Canada

Pomp and ceremony

The governor general could exercise real powers

Patricia Chisholm September 20 1999
Canada

Pomp and ceremony

The governor general could exercise real powers

Patricia Chisholm September 20 1999

Pomp and ceremony

Canada

Special Report

The governor general could exercise real powers

Patricia Chisholm

When Adrienne Clarkson is sworn in as the Queen’s representative in Canada on Oct. 7, there will be enough pomp and ceremony to satisfy the staunchest monarchist. The spectacle, replete with honour guard and horse-drawn landau —not to mention exotic hats— will evoke the ties to Queen Elizabeth, who continues to perform her role as Canadas head of state. And while Canada is in all other respects a modern democracy,

Canadians seem content to retain this last vestige of colonialism. That is probably because a governor general’s tenure is almost entirely taken up with the duties of a figurehead: greeting heads of state, bestowing honours and throwing lavish parties. “The monarchy is not a big issue here because we have more important things to worry about, like whether the country is going to fall apart,” points out Peter Russell, a retired professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

But while the governor general has played no significant political role in Canadian government for decades, that could change. If, for instance, an election resulted in a hung Parliament, or Quebecers voted for sovereignty, a crisis of leadership could occur requiring the governor general’s intervention. In either case, a person expected simply to perform ceremonial duties might be called upon to resolve fundamental questions about who will govern, and how. “We just can’t predict what might happen and what difficulties might arise, says Patrick Monahan, a constitutional law expert at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. “Not modernizing this institution is like waiting for the house to burn down and then buying insurance.”

The problem, Monahan says, is that the governor general’s discretionary powers—though very rarely used—are extremely broad. As the Queen’s representative, the governor general can take action to affect the formation of a government, the transition from one government to another, or the dissolution of Parliament. In Monahan’s view, a person with such sweeping authority should be democratically chosen, rather than relying on the whim of a prime minister. Consti-

tutional change of the type currently being debated in Australia—Aussies go to the polls on Nov. 6 to vote on whether or not to become a republic—is not the answer, he says, since he believes it would be too difficult to achieve consensus in Canada.

But two simpler measures could help. Monahan recommends reducing the governor general’s broad legal powers. In addition, the selection process should be revised so that, at the very least, the appointment is approved by the leader of the Opposition. “A person who gets the job as an act of patronage has no legitimacy in a democratic society to make decisions that would actually affect people’s lives,” he says.

Others say that the current system can work just fine, as long as selections are prudently made. That means avoiding political cronies who may have few real qualifications for the job—a criticism that was levelled at Roméo LeBlanc, the departing governor general who was a Liberal cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau. Richard Johnston, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, says that, with the exception of the Queen, he has no great respect for the Royal family. But when appointments are wisely made—as he believes Clarksons was—the governor general can play a symbolic role by representing Canadas linguistic and ethnic diversity. “If we elected this person,” he says, “they would probably always be a middle-aged male of Scottish ancestry.”

At least one former holder of the office believes the post still serves many valuable functions. Ray Hnatyshyn, a minister of justice in the Mulroney government and governor general from 1990 to 1995, says having a nonpartisan governor general who is separate from the politics of decision-making makes it easier for Canadians to wave the flag, regardless of how they feel about the prime minister. And while the time demands of the office can be relentless—“I don’t think anyone realizes how busy it is until they get there”—he adds that it can also be deeply rewarding. “It’s a unique opportunity to celebrate excellence,” says Hnatyshyn, now a prominent Ottawa lawyer. In a country still grappling with the unity issue, that job may never have been more important, d