“On Her Honour and…” — A Visit to Old Government House

There are many important historical sites scattered throughout New Brunswick. The Tantramar region in particular, is fortunate to have its share, some predating European settlement. Many of these have implications, not just for a region, but for the entire province. Recently I had the opportunity to visit one such site. Its located at 41 Woodstock Road, in Fredericton.

Over the years, I had sometimes driven by this address, on my way up the St. John River Valley from downtown Fredericton. I knew it as an elegant grey stone mansion set well back from the street; with a marvelous view of the St. John River. A symmetrical building calculated to catch the eye in any season.

Once it was the home of the governors, and after Confederation, the lieutenant governors of New Brunswick. Later in the 1890s, the house was abandoned for financial reasons, and its furnishings sold at public auction on Aug. 10, 1897. Since then the building has played a variety of roles, ranging from a School for the Deaf, a military barracks during World War One, a hospital for veterans to more recently, from 1934 until 1988, as headquarters for the RCMP.

Interspersed were periods when the imposing building stood vacant, causing concern as to what might happen to this architectural gem. Designed in the Regency style by noted architect John Elliott Woolford (1778–1866) and well built of native stone during the years 182628, the exterior has stood the test of time.

The immediate area was once a Maliseet encampment. As early as 1713 the first Europeans, the Acadians, established themselves here, and by 1733 their settlement, called Sainte-Anne, was the largest on the St. John River. All this changed in the 1750s when they were expelled. Then came New England and Loyalist settlers. Old Government House was built on a location that is, in many ways, a time capsule of provincial history.

But beyond its historical background, I was looking forward to my visit for another reason. I had heard from several sources, details of the exciting and painstaking restoration that had taken place within the building. Now I was to have a chance to see it first hand. The visitors entrance is located at the east end of the building. Following a check in with a friendly commissionaire, I was greeted by Tim Richardson, principal secretary to Her Honour Marilyn Trenholme Counsell, New Brunswicks 28th lieutenant governor. We set out on a tour of Old Government House, and as we went along, he briefed me on the history of the site and the building.

By this time we had reached the first floor and the main lobby just inside the front portico. (See exterior photo.) Here dignitaries and official visitors are received and sign the guest book. Also on this floor may be found the drawing room, main dining room, library, music room and the original lieutenant governors office.

I noted the high ceilings, with their ornate plaster moldings; a feature of Regency architecture, and wondered if these were original. Mr. Richardson responded that most of the plaster work dated from 1828. However, he pointed to a few places where repairs had to be made. We have to thank the RCMP for their preservation… he said. When they occupied the building, all ceilings were lowered, to cut heating costs and hide the telephone lines, along with electrical and communications wiring. In this way the original decorative plaster was protected; making restoration much easier.

He also pointed out several moveable panels where the unrestored woodwork and plaster might be seen. During restoration an original invoice was found from a Fredericton company. It listed all the paint colours assigned for each room; thus ensuring that the walls would be restored to their proper colour.

The furnishings in the public rooms of Old Government House are of more than passing interest. Many pieces of furniture are traceable to the 1897 auction, and have recently made their return, through donations and repurchase. Identification of these heirlooms was made easier when the Provincial Archives located a catalogue of items that were for sale.

Several antique chairs still bear the tell tale inscription GHNB. A notable example of original furniture is the mahogany banqueting table in the main dining room. (See illustration) It is attributed to Thomas Nisbet (1777–1850) New Brunswicks most famous cabinetmaker. There are also a number of other pieces, scattered throughout the House, that have been traced to Nisbit.

Just as our tour of the first floor was completed, we were joined by Her Honour, the lieutenant governor. For readers beyond the Tantramar, a brief biographical sketch is in order.

Hon. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell is a native of Baie Verte NB; the daughter of Mildred Baxter Trenholme and Harry Frederick Trenholme. She graduated from Port Elgin Memorial High School and went on to attend Mount Allison University. Obtaining a B.Sc. (magna cum laude) in 1954, she continued her studies at the University of Toronto where she was awarded the M.A. and M.D. degrees, again with honours.

