Governor-General might not be our head of state, but there’s no harm in pretending

Michaëlle Jean has been one of the more affable Governors-General we’ve had in recent decades. Her life story appeals to the dreams of the thousands of immigrants who come to Canada every year in search of a better life: the young Haitian refugee in small-town Quebec in the ’60s who went on to become a popular broadcaster and then to hold one of her adopted homeland’s highest offices.

Tactile and expressive, she is also a welcome change from the perceived haughtiness of former governors-general Adrienne Clarkson and Jeanne Sauvé, and the blandness of Roméo LeBlanc and Ray Hnatyshyn.

Likeable as Michaëlle Jean might be, she has occasionally been at the centre of controversy: over her dual Canadian-French citizenship (she renounced the latter), her Québécois husband’s separatist sympathies, and over her decision to eat seal meat during a tour of the north. (Let’s face it: if she didn’t eat it, she would have been accused of being rude to her hosts.)

More recently, Jean was given a public slap on the wrist by the Prime Minister’s Office after she suggested that she was Canada’s head of state during a visit to Paris last week.

As the Governor-General of Canada, she has the powers of the head of state. She can hire and fire prime ministers and cabinet ministers, appoint senators and judges, and veto legislation at her own discretion.

All that prevents her from using these powers is an unwritten agreement — a constitutional convention according to political scientists — that the unelected Governor-General would never use these powers on her own except in a national emergency.

Remember that the next time you hear someone suggest that the Governor-General should be directly elected.

In spite of those tools at her disposal, the Governor-General is not Canada’s head of state. Constitutionally, that job belongs to whoever happens to be the British monarch. Right now, that happens to be the 83-year-old Queen Elizabeth II.

The Governor-General is, theoretically, merely the Queen’s representative in Canada.

The Governor-General’s job has evolved to the point, though, where Michaëlle Jean is our unofficial head of state. When Queen Elizabeth took over as monarch in 1952, many English-speaking Canadians still considered themselves British, and the monarchy was considered an important national symbol.

Over time, the cultural ties between Canada and the U.K. have faded away. Today, Canada and Britain still get along reasonably well in international affairs, but are now as foreign to each other as Premier League football is to NHL hockey and the British class system is to Canadian egalitarianism.

The Queen is well aware of this, and has accepted without complaint that Canadian governors-general should take on more head-of-stateish obligations.

She and other members of her family probably sense this every time they visit Canada and hear Canadians straining to familiarize themselves with royal protocol that British citizens know by heart — such as that the Queen is to be referred to as Your Majesty, never as Your Highness.

The royals might even note a slightly strained look on Canadians’ faces as they remember the correct terminology, forcing themselves to suppress the polite way of introducing one’s self in Canada, which is to use first names as soon as possible.

No, I will most certainly not just call you Bill. And even though Im in Canada, Im still Your Majesty to you, not Liz. © The Telegraph

No, I will certainly not just call you Bill! And even though I'm in Canada, I'm still Your Majesty to you! (Image © The Telegraph)

The royal family might be as out of place in modern-day Canada as Prince Charles and wife Camilla in a crowd of Saturday morning hockey parents, and some Canadians (including myself) might be in favour of making the Governor-General’s head of state role official. But that doesn’t mean change is coming soon.

Making the Governor-General our official head of state would require huge constitutional amendments — if not a whole new constitution — that would have to be ratified by the federal government and all ten provincial governments, taking up massive amount of the government’s time.

It would also need a referendum to give the whole thing public legitimacy, which would also add complications.

Though it might sound like a small task on the surface, changing the Governor-General from Canada’s unofficial head of state to our official head of state would be such a challenging project that there is little appetite to take it on, whether in Canada, New Zealand or even Australia, which narrowly voted a decade ago to keep the monarchy for the time being.

The best thing the Canadian government can do for now, then, is to let the Governor-General go on being Canada’s unofficial head of state and to turn a blind eye when Michaëlle Jean leaves others with the impression that she is the head of state.

That way, monarchists will still have their royals, small-r republicans will have a Canadian doing the heavy lifting as head of state, and the indifferent — the masses of Canadians who couldn’t name more than one or two of the Queen’s four children to save their lives — can be spared having to listen to a debate about an issue they couldn’t care less about.

It would be the ultimate Canadian compromise.


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

One Response to Governor-General might not be our head of state, but there’s no harm in pretending

  1. Rob Wolvin says:

    The foundation of Canadian democracy is in the structure of political power & our respect the legal system in this country. It logically follows that we must fight to uphold our constitution & the chain of authority upon which our legal system is based.

    Whatever system a society has for choosing it’s leadership, one could argue they have legitimacy based on the consent of their people. The general population accepts the leadership based on the choice of a minority of their fellow citizens. This minority may be the nation’s aristocracy, primary industrialists, leadership of the armed forces, 20% of eligible voters in a riding in Calgary, Alberta or perhaps, the spiritual hierarchy, as in Iran or Vatican City.

    I would argue that Canada is more democratic because our Prime Minister can only govern if the majority of our representatives from all over the country support his actions in the House of Commons.

    Canada would be safer if the Prime Minister’s Office (An undemocratic, appointed body that only exists to keep their boss in power!) was not busily exercising powers that the constitution rightly reserved for the monarch. This is intended to protect us from abuse of the law, parliament as well as the tyranny of the majority that political machinations can sometimes make us vulnerable to. The Prime Minister has NO democratic or legal right to act as both head of government & head of State!

    Encouraging the Governor-General to claim or use powers that are not legally assigned to his/her office is not in the interest of Canadian democracy. Such abuse would further erode the legitimacy of the only office in the land that can legally stop an illegitimate Prime Minister! We don’t need this temporal appointee & completely unqualified Prime Minister’s lackey, taking over rights they aren’t entitled to, in the constitution!

    Canada needs it’s own unique, resident, engaged & effective monarch.

    I believe that the majority of Canadians would accept a Head of State who was selected by God &/or nature, IE. Royal Birth.. if his/her rights where clearly defined by a democratic constitution! Our society already has, for centuries, though today our monarch is a foreign remnant of colonialism AND irrelevant to Canadian daily life! This situation can improve without changing the constitution!!

    By a simple change to the succession law we could have a Canadian Heir Apparent… TOMORROW!

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