James Bartleman became lieutenant governor of Ontario, Canada, in 2002 after a long and distinguished diplomatic career. The lieutenant governor is the queen's representative for the province, though with only ceremonial powers; Bartleman is the first person with aboriginal blood to hold this post. He has three priorities during his term of office, each betraying something of his past: reducing the stigma of mental illness, fighting racism, and encouraging young aboriginal people.

Unlike many previous lieutenant governors, Bartleman comes from humble origins. He grew up in small town in Ontario, marked because his mother was a native. His father Percy only had a grade four education but liked to read; he did whatever work he could to support his family. His mother Maureen was born into the Chippewa (now Anishnabwe) nation, but until the law was rescinded in 1985 Canadian First Nations women who married white men lost their "Indian" status, so she was just a "squaw" who cleaned houses for white women. Bartleman's family had other challenges than just poverty: his father enjoyed making (and drinking) homemade wine; his mother battled depression. In school James and his siblings - elder brother Bob, younger sisters Janet and Mary - were taunted as "dirty half-breeds"; Bob defiantly fought back, but James retreated to the world of books.

The family's fortunes changed somewhat when the rich white women whose homes Maureen cleaned lobbied to get Percy appointed as the lock master - the man who operated the swing bridge over the Indian River to let ships pass through. With this new job the Bartlemans were able to install an indoor toilet into their very modest home and even, eventually, electricity.

James' fortunes too were about to change, and even more drastically. In 1958 he was 18, a grade 12 graduate, and working his usual summer job as caretaker on the summer estate of Robert Clause, the chairman of Pittsburg Paints. To James' amazement Clause offered to send him to grade 13 in London, Ontario, and then, if his marks allowed, to university. Every year James sent a letter asking for the bare minimum he needed, and every year the cheque magically appeared that allowed this introspective but intelligent young man to get the education he needed to move ahead in life. A good deed indeed.

In 1964, after graduating with a BA in history, Bartleman backpacked across Europe, surviving after his money ran out in Norway by hitchhiking to the nearest Canadian embassy (1900 km away) and eating wild blueberries. In 1966 he got a short placement at the United Nations, then was posted as third secretary to the Canadian embassy in Colombia, the beginning of a long and storied career as a diplomat. He worked for a few years in policy analysis in Ottawa, then set up Canada's first high commission in Bangladesh. Horrified by the poverty he saw there, he managed to get the Canadian government to donate $10 million to the World Health Organization to fight smallpox. He then served in Brussels as first secretary to Canada's representative on NATO.

In 1974 he met a pretty Belgian flight attendant, Marie-Jeanne, and it seems to have been love at first sight; they married the following year and are still together. Bartleman worked for a few more years in Brussels, then again in Ottawa, after which he was surprised to be appointed as ambassador to Cuba in 1981. By now the Bartlemans had two small children, but they settled into Cuba and even hosted dinners for Fidel Castro, whose appearances would be signalled by the appearance of heavily armed guards and a food taster. In 1986 he became ambassador to Israel and found himself the target of hatred from both sides; in 1990 he became Canada's permanent representative to NATO. He returned with his wife and three children to Canada in 1994 to work as prime minister Jean Chrétien's foreign policy advisor; the long hours he put in seemed to have triggered a terrifying downward spiral of crippling depression, anxiety and nightmares. Even taking a less stressful position of medium rank, as high commissioner to South Africa, did not cause the problems to disappear.

In 1999 he was in Cape Town at a hotel before attending President Nelson Mandela's last speech to the legislature when a man claiming to be a hotel employee came into his room, short him with a stun gun, bound and gagged him, beat him, and robbed him. It wasn't the first time he had faced danger, but the incident seemed to obsess him; he talked about it endlessly and bitterly to anyone who would listen.

Reassigned to Australia, he began to see a psychiatrist and face the root causes of his depression: boyhood racism, mid-life crisis, genetics. Partly as therapy, he wrote an award-winning memoir of his childhood, Out of Muskoka (2002) and then On Six Continents: A Life in Canada's Foreign Services (2003). Proceeds from the first book funded aboriginal scholarships; the second, a lecture series on mental health. He manages his depression now with medication, and uses his unique position to support causes that are dear to his heart. Good on him.

Find out more about James Bartleman at http://www.lt.gov.on.ca/

Some of this information came from an article in Toronto Life magazine, July 2004, entitled "Adventures in diplomacy" by Sylvia Fraser.

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