Friday, October 07, 2005

What's a Governor General?

Well, my plea for "questions for Canada" yesterday resulted in only one question, but it is a doozy! Jim Milles has asked me to explain what a "Governor General" is. Well, do you want the short answer or the long answer? Here goes:

Back in 1776 the U.S. (as you may or may not recall, depending upon how old you are) signed the Declaration of Independence, making it independent from England. Well, Canada never really did that. Lots of things have happened since 1776, but we have always remained part of the Commonwealth, the former British Empire. For better or worse, the Queen of England is still our Queen.

The Governor General is the Queen's representative in Canada. It is the oldest and highest public office in Canada, even above the Prime Minister. Within the provinces, there is a Lieutenant Governor representing the Queen (in Canada we pronounce it "lef-tenant" rather than "loo-tenant". I have no idea why). When our legislation refers to the "Governor in Council" it is referring to one of these two offices. It is largely considered a figure-head position, but specific roles are set out. From the G.G.'s website:

What is the Governor General's position in Government?
Canada is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. This means Canadians recognize The Queen as our Head of State. Canada's Governor General carries out Her Majesty's duties in Canada on a daily basis and is Canada's de facto Head of State. Like many other democracies, Canada has clearly defined the difference between the Head of State and Head of Government.

The Governor General
represents The Queen who is the Head of State is appointed by The Queen on the advice of Canada’s Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister
is the Head of Government
is the leader of the party with the most support in Parliament

What does the Governor General do?
The Governor General's role is built on four major themes:

Representing the Crown in Canada
Representing Canadians and Promoting our Sovereignty
Celebrating Excellence
Bringing Canadians together

When our Bills have been through the whole legislative process, the final step towards their becoming law is to have them receive "Royal Assent" which means they are assented to by the Governor in Council on behalf of the Queen. Again, this is pretty much a rubber stamp. Only once in my career have I seen any legislation tied up at this point, and that was mostly because of timing issues than an unwillingness to pass the law.

You may have heard of the Governor General being in the news the last couple of years. Our most recent G.G., Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, a former journalist and television personality, garnered criticism for high levels of spending and expensive state visits abroad. She did manage to revitalize an old, outdated office, bringing it to the foreground and helping to promote Canada, however. Her husband, John Ralston Saul, is a well-known author in his own right. He was considered the Viceregal Consort while Clarkson was G.G.

This past week she was replaced by our 27th Governor General, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean. Her selection has been controversial in that she was perceived as being somewhat of a Quebec separatist supporter which is diametrically opposed to the Crown. There was some outcry in the media, which you may have seen.

Both Clarkson and Jean are interesting choices for this role as they were born outside of Canada, are women of colour, and were prominent journalists. It is hoped that Jean will bring a youthful vitality to the role, and give Quebec citizens a closer tie to the rest of Canada (always a challenge).

Within Canada we see people both strongly supporting or strongly objecting to the role of the Monarchy in Canada. For the most part, however, people are indifferent. Except, perhaps, when the Governor General is seen as overstepping her spending limits. If nothing else, it is certainly one way that Canadian government is distinguished from the American.

No comments: