Does Canada need a governor general?

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Prime Minister Trudeau attends the Speech from the Throne to open the second session of the 43rd Parliament of Canada, September 2020. Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

Canada has no governor general (GG), for the time being at least. Does anyone care? Should anyone care?

Well, we are (still) a constitutional monarchy, which means Queen Elizabeth II is our official head of state, and the GG is her representative in Canada, carrying out all of a monarch's duties.

And those duties are not all merely ceremonial.

No federal legislation is final, for instance, until the GG signs it, giving it royal assent. As well, the GG swears in all cabinet officials, accepts credentials from all ambassadors to Canada, and officially dissolves or prorogues Parliament when required.

The governor general can also act as a constitutional referee in Canada's political system.

In 2008 prime minister Stephen Harper decided to put the House of Commons on hold -- after Parliament had only sat long enough, in the days following an election, to pass a throne speech (a government's overarching statement of its objectives). Harper asked governor general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament.

Harper's motive was to avoid a confidence vote on his minority government's fall economic update, a vote he was sure to lose.

The three opposition parties had all given notice they planned to vote against the update, also called a mini-budget. But rather than trigger another premature election, the Liberals and New Democrats said they could replace Harper's Conservatives with a two-party coalition government, to which the Bloc Québécois pledged to give support.

It was an awkward moment for the governor general. No prime minister had ever before sought prorogation mere weeks after an election. Some urged the GG to deny Harper's request, or to ask him to seek the assent of Parliament before she would agree. On the other hand, no governor general had ever denied a prime minister's prorogation request, which is usually considered a routine matter.

Michaëlle Jean's solution was to recognize precedence and grant Harper's request. But to emphasize that this was an exceptional case she engaged Harper in a long meeting at her Rideau Hall residence, for about 40 minutes, before finally signing the document. That 40-minute delay did not endear the GG to Harper, but Michaëlle Jean made her point.

An election campaign where the GG became an issue

The most notorious clash between a GG and a prime minister was what historians now call the King-Byng affair of 1926. At the time, William Lyon Mackenzie King's Liberals were governing as a minority -- even though in the election of 1925 they had won fewer seats than Arthur Meighen's Conservatives.

King could count on the support of the agrarian, populist Progressive party, for a while at least, but only for a while. Early in 1926, the Progressives signalled they would vote for a Conservative motion of censure related to a scandal involving bribes to customs officials. The government would thus suffer defeat on a matter of confidence.

To head off the opposition, King asked the governor general, Lord Julian Byng, to dissolve Parliament and call a new election, before the scheduled vote on the Conservative motion. Byng refused. The House then voted to censure King's government, but instead of acceding to King's request to call an election Byng asked Arthur Meighen to form a new Conservative government.

The Conservatives couldn't keep Progressive support for long, however. In short order they fell on a confidence vote, and King had his new election before the year was over.

In the 1926 campaign, the Liberal leader didn't bother campaigning against the Conservatives. He made governor general Byng the issue. At that time, governors general were still appointed by the British, and King portrayed Byng's refusal to heed an elected prime minister's request as an affront to Canadian sovereignty.

King's rhetoric worked. He won the election and since that time GGs have all been loath to turn down prime ministerial requests.

The King-Byng affair did, however, underscore the fact the governor general can have more to do than officiate at ceremonies and travel the world representing Canada.

A possible sticky wicket for the chief justice

Today, as the Constitution requires, Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner is acting as fill-in, doing the governor general's job. He's the one who gives royal assent, and, if needed, swears in new cabinet ministers.

All seems to be well and good. Over time, however, this arrangement could prove to be awkward.

What if some citizen or group of citizens were to launch a court challenge to a piece of federal legislation which the chief justice had signed? The chief justice could then find himself in the position of having to rule thumbs up or down on a law which he himself had, in effect, approved.

That's just one reason why the government might not want to let this interim situation last too long.

We are in this situation because former governor general Julie Payette was forced to resign after an independent report showed she had been serially abusive of her staff. Some are now saying Canada should use the Payette fiasco as an opportunity to finally get rid of the monarchy, and with it the governor general.

There are, indeed, a number of countries with parliamentary systems similar to ours which manage without a king or queen.

In India, Germany and Israel, for example, the prime minister (or, in Germany's case, the chancellor) is chief executive of government, but there is also an elected president, whose role is similar to that of our governor general. We could, in theory, do the same here, and abolish an archaic vestige of our one-time colonial status.

Such a change would not be easy, however. In fact, it would require a constitutional amendment, which, in turn, would require all provinces and the federal government to agree. That might happen someday. It will definitely not happen this year.

Others suggest it is time to name an Indigenous person to the governor general's role. They have even proposed one: Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and then served in the Senate. Sinclair has demurred. He's not interested, although not against the idea of an Indigenous GG.

Choosing Sinclair might have been problematic in any case because he is not fluently bilingual. In the past, that was not an issue. For many decades the only bilingual GGs were those whose mother tongue was French. We used to have unilingual federal party leaders, as well.

Things have changed. Since 1995 all of the governors general have been fluent in both official languages. It has become a de facto requirement.

In any case, many Indigenous people think the whole idea smacks of tokenism. It would be more important to have an Indigenous Supreme Court justice, they say, which is a role with real power and influence.

A writer of adventures, an old-school antisemite, some media celebrities

Historically, the GGs have been a mixed bag. Until we got our first Canadian governor general, in 1952, they tended to be minor British aristocrats, and often military men. (All the GGs were men until Jeanne Sauvé, who was appointed in 1984).

One of the few early GGs with significant accomplishments outside politics and the military was the Scottish author John Buchan, also known as Lord Tweedsmuir. He wrote popular adventure fiction, with a strong British imperialist slant. Director Alfred Hitchcock adapted Buchan's novel The Thirty-Nine Steps for the big screen. You can still catch it on the classic movie channel.

In the late 1930s, when Buchan was GG, British writer Malcolm Lowry was also living in Canada, on the West Coast, and not doing too well financially. Lowry had yet to publish his masterpiece, Under the Volcano -- which would earn him a far more prominent place in the literary pantheon than Buchan. In a moment of desperation, Lowry wrote to Buchan, writer to writer, asking if the GG could help find him some remunerative work. As far as we know, Buchan did not reply.

The first Canadian GG was diplomat and politician Vincent Massey, scion of an über-wealthy, establishment Toronto family. As Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, Massey hobnobbed with the pro-Nazi Cliveden set. In their book None is Too Many historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper depict Massey as a genteel, old-school antisemite, who opposed any effort to allow persecuted and mortally endangered Jews to emigrate to Canada.

Since then, we have had other diplomats, one career military officer, two former speakers of the House, and other ex-politicians.

More recently, prime ministers have tended to favour people who already had significant media presence. Prior to becoming governors general, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean both worked for years as on-air television journalists, and Julie Payette's status as an astronaut gave her massive media exposure.

Now, Justin Trudeau has to weigh many factors in selecting a new person. And he will have to do some serious due diligence to avoid another Payette-style disaster.

The opposition parties, especially the NDP, have suggested Trudeau make the selection a collaborative process, involving all parties in Parliament. Despite an early promise to govern in an open and cooperative manner, that has not been this prime minister's style. His choice of Payette happened without any sort of serious process, and certainly without consulting opposition members of Parliament.

But it is still not too late for Trudeau to change his ways.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

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