Caution urged in reforming the Governor Generalcy

Former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson briefly returned to the public eye late this week, when she suggested in an interview with the Globe and Mail that Parliament should play a more active role in choosing who should be the Queen’s representative in Canada.

Specifically, Clarkson recommended that prospective Governors-General continue to be nominated by the prime minister, but be subject to televised confirmation hearings.

This sounds modest on the surface. However, opening a debate on how the Governor-General should be chosen could open a much wider debate on who should be Canada’s head of state and how the head of state should be chosen.

In theory, Canada is a monarchy whose official head of state is Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada — and, by coincidence, Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, Jamaica, etc. as well. Since she lives in the U.K., she appoints a representative known as the Governor-General. The Governor-General, in turn, has the power to hire and fire the prime minister and members of the cabinet, dissolve parliament, appoint senators and call elections, among other things. In theory.

Some have suggested that the Governor-General should be elected. Which is a possibility, as long as people understand that an elected Governor-General would no longer be the ceremonial figure in the style of incumbent Governor-General Michaelle Jean. An elected Governor-General would be the country’s most powerful politician, with every right to use all those powers noted above.

Since provincial Lieutenants-Governor are representatives of the Governor General, it’s possible that an elected Governor General might even have the right to hire and fire provincial premiers and cabinet ministers. Such power in the hands of a single person would be unprecedented in Canadian history.

Others suggest abolishing the Governor-Generalcy. That raises its own complications. Either the powers that the Governor-General now has would have to revert to a Queen who lives in another country, or they would be left entirely in the hands of the prime minister and/or Parliament, to be used with less caution than they are today.

Still others suggest having a referendum on Canada becoming a republic and changing its system of government entirely to one closer in resemblance to the United States’s or Germany’s. Perhaps that would work, but there’s a little rule in the constitution that these kinds of changes would require the unanimous consent of all 10 provincial legislatures in addition to that of the federal government.

The last two rounds of constitutional reform, the Meech Lake Accord in 1987-90 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, showed that to be a messy process.

Even modest changes in how the Governor-General is chosen could open the door to a debate on more substantial changes — electing or abolishing the Governor-General, or even the creation of a Federal Republic of Canada.

Considering what’s at stake, Parliament should proceed with great caution. And if they’re interested in maintaining Canada’s stability, they should not steer Canada closer to the U.S. model (see below), but closer to the Scandinavian model.

The World Bank's assessment of each country's political stability, 2007. Green is good, red is bad, the rest is mediocre. (Source:

The World Bank's assessment of each country's political stability, 2007. Green is good, yellow is okay, oranges, reds and pinks are bad. (Source:


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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