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Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada/PA-112361.

Jules Léger


“When he left Ottawa for service in posts abroad, he soon proved himself an admirable representative of his country. He had natural dignity without a trace of official pomposity. In negotiation he was patient and tenacious and never did he show those qualities more than during the period of his Embassy to Paris when General de Gaulle sought to render the position of the Canadian Ambassador a difficult one.”

Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie


“Appointed Canada’s 21st Governor General (1974-79), Jules Léger and wife Gabrielle arrive in Canada’s Arctic”. Canada. Governor General/Library and Archives Canada/PA-210517

Jules Léger was a trailblazing francophone diplomat who served Canada for almost forty years. Born in St. Anicet, Quebec, in 1913, Léger studied at the Université de Montréal and the Sorbonne before joining the Department of External Affairs in 1940. In 1953, just forty years old, he was appointed ambassador to Mexico, becoming, at the time, the youngest Canadian ambassador ever. Léger made history again a year later when he was named the DEA’s first francophone under-secretary of state for external affairs. A quintessential team player, Léger and the department he led provided invaluable support to minister Lester B. Pearson during what is sometimes still called the “golden age” of Canadian diplomacy. In 1964, after postings to NATO and Italy, Léger was named ambassador to France, an appointment that Canada hoped would strengthen relations and stem the rise of separatism in Quebec. But French President Charles de Gaulle had other ideas, shouting “Vive le Québec libre!” from the balcony of Montreal City Hall during Expo 67. Despite having been placed by de Gaulle in an increasingly untenable position in Paris, Léger urged restraint on Ottawa. “His tact, patience, splendid judgment and solid, steady nerves,” recalled one admirer, “did more than keep the lines open between Ottawa and the Quai d’Orsay,” that is, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Between 1968 and 1972, Léger was under-secretary of state, playing a key role in the implementation of the Canadian government’s Official Languages Act (1969). In 1974, having been made a companion of the Order of Canada the year before, Léger was sworn in as Canada’s 21st Governor General. He suffered a serious stroke six months later. Ably assisted in his duties by his wife, Gaby, he remained in the position until his retirement in 1979, providing Canadians with a sterling model of strength through adversity. When Léger died in 1980, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared that Canada had lost “one of its most remarkable sons and public servants.”

Further reading:

  • Charles Ritchie, “A Tribute to Jules Léger,” International Perspectives (November-December 1980): 1.
  • Robin S. Gendron, “Advancing the National Interest: Marcel Cadieux, Jules Léger, and the Canadian Participation in the Francophone Community, 1964-1972,” in In the National Interest: Canadian Foreign Policy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1909-2009, ed. Greg Donaghy and Michael Carroll (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011): 121-135.
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