Qualified both as a medical doctor and nutritionist she worked in Toronto, before returning to her roots, and establishing a medical practice in Sackville. In 1972 the future lieutenant governor married Kenneth Walter Counsell, a journalist and Citizenship Court Judge. Mr. Counsell died in 1981, following a battle with cancer. Their two children are now well settled in their own careers. Son Giles, works in the field of information technology in Toronto; while daughter Lorna, practices law in Ottawa. Her Honours entry into public life came in 1987 when she was elected MLA for Tantramar. Re-election followed in 1991 and 1995. Named to the provincial cabinet as Secretary of State for the Family she was installed as lieutenant governor on April 18, 1997.

When I asked Her Honour for reflections on this new role, she recalled the three promises made at the time of her installation: to represent Her Majesty, the Queen, with devotion; to encourage pride and harmony within the province and to promote enhanced opportunities for children.

The first, is an important mix of constitutional and ceremonial duties. This column is not the place to discuss the vice-regal role in such matters as summoning, proroguing and dissolving the legislature or giving royal assent to bills and orders in council; to name only the obvious. It will be sufficient to note that all of the these duties, fulfilled in the name of the Queen, are being carried out with diligence and distinction by Her Honour.

An advantage of our form of government is that the prime minister or provincial premier, is freed from many of the ceremonial duties expected of any head of state. Heres one important illustration: The lieutenant governor serves as patron or honorary chair of many non governmental, charitable and volunteer organizations. To list all such groups to which Hon. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell has given her time and talent, would fill many pages. It includes well established entities such as the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, NB Youth Orchestra, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, St. John Ambulance Association, the CNIB, the Canadian Bible Society and the Royal Life Saving Society. Some examples on the list relating to the Tantramar region are of more recent origin: Yorkshire 2000 and the Cape Jourmain Nature Centre.

The remaining two priorities listed by Her Honour were highlighted when my tour resumed on the second floor. It is here that pride in the province is demonstrated by the work on display of New Brunswick artists and artisans. Evidence that this is having an impact, is borne out by the more than 20,000 people who toured Old Government House last year. This statistic does not count the hundreds of others who attended events by formal invitation, or the many involved in special functions and receptions. Next to Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Old Government House is the most accessible, and most visited, vice regal residence in Canada.

As an example of this open door policy, the lieutenant governor pointed out that over 300 women, from all parts of the province, signed the guest book marking International Womens Day in March. One of Her Honours early initiatives in making her office and Old Government House more accessible, came through the establishment of a website. Readers are encouraged to visit this site and take a tour. Just type in: www.gnb.ca/LG/ and follow the links.

The numerous choirs, musicians and entertainers invited to Old Government House functions also endorse the lieutenant governors wish to promote harmony through the inclusion of diverse ethnic groups. Heres one illustration. At the traditional New Years levee on Jan. 1, 2001, entertainment was provided by the Lintuhnine Childrens Choir of Oromocto, accordionist Doug Pineau of Moncton and Cynthia Sewell of the Pabineau First Nation.

Hon. Marilyn Trenholme Counsells priorities became even clearer, when she invited me to visit the Childrens Art Gallery which runs the entire length of the second floor corridor.

As she expressed it: Im always thrilled to observe the reaction of younger children as they visit various sections of the House. When they first come through the visitors entrance in the basement level, they notice the rough stone walls and you hear them whisper: Do you suppose this is a dungeon? or I wonder if well see any ghosts? Then when they reach the first floor, silence descends as they are awed by the high ceilings, the beautiful furnishings and the grandeur that is there. A totally different reaction is expressed when they reach the second floor and the Childrens Art Gallery. Then its wow look over here its awesome; and suddenly they feel at home!

Her Honour explained that the Childrens Art Project began with a visit by students from Barkers Point Elementary School. Soon afterward, she was presented with their work of art entitled: Wishes Of Children. A hand print from each student was placed on the collage; accompanied by a special wish. A few were predictable, such as requests for something new at home; however, the majority displayed a maturity well beyond their years. Among their aspirations were hopes for peace, no more war and a stop to fighting.

