Massey, Vincent

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Vincent Massey

Vincent Massey (1887–1967) already had a long record of service to his home country of Canada when he was appointed the country's first native-born governor general in 1952. From that point onward only Canadians were named to that honorable position, and the Canadian identity was forever changed from a British protectorate to an independent nation that could stand independently.

Massey was born Charles Vincent Massey on February 20, 1887, the son of Chester D. Massey and Anna Vincent, in Toronto, Canada. He was born into the wealthy Massey family, whose business legacy had been established by his grandfather, Hart Massey, who had amassed a fortune expanding the business interests of Massey-Harris, the farm-implement company his own father Daniel Massey had begun in 1847. Massey's brother was Hollywood actor Raymond Massey, whose best-known work included his portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln in the movie Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

Massey received a bachelor of arts degree from St. Andrew's College of the University of Toronto and went on to earn his master of arts in history at Balliol College, Oxford. He held a post as a lecturer in modern history at the University of Toronto from 1913 to 1915, while acting as the dean of residence of Victoria College. Massey married Alice Stuart Parkin, daughter of Sir George Parkin, a former principal of Upper Canada College and secretary of the Rhodes Trust, on June 4, 1915.

From his last year as an undergraduate in 1910, Massey had the idea that the university needed some form of student center wherein the 4,000 students could have a place to gather that would enhance the college experience. Thanks to money from his grandfather's legacy, he was able to add to the $16,290 that students had managed to raise and the building began by the next year. Progress slowed during the years of World War I, and Massey himself served as a staff officer of Canada's Military District No. 2 from 1915 to 1918. Once the war was over, Hart House—named for Massey's grandfather—was nearly completed. During the early 1920s Massey spent time at the Hart House's student theater as both an actor and director. He also worked in his family's business and was president of Massey-Harris from 1921 to 1925.

No Equal in the Arts

In September of 1925 Massey joined Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's cabinet. Honored as a member of the Canadian delegation to the Imperial Conference in London in 1926, he came back to accept a position as the first Canadian minister to the United States, where he served from 1926 until 1930. From 1932 until 1935 he served as president of the National Liberal Federation of Canada, and from 1935 until the close of World War II he moved to London to serve as high commissioner for Canada. England's King George VI honored his excellent service by investing him with the Companion of Honour in 1946, an order limited to the king and only 50 others. Along with his post in England, Massey concurrently held other positions, including that of Canadian delegate to the League of Nations in 1936 and trustee of the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery from 1941 to 1945, also serving the Tate as chair from 1943 to 1945. Between 1948 and 1952 Massey continued his support of the arts in Canada as chair of the National Gallery of Canada. This position overlapped with his six-year appointment as chancellor of the University of Toronto, which occurred 1947 to 1953.

Between 1949 and 1951 Massey was chair of the newly formed Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Massey's own legacy was recognized through the informal designation of the group as the Massey Commission. The commission issued its first report in 1951. Known as the Massey Report, it not only helped create the Canadian Council on the Arts, but also set the groundwork for establishing the National Library of Canada. In The Imperial Canadian, Claude T. Bissell would comment that, during the years when he first headed the arts commission to the end of his term as governor general, Massey, "[more] than any other Canadian," was "responsible for the first major movement of the arts and letters from the periphery of national concern towards the centre. It was a notable achievement." During this period Massey also encountered personal tragedy when he suffered the loss of his wife, Alice, in July of 1950.

Became Governor General

On February 28, 1952, Massey was appointed governor general and commander-in-chief of Canada. During his first years in office the position was not a governing post, but one that required Massey to sign Parliament's official acts. As the first native-born Canadian governor general Massey had followed 17 Britons into the office; after his tenure, only native-born Canadians would served.

Massey's love and devotion to the Crown of England—particularly the British tradition of pageantry—were traits he proudly cultivated. One example of that was his revival of the use of the State carriage in 1953 during the Ottawa celebrations for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. According to the Governor General of Canada Web site, "Amid much pageantry, the carriage brought Vincent Massey and his staff to Parliament Hill under escort by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mr. Massey introduced Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation speech, broadcast in London and around the world." As he did in so many areas, Massey set the precedent for the carriage's continual use on opening day for Parliament and official State visits.

Massey's devotion to the Crown of England in no way diminished his devotion and support of his beloved Canada, and he remained committed to promoting Canada's national identity. His extensive travels throughout the vast expanse of the country have been described as "tireless" as he sought to unify the culturally diverse society, and he used all available means of travel—including canoe and sled-dog team—to reach the country's most remote areas. He believed Canadians should be true to their heritage and learn both English and French. He honored both native and immigrant alike with his attention and acted as the grand host and welcoming committee for all who had come to participate in Canada's cultural wealth.

The period of the 1950s was a remarkable decade for Canada. The census count as of June 30, 1951, due to the post-war baby boom and the influx of record numbers of immigrants, was 14,009,429; in 1901, when Massey was 14, Canada's population had numbered only 5,371,315. During the 1950s the country's gross national product doubled, manufacturing capabilities grew, and petroleum production increased five times from the previous decade, as did iron ore output. The Canadian dollar enjoyed a quality exchange with the U.S. dollar, reflecting Canada's relative prosperity. Massey's influence in the promotion of Canadian arts was considered the catalyst for the development of home-grown Canadian radio, music, and ultimately, television programming.

Because Massey was widowed, his daughter-in-law Lilias served as his official hostess during his tenure in office. Massey had two sons and several grandchildren. In a Life profile of the governor general, Lord Salisbury commented on Massey and his elegance. Due to his British schooling and his upper-class background, the ardently Anglophilic Massey was known for his Oxford accent, as well as for his London tailor even though all admitted he was thoroughly Canadian. Salisbury noted that, "Vincent's a fine chap, but he does make one feel like a bit of a savage."

Retired to Family Home

When he left office Massey continued to keep busy, even after retiring to Batterwood, his family home near Port Hope, Ontario. He continued to chair the Massey Foundation as he done since 1926. The two endowments of the fund closest to his heart were Massey College of the University of Toronto and the campus's Hart House.

Innumerable honors fell to Massey throughout his lifetime. In addition to that with which King George VI invested him, Massey also received the Royal Victorian Chain from Queen Elizabeth II on July 22, 1960, for his achievements representing Canada's sovereign. Another honor was the creation in 1961 of the Massey Lectureship, which provides for a public figure or scholar to lecture on any subject of choice. Many Canadians recognize it to be the most important lecture series in Canada. Institutions of higher learning throughout England, Canada, and the United States presented him with honorary degrees throughout his lifetime. Those included both public and private colleges and universities in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, California, New York, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Connecticut, as well as schools in his native Ontario. Massey himself created the Massey Medal in 1959 as a way of honoring outstanding work relating to Canada's geography. The medal is administered by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

During his lifetime Massey wrote and published several books, including On Being Canadian (1948); What's Past Is Prologue (1959); and Confederation on the March (1965). He has also been the subject of several biographies, and his term as Canada's governor general has come increasingly under the scrutiny of scholars and historians. His papers are collected in several libraries, including Canada's Trent University.

In his book On Being Canadian, Massey noted: "I believe in Canada, with pride in her past, belief in her present, and faith in her future." When he died on December 30, 1967, while visiting London, the life of Canada's truest ambassador came to an end. He was given a state funeral in early January of 1968 and was buried in an Anglican cemetery near his Port Hope home.


Bissell, Claude. The Imperial Canadian: Vincent Massey in Office, University of Toronto Press, 1986.

—, Young Vincent Massey, University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Finlay, Karen A., Vincent Massey and Canadian Sovereignty, University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Massey, Vincent, On Being Canadian, University of Toronto Press, 1948.


Canadian Business, May 12, 2003.

Life, March 10, 24, 1952.

National Post, September 5, 2000.

University of Toronto Magazine, Autumn 2000; Spring 2002.


"Charles Vincent Massey Collection," Trent University Web site, (December 4, 2003).

Hart House Web site, (December 4, 2003).

"His Excellency The Right Honourable Vincent Massey," National Library of Canada Web site, (December 4, 2003).

"The Right Honourable Charles Vincent Massey," Governors General of Canada Web site, (December 3, 2003).

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