Cover Story

When the G-G was Queen for a day

Warren Gerard,Julianne Labreche December 18 1978
Cover Story

When the G-G was Queen for a day

Warren Gerard,Julianne Labreche December 18 1978

When the G-G was Queen for a day

Some things for Ed Schreyer to anticipate: 109,207 people to entertain, five royal visits, 522 speeches on harmless generalities (excluding six Throne Speeches), Wednesday nights with Pierre Trudeau, and heaven knows it might be Joe Clark, and dutiful letters to Her Majesty on the state of the Dominion in these troubled times. Well, that's how it was for Roland (Roly) Michener in his six-and-a-halfyear tenure. Michener, now 78, the affable and starchily elegant 20th Governor-General from 1967 to 1974, did all those things—and he jogged a mile and a half a day, took toboggan slides with children at Government House and made fitness a byword with pomp and ceremony.

It has been a long tradition for the Governor-General to meet on a regular basis with PMS. Often they are once-a-week meetings, but it all depends on how the two men get on. Trudeau, for instance, despite their weekly meetings, and perhaps partly because of Governor-General Jules Léger's illness, never had a close relationship with Schreyer's predecessor; nor did he, for that matter, with Michener. It is expected that because of their closer friendship, he will be conferring more with Schreyer.

McGill political science Professor James Mallory recalls that Mackenzie King, overwhelmed by his black moods during the war years, would place urgent calls to Governor-General Lord Athlone, and the two would sit over cups of tea while King poured out his worries. “This," Mallory says, “was certainly better than consulting the mediums.”

But while the Governor-General listens, there are few occasions when he intervenes directly in government. One such recent interference by a G-G goes back to the early 1960s under Lester Pearson’s government. It was when cabinet signed a death sentence, but Governor-General Georges Vanier refused to sign the order

and the decision was sent back to cabinet. Pearson saw to it that more abolitionists attended the next session of cabinet, and the death sentence was commuted.

In more recent years, under Michener’s tenure, the Queen asked the GovernorGeneral to represent the monarchy abroad. As a result, Michener became Queen for a day in 1971 when he was invited to attend the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. He consulted with the Queen, was told she was not going, and so he took her place.

There have been at least 65 governors and governors-general (Samuel de Champlain was the first, holding office for 27 years). Since Confederation there have been 21 governorsgeneral and the first of them was both a Governor and a Governor-General, Viscount Monck, who was appointed in 1861 and regarded as a Father of Confederation. In the summer months, Monck journeyed from his home at Rideau Hall to his office on Parliament Hill by long boat, manned by Royal Navy bluejackets. The Moncks were not impressed with their surroundings and when Lady Monck’s niece published her diary, My Canadian Leaves, she noted herself “very disgusted with the squalid look of Ottawa.”

One of the zanier stories involving governors-general concerns the Duke of Devonshire and his false teeth. On a train trip to Winnipeg he put them into a glass of

water and fell asleep for the night. In the morning, a guard of honor and a crowd of Winnipeggers waited in the winter cold to greet the G-G. But they had to wait longer than expected. The duke’s teeth had been frozen solid.

The shortest tenure of office (the normal tenure is five years and may be extended) was held by Lord Durham (for five months) in 1838. He resigned after a quarrel with Downing Street, but even so he was one of the more significant appointments. He left a lasting, historical report, the Durham Report, which brought about the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841 and led to the larger union in 1867.

One of the better known historical incidents involved Governor-General Lord Byng. In 1926, Mackenzie King, then prime minister, came out of an election with fewer parliamentary seats than the Tories under Arthur Meighen. But King remained in office—he had the right until Parliament met—and the Progressives, as third party, agreed to support him. By June, however, a customs scandal broke and King went to Byng asking for an election so he wouldn’t have to face a vote of censure in Parliament. Byng refused, and called on Meighen to take over as prime minister. Byng’s refusal to take King’s advice provoked a crisis called the “Byng-King Thing” and an election in which King used Byng’s intransigence to win a decisive majority and to


emasculate effectively the governmentmaking powers of all succeeding governors-general.

But that crisis had nothing on what happened in 1975 in Australia when GovernorGeneral Sir John Kerr peremptorily, but apparently constitutionally, dismissed the Labor government of Edward Gough Whitlam. The opposition Liberal-Country party had blocked Whitlam’s budget in the Senate, where it had a majority, thus hoping to force Whitlam to call an election. Instead, Whitlam called on Sir John to get his formal approval to call a half-senate election (strange things happen down under) and the G-G said, “You are no longer prime minister—I am withdrawing your


Sir John dissolved both houses of parliament, appointed a caretaker government until a general election and, as a result, there were widespread and often violent demonstrations in support of Whitlam (who has now withdrawn from politics) and Sir John was battered with eggs and abuse.

There have been no such goings-on in Canada between governors-general and prime ministers, but there have been rumblings of discontent over Bill C-60, the government’s proposed constitutional amendments. The brouhaha started when Trudeau's constitution substituted the words "Governor-General" for “Queen” ("It shall be lawful for the Governor-General to make laws”). That, Trudeau replied, does nothing more than formalize longstanding practice, and the government revealed that one no less than Her Majesty had approved of the change.

It’s a change that Michener approaches cautiously. “There’s always been a development in these things,” he told Maclean's last week. “The trend has been to enlarge the function and role of the Governor-General, but there are limits, unless we make a conscious decision to become a republic, and unless we do that there is a limit to the transfer of responsibility in representing the Crown. I think we have to clean up the ambiguities.” Enter Ed Schreyer.

Warren Gerard/Julianne Labreche