Adrienne Clarkson says she owes Canada everything. After all, it took a penniless refugee and allowed her to become an accomplished journalist, the 26th governor general of Canada, a bestselling author and a role model for women everywhere. In this extended version of an interview that appeared in our January/February 2016 issue, Clarkson reflects on the challenges facing Canadian women today.
On women in leadership positions
There’s a lot of attention paid to women in leadership positions because they’re women, and it can be a tremendous burden. But since I’m Chinese and was a refugee, it wasn’t a standalone issue. When I was governor general, I would get letters from kids all the time saying how happy they were because they could see themselves in my position. It was just the idea that somebody different could be what I became.
On the media’s portrayal of women
If I read another headline in Report on Business on how to get more women in boardrooms, I think I’ll go mad. Why don’t you just appoint them? I think it’s because the patriarchy is very slow to let go. While I do think men have come a long way [in sharing domestic duties], society has not. In an interview, the media will always comment on a woman’s appearance, her personal life, her age. Most men look like unmade beds most of the time, but that’s never commented on.
On progress and child care
I’m part of the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, so I see progress. However, we’d be very much at peril if we thought we had really achieved a lot. We still don’t have universal child care in Canada, when the rest of the G8 does. My daughter is a doctor, and her entire after-tax salary for the first few years went to child care. That is simply not right.
On the gender gap in politics
Things are changing, but it’s still a men’s club. There are still structures such as night sessions in legislatures. A woman who has children isn’t going to go into politics if she has night sessions. Women shouldn’t have to have superhuman energy in order to succeed. Ordinary women should be able to succeed just like ordinary men have succeeded.
On working on The Fifth Estate
I worked very hard for The Fifth Estate. I had a terrible time, but it was a very good show. We’d be on the road for five days and then come home, get organized, get the show ready to air and then take off again. I was the only woman on the team. After the first five months, I said to cameraman that it’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to buy all new clothes because I just don’t have a chance to do any washing. The cameraman looked at me and said, “I just come home and throw my laundry down the stairs and in the morning, it’s done.” His wife did it. That’s terrific, I thought. I’d like to have a wife too.
On the niqab and a woman’s right to choose
I object to the fact that anybody should tell a woman how to dress as long as laws of fundamental decency are obeyed. We should not make the conclusion that what a woman is wearing or what she’s doing is the result of pressure from someone else.
When I was governor general, I used to go into classrooms often. I met this 11-year-old girl who was wearing a headscarf and her older sister who wasn’t. The younger sibling told me she wore it because it made her feel grown up. Why should we judge that? We should tell this girl that she’s wearing a headscarf because her father or brother is dominating her? These two sisters had made completely different choices.
I also object to the deliberate misinformation about the citizenship ceremony. A veiled woman is identified prior to the ceremony. There is no question of legality or security. She is seen, then veils herself again as she wishes.