ANOTHER VIEW

Seeking a role for the Queen’s man

One side, relentlessly North American, wants the governor general to be just-folks. The other side wants to see dignity and pomp

CHARLES GORDON February 12 1990
ANOTHER VIEW

Seeking a role for the Queen’s man

One side, relentlessly North American, wants the governor general to be just-folks. The other side wants to see dignity and pomp

CHARLES GORDON February 12 1990

Seeking a role for the Queen’s man

CHARLES GORDON

ANOTHER VIEW

One side, relentlessly North American, wants the governor general to be just-folks. The other side wants to see dignity and pomp

Newspaper ads purchased by the department of the secretary of state set out the details: “The Governor General will take a Royal Salute and inspect the 100-person multi-service Guard of Honour before leaving the grounds of Parliament Hill by landau, accompanied by a mounted escort of the RCMP, to proceed to Rideau Hall.” Only the last line seemed genuinely Canadian: “Please note that there is no public parking available on Parliament Hill.”

The ceremony evoked a British past that few native-born Canadians remember and most new Canadians find foreign, accustomed as they are to an americanized Canada. It was the day after thousands of Canadians watched the Super Bowl and thousands of others drove across the border for a day of shopping in the United States.

What relevance could a new governor general have to such a place?

When the day came, a few hundred people gathered on Parliament Hill in front of the Peace Tower to watch. Because such an event, like so much of modern life, makes sense only on television, the spectators outside could get only disjointed glimpses of the occasion. They saw black cars pull up and people get out. They saw the Prime Minister and the chief justice of the Supreme Court take a few steps towards them, stand there for a few seconds, then turn around and walk away. They saw Ray Hnatyshyn, the governor general-to-be, wearing a top hat, do the same thing, accompanied by the Prime Minister, who had somehow reappeared. They heard a band, saw soldiers.

Off to one side, they saw three demonstrators. One held a picture of a fetus. Another held an anti-abortion sign. A third held various signs and, in a strong voice, bellowed out observations relating to the relationship between the government and the RCMP. Occasionally, the crowd chuckled. The RCMP, which was all around, left him alone, even when he greeted

Charles Gordon is a columnist withThz Ottawa Citizen.

the arrival of Hnatyshyn with the shouted comment: “Another patronage appointment!”

The outside crowd, which seemed to consist of ordinary Canadians dressed in ordinary winter garb, swelled during the hour that Hnatyshyn was inside in the world of thrones, red carpets and the Great Seal, being made governor general. When he reappeared, the demonstrators were still there, untroubled by the authorities and tolerated by the crowd. The crowd gave Hnatyshyn a round of applause, the clapping muffled for having been done with gloves on—a cold round of applause, you could call it, but none the less warm.

The traditional case for the governor general is that he represents the Queen, performs important ceremonial duties and, because he is above politics, serves a unifying role. Perhaps not too many of us are much impressed by the governor general as Queen’s representative, but the ceremonial usefulness of the governor general should not be underestimated. The elected leader of the country, the prime minister, would be swamped if he had to serve also as head of state. Everyday, there are cornerstones to be dedicated, troops to be reviewed, visiting heads of state to be fed. There are awards to be awarded: Canada seems to lead

the world in the number of literary prizes given out; if it were not for the governor general, the prime minister would have to spend a great deal of his time shaking hands with authors.

Throughout our history, the governor general has taken on those duties and left the prime minister free to run the country. Though the prime minister’s use of that free time has not always been widely admired, most Canadians would prefer their prime minister to be governing, rather than standing around having people curtsy to him.

The theory goes that the governor general, in doing all these things, establishes Rideau Hall as a centre of excellence and unites the country. The practice is that the country, when it thinks about the matter at all, is divided. It is divided into those who like and those who don’t like the governor general. For some reason, the office itself has not won a place in our hearts, so we tend to judge the institution by the current occupant.

Thus, we find the institution criticized for being too remote, too elitist, by the critics of the elegant Jeanne Sauvé and her gate-closing regime. Before that, the governor-generalship was being criticized for lacking glitter by those who objected to the solemn Ed Schreyer, who opened Rideau Hall to a variety of people, some of whom were not rich and famous. Now Ray Hnatyshyn is being welcomed by those who have seen six years of Sauvé and have decided they like openness better after all.

In many ways, the two sides of the argument represent the two aspects of the Englishspeaking half of our national character. One side, relentlessly North American, wants the governor general to be just-folks, with the odd fancy-dress ball thrown in and the people free to wander the grounds. The other side, pulled more by the British connection, wants to see dignity and pomp. The Private Capital, the CBC television version of Sandra Gwyn’s book, showed us a few weeks ago what that looked like. Clearly, there was great fun at Rideau Hall, but not everybody was invited.

Opening up, both literally and figuratively, will help, but it won’t, in itself, be enough to make the office mean much to Canadians. Not that the governor general should actually exercise any power. Nobody really wants that, although we are comforted by the notion of him taking tea with the prime minister, advising, encouraging and warning, in accordance with his constitutional duties.

Nor should the G-G think about delivering himself of pronouncements on the important issues of the day. Both Schreyer and Sauvé tried that—once each—and found their words greeted with horror by press and public. No, what the G-G has to do is find a cause and make it his, much as the First Lady in the United States has often done. If the governor general took up the war against drugs or the campaign for literacy, for example, he could lead in a positive way, have some fun and make his job mean something.

He might also think about the scene that greeted him on Parliament Hill. Making sure such scenes continue to be part of our national life is not a bad mission either.