Of special interest was the fact that all regions of the province, all levels of public education, and all ethnic groups were represented in the display of childrens art. Theres no stopping a good idea! Ill admit that I was curious to see if Tantramar was represented in the display. I was not to be disappointed. Art work by the following former students at Marshview Middle School grace the walls of Old Government House: Lacey Doncaster, Danielle Bulmer, Savannah Junjek, Alex Keeling, Jason Knowles, Ashley Rowe and Shauna Sappier. All of the artists listed, have since moved on to Tantramar Regional High School.

Throughout the remainder of the tour, many topics were discussed; however, the conversation frequently drifted back to Her Honours interest in literacy; and the establishment of New Brunswicks annual Early Childhood Literacy Awards. A regular reader to her own two children, Giles and Lorna, when they were young, Her Honour is a champion of the Born To Read program begun by the IODE. This initiative encourages parents to read to children by presenting bags of books to mothers on leaving hospital, following the birth of their child.

The Early Childhood Literacy Awards fall in six categories. The first two honour New Brunswick writers in the field of childrens literature. The remaining four awards champion individuals or organizations, who promote literacy. Significantly, one of these is earmarked for a grandparent involved in the cause.

Madame Diane Lord, wife of the Premier Hon. Bernard Lord, serves as honorary chair of the Awards Selection Committee. As befits a couple with a young family, both she and her husband frequently join the lieutenant governor in reading to groups of children. In the promotion of literacy, Her Honour never misses an opportunity. On April 22nd, members of the Writers Federation of New Brunswick have been invited to join her at Old Government House to celebrate Canada Book Day.

Although the Literacy Awards have justifiable prominence in the vice-regal program, other aspects of New Brunswick society and culture have not been neglected. Two additional awards begun by Her Honour deserve recognition. The first, An Award For Outstanding Public Service spotlights exceptional contributions by New Bruswickers at all levels of government, whether municipal, provincial or federal. Still another award is uniquely New Brunswick in nature. It is presented annually to an individual or organization for going above and beyond, in their effort to conserve wild Atlantic salmon.

While touring the exhibition hall on the second floor, Her Honour pointed out a magnificent piece of sculpture, carved from native New Brunswick cherry wood. The work, by artist William T. Page of Durham Bridge, features a hand releasing a salmon into its natural underwater habitat. On permanent display at Old Government House, it will remain as a lasting symbol of this important award.

By now my tour was coming to an end. All that remained, was to express my sincere thanks both to Hon. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell for her hospitality and time, and to Mr. Richardson, for his willing assistance.

Many important events have taken place at Old Government House since its official opening on Dec. 31, 1828, by Governor Sir Howard Douglas. The history of New Brunswick can be told in words, but sometimes even more eloquent, are important buildings from the past. Largely responsible for the construction of Old Government House, Douglas is regarded as one of the ablest of New Brunswicks pre-Confederation governors. The last lieutenant governor to live and work within its walls, prior to closure in 1892, was Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley (18181896), a Father of Confederation, and one time Premier. The office on the first floor has been restored to mark his two terms as lieutenant governor.

Of the 28 individuals who have been named to this post, four have roots in the Tantramar region. The first was Hon. Edward B. Chandler (1800–1880), a Father of Confederation and a Dorchester lawyer; then Hon. Josiah Wood (1843–1927), former MP and Senator, and Sackvilles first mayor; and more recently, Hon. George F. G. Stanley, respected historian, academic, soldier and designer of the Canadian flag. Following their term in office, Dr. and Mrs. Stanley have returned home to Sackville. The fourth, Hon. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell, has the privilege of being the first lieutenant governor to live in the renovated and refurbished Old Government House. A fifth may also also be partially claimed Mount Allison graduate and former University Chancellor, Hon. Margaret Norrie McCain. Her mother Senator Margaret Fawcett Norrie, was a native of this region.

Some people who visit Old Government House occasionally feel a ghostly presence in the building. If there is a ghost, then it will certainly be a friendly one. Is it, by chance, the return of Sir Howard Douglas? Without question, the spirit of the congenial Sir Howard would applaud the accessibility of the new Old Government House. One final comment On Her Honour. Lieutenant Governor Hon. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell has set standards and established precedents that will stand for years to come.