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From Refugee to Governor: Clarkson tells her childhood fleeing experience through recipe sharing


From Refugee to Governor: Clarkson tells her childhood fleeing experience through recipe sharing

18 March 2021 Also available in:

Food is something The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson clearly cares deeply about. “I have my recipe,” she says on the phone from her home in Toronto. “It’s a lovely chicken recipe, and anyone can do it,” she says before launching into a detailed description of how the chicken should be cooked, and the importance of Chinese cooking principles.

“The Chinese are very obsessed with making sure things are cooked, but not overcooked,” she explains. Her voice is deep and authoritative, a possible vestige of her decades as a broadcaster. “When you cut that chicken, it’s cooked through to the bone, and there’s still blood in the marrow of the bone. Perfectly cooked,” she says of her poached chicken, with ginger and green onion sauce. Clarkson is known for her high profile role as Canada’s Governor General, and for her 30-plus-year-career as a broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). But there was a time long before those prominent positions, that a career as a cook was on the table.

“Because they had to redo their whole lives, my mother was obsessed with (the thought) ‘We might lose everything again,’” Clarkson says. Clarkson and her family fled to Canada from their native country of Hong Kong in 1941.

“She said: ‘Because you have temper tantrums, and you don’t get on with people very well, you have to learn to cook.’” Clarkson chuckles. “So, I always had in my mind, if I lost everything, I could be a cook.”

Clarkson first learned to appreciate food through her parents. “I cleaned chickens from the time I was six because the Chinese really believe everything has to be fresh,” she says.

Clarkson’s mother learned how to cook in Canada, having grown up with servants in Hong Kong. She learned her first few recipes from a local Chinese restaurant. “There were only about three Chinese restaurants in Ottawa,” Clarkson explains. “She asked if she could go in and watch what the cook was doing.”

Clarkson was just two years old when her family arrived in Ottawa from Hong Kong after it was invaded by Japan during the Second World War. “We had no choice about fleeing,” Clarkson says matter-of-factly. “I mean, Hong Kong was an occupied city. The Japanese conquered it. My mother and father saw their home sold in the street, while they were forced to kneel, and the Japanese, as conquerors, paraded through the city. We didn’t have a choice. We were very lucky to get out.”

Despite losing everything as a child, Clarkson never self-identified as someone who was without, but rather as someone who was given an incredible opportunity. “My father and mother were very strong (in their belief) about ‘We have lost everything, and we will get everything back and more.’ That I remember as a distinct mantra in our house,” she recalls.

That mantra may be what propelled the young refugee into her immensely successful career. In her twenties she became the first visible minority to headline a national television program, in her role as host of Take 30 with CBC Television. She went on to create the acclaimed show The Fifth Estate, which has now been on the air for 45 years, and she later created and hosted Adrienne Clarkson Presents, a show which presented cultural events, before becoming Governor General in 1999.

“When you realize a life such as I have realized in Canada, and you came when you were two and you were a refugee with nothing, with one suitcase, you realize that the country made it possible by simply not trying to hurt you in any way,” she says.

When Clarkson became Governor General in 1999, she was the first visible minority to be appointed to the role of the Queen’s representative in Canada. She used her platform during her six-year tenure to celebrate diversity in Canada. “I always felt that we had been saved somehow here, so I felt I owed the country something,” she says.

She continues to champion Canada and its diversity. In 2005, she co-founded The Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a charity that helps new citizens integrate into life in Canada. She has also published several books, including Room for All of Us, a collection of stories about the Canadian immigrant experience. She says she was profoundly shaped by her experience as a refugee, but also by a feeling of belonging in Canada.

“That’s why I leapt on to Canada so much because it made me feel—because it was a country where everyone had come from somewhere else.” She recalls a letter she received when she was Governor General from a young girl. “She was Portuguese, and she said: ‘Now that you’re Governor General I know that I can become Governor General, too,’” Clarkson says.

“And that was the point, I think—I think it’s the point of my life in many ways.”

'Tastes From Home' includes recipes from Asia and the Pacific, South and Central America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East and North Africa. You can download it by visiting 

  • See also this great video of Anuarite creating her favourite dish here.

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The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.