Parks Canada has quietly shelved a planned tribute to a pre-war governor general dubbed a Nazi appeaser. The tribute to John Buchan was cancelled due to “sensitive historical associations”, according to agency records.
The Historical Sites and Monuments Board in 2017 recommended a plaque to honour Buchan as founder of the 1937 Governor General’s Literary Awards. A tribute was originally scheduled last year, then postponed to the 2018 ceremony.
Awards were made November 28. “Nothing came up in relation to a plaque,” said Sara Régnier-McKellar, spokesperson for Rideau Hall. “There was no unveiling of a plaque. It was a ceremony as per usual.”
Buchan was a Scottish novelist who served as governor general from 1935 to his death from a stroke at Rideau Hall in 1940. “We need to look into his past,” read one Parks Canada memo obtained through Access To Information.
“We were advised to hold off on this one because of potentially negative and sensitive historical associations,” wrote Dr. Alexandra Mosquin, manager of historical services at Parks Canada. “We want to get ready for criticism”; “It will require ordering the relevant books and articles,” wrote Mosquin.
As governor general, Buchan described Hitler’s occupation of Austria as “very largely our own blame”. In a 1938 speech to a Canadian Legion banquet, Buchan said: “All defence carries a face of war.”
“The defence of a country is always a difficult question,” said Buchan. “You dare not neglect it or you may be taken at a sudden disadvantage. But it is possible to overdo it, and thereby increase the very risk which it was intended to prevent.”
Buchan’s Legion speech was on November 11, 1938, two days after the Kristallnacht atrocity that saw German synagogues burned and Jews killed by Nazi street mobs. Buchan made no mention of the event.
“Warts And All”
In a 1939 speech to Canadian Boy Scouts seven months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Buchan said: “There are many isms today to perplex us – Nazism, Communism, fascism and so forth – and the greatest nuisance they are! But most of them will cancel each other out. There is only one ism which kills the soul, and that is pessimism.”
Novelist Mordechai Richler in 1969 called Buchan a “virulent anti-Semite”. Biographer William Galbraith in his 2013 book John Buchan: Model Governor General wrote that Buchan was capable of “dangerous rationalization”, but noted there was no evidence of overt anti-Semitism. Buchan’s wife supported the Montréal chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish charity.
B’nai Brith Canada said it welcomed a frank assessment. “Taking the wrong position on a certain issue should not automatically disqualify political figures from commemoration,” CEO Michael Mostyn said in an earlier interview. “B’nai Brith does not believe in erasing uncomfortable parts of our past.”
“Commemoration provides a unique opportunity to assess both the positive and negative aspects of historical figures,” said Mostyn. “Commemoration materials ought to provide a ‘warts and all’ account of these figures that honestly and openly addresses their failings.”