a moment with the British royal family, or with the U.S. system, where the president and Senate members, notwithstanding the true purpose of the Vice-president, spend a huge percentage of their executive energies engaged in non-optional domestic and offshore ceremonial activity. Once you’ve made the comparison, you’ll instantly understand what I’m saying.
In addition, any visitor who arrives at Rideau Hall believing that the current Governor General is a spendthrift leaves with their ears pinned back: this is a tightly run ship. Nothing at Rideau Hall glitters. It is carefully administered, understated, and more accurate and inclusive in articulating the diversity of this country than any Canadian institution I’ve encountered. In fact, it does its job so well that it made me understand the complexity and depth of that diversity in a new way. It also made me feel proud of being a citizen of this country, not a little chastened by the strength of its character, and very lucky to have been invited to stay within the precinct of its Governor General.