How she got here: Adrienne Clarkson

Fifty years ago Adrienne Clarkson never expected to be living as a retired Governor General in a cozy Annex house just blocks from where she completed her undergraduate degree. Mme. Clarkson graduated from Trinity College in 1960 with an honours BA in English Literature.

“Trinity was my life,” said Clarkson, speaking of her undergraduate experience. She was the head of college at St. Hilda’s, a Trinity residence, and was also involved in several U of T publications. The U of T Ms. Adrienne Poy (Clarkson’s maiden name) knew would seem foreign to today’s students.

“We didn’t have sexual freedom and sexual liberation,” said Clarkson. At her class’ forty-year anniversary she said that alumni all agreed that the largest change since leaving U of T was the birth control pill. “I think we would have been different people if we had that.”

“You have to realize that it was a much more innocent time,” said Clarkson, quick to establish that her social life was in no way boring. “I went out all the time.”

Although she read novels and heard stories about people who had extraordinary love lives, Mme. Clarkson described the risk of pregnancy at the time as simply too dangerous. “I just saw a bottomless pit,” she admitted, “I just thought that would be the end, my life would be over, and I would not be able to do whatever it was I was going to do.”

“I always thought I would have an interesting life,” she said, remembering the only certainty was that she did not want to become a teacher or a librarian. “I didn’t know what it was going to be. I had no idea!”
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During the summers Clarkson held a series of jobs, working once in the complaints department of an Ottawa store. “It was great to work somewhere where you weren’t going to spend the rest of your life.”

She later worked for the federal government as part of their summer programme for students. “[It] was the most boring job I’ve ever had in my life,” she recalled, “but…they took me on for three years, and I earned enough to pay my own boarding fees.”

After graduating Clarkson moved to France to study, returning to Canada to do a PhD at Victoria College. During her studies she was asked to host a book review television show. With no training under her belt, Mme. Clarkson broke into the world of broadcasting.

“I felt very good in a television studio right away,” she said. “I liked the cameras and the silence of it. It suited me a lot.”

During the remainder of her career she chaired the board of a national museum, received over 12 honorary degrees, led numerous CBC shows (as host, writer, and producer), published three books, served as colonel-in-chief of a military regiment, became an officer of the Order of Canada, and took up residence in Rideau Hall. “It was an interesting route, but I didn’t plan it as such,” she said with a smile.

Mme. Clarkson advises students graduating to keep their options open, emphasizing the importance of knowing oneself and having purpose. “I don’t think one should pick too soon what one is going to do,” she counselled. “A lot of people go to law school because they can’t think of anything better to do.”

“Whenever I was asked to do anything, I never said I would do it unless I could bring something different to it. If I felt somebody [else] could do it as well, I wouldn’t do it.”

When Clarkson was asked to be senator, she declined because she didn’t think she would bring anything special to the role. “It’s about knowing yourself, and knowing what you can do,” she explained. “If you can’t do it, don’t do it.”

Clarkson is also particularly concerned about gender equity in the workplace. “As a woman, especially in my generation, people wanted you to do things because you were a woman.”

Clarkson realized the full impact of U of T when she returned last year for her fiftieth reunion. “I realized [they] had set me up for a wonderful life.”

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