It is a role that straddles several worlds – political, royal, legal and diplomatic – and combines tact, careful judgment, discretion and wisdom. Welcome to the offices of the governor general of Canada and the provincial lieutenant governors.
As a constitutional monarchy, Canada’s Parliament has two well-known components, the House of Commons and the Senate, as well as a third entity: the Queen’s vice-regal representative, the governor general. In a role that is sometimes not as well-known, the governor general nonetheless plays an important part in the national scene. Sometimes, the public views the role through the lens of pomp and circumstance, royal visits, ribbon cuttings and soft-focus meet-and-greets. But vice-regal officials at both the federal and provincial levels are also very much activists in their own rights. They advocate for essential Canadian causes and quietly keep an eye on the political balancing act at play in Ottawa and the provinces and also between Canada and Buckingham Palace. In the words of former Governor General David Johnston, it is an “awe-inspiring role” that demands diplomacy and leadership, and brings with it a dose of humility as well.
The Queen has executive power under Canada’s 1867 Constitution Act, applied through the prime minister and the prime minister’s cabinet. Canada’s provinces each have their own lieutenant governors. While the governor general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, lieutenant governors are appointed by the governor general on the prime minister’s recommendation, generally for a term of five years. While in the past governors general were British citizens, since 1952 the law has stipulated that they must be Canadian. They are chosen to represent the plurality of Canadian identities and are drawn from all walks of life.
Though some might consider the role to be little more than vice-regal window-dressing, the role has considerable power. According to Alfred Thomas Neitsch, in A Tradition of Vigilance: The Role of Lieutenant Governor in Alberta, “A contemporary misconception exists in Canada that the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governors are politically impotent. In fact, they have considerable power both of a legal and political nature.”
So just what are the powers of the governor general? In a non-partisan role, the governor general exercises the Queen’s responsibilities and powers, under advice of the Privy Council, the federal cabinet secretariat responsible for supporting the federal government’s agencies. These powers include:
- provision of guidance to the prime minister’s office;
- ensuring that the government is operating in a way conducive to a positive and forward-looking administration;
- presiding over swearing-in ceremonies for officials such as the prime minister, cabinet and Canada’s chief justice;
- signing official documents;
- appointing the provinces’ lieutenant governors; and
- opening and dissolving Parliament.
At the provincial level, the lieutenant governor’s role is similar across Canada:
- ensuring the continuity of provincial government;
- appointing ministers on the advice of the premier;
- opening and dissolving the provincial legislature;
- giving Royal Assent to bills passed by the legislature;
- approving public appointments and regulations;
- signing off on other government business; and
- meeting regularly with the premier and with the governor general.
Additionally, the vice-regal role at both federal and provincial level involves in-depth diplomacy, hosting heads of state and members of the royal family when necessary, and reaching out to communities across their jurisdictions.
A very real significance of the vice-regal office is in ensuring that there is an entity (the governor general or lieutenant governor) who can determine – clearly – which political party has the democratic mandate to run the country or province, says Jeremy Webber, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Victoria.
Webber says the vice-regal role is significant enough that if Canada did away with it, a substitute would have to be found. “For instance, in meeting foreign dignitaries, one doesn’t want that event to have a partisan flavour to it. (While) most of the business is run by the elected officials, there are circumstances where you have to have some distance from the partisan give-and-take.”
A place where the role is essential is in handling contested elections. “If you have no majority, there is uncertainty as to who really carries the mandate,” says Webber. “You need someone who can manage that process,” a stabilizing force so that you don’t have people wrongly claiming to have power, essentially “someone who can really carry the support of the majority of people … the governor general at the federal level and lieutenant governor at the provincial level make sure that process works.”
The power of the lieutenant governor’s office in listening (and being responsive) to the collective concerns of the people – and even sparking controversy as a result of having their thoughts broadcast – is well known. Neitsch, in A Tradition of Vigilance: The Role of Lieutenant Governor in Alberta, writes of Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole (who served Alberta from 2000-2005) making a public comment in March 2000 concerning the potential passage of a health bill that would permit the privatization of some health care services. A very public political debate raged over the appropriateness of Hole’s comments, and the aptness of the holder of the vice-regal office inserting herself into political matters. However, Neitsch says “Hole’s comments were merely conveying to the public that, as lieutenant governor, she would be ensuring that the premier realized that the legislation was controversial and that there was widespread opposition to it.” That role – to bring to light issues of concern to the public, on behalf of the Canadian people – is seen as an essential component of the vice-regal role.
However, “when the lieutenant governors or governor generals are exercising their non-partisan representative function, they have to be very careful,” cautions Webber. “It’s not that they have to remain silent (but) they have to be really careful (in stating an opinion) that they don’t end up doing so in a way that is seen as partisan.”
David Johnston, who served Canada for seven years (2010 – 2017) as the country’s 28th governor general, came to his position with an established track record in the law, business and government. A lawyer and graduate of the University of Cambridge and Queen’s University, he was an academic for several years and had served as dean of the University of Western Ontario’s faculty of law, principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University and president of the University of Waterloo. Following his service as governor general, he became an advisor with the consulting firm Deloitte and currently volunteers with a charitable organization he created: the Rideau Hall Foundation, which has a goal of inspiring Canadians through recognizing innovation, giving, learning and leadership.
In an interview, Johnston says his most memorable role was as Commander-in-Chief of the military, a vice-regal function involving leadership and morale boosting for Canadian forces, “and that is something I treasured”. He enjoyed being the liaison between Canada and the international community, making more than 50 official international visits, and celebrating Canadian excellence, honouring the vitality and innovation of Canadians by engaging in up to 650 events per year. In promoting Canada, he signed letters and certificates (up to 50,000 a year) recognizing Canadian courage, ingenuity and originality, delivered speeches across the country, and handed out the Canadian Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, an award given to citizens who make significant unpaid contributions to their communities. This was in addition to building and maintaining a trusting relationship between the vice-regal office and the prime minister, and offering the prime minister and cabinet confidential advice and counsel.
As one of 43 constitutional monarchies in the world (16 of them under Queen Elizabeth II), Canada enjoys a connection to the monarchy while also possessing its own singular Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and “while the idea of constitutional monarchy around the world might be seen as a bit archaic, there are significant issues of trust in the constitution. We have been able to make a thousand years of constitutional history …work in a variety of institutions,” says Johnston. “You have stability, a longer-term view and you have a reinforcement of the very fundamental values that make your country special.”
David Onley, who served as Ontario’s 28th Lieutenant Governor (2007-2014), came to his position from a background in television journalism and was an author and advocate for persons with disability issues. Stricken with polio as a child, he required the use of mobility devices throughout his adult life and became a strong promoter of accessibility for the physically challenged.
Onley appreciates the legal role played by the lieutenant governor. “God forbid there would be a situation where a government would act in an unconstitutional way or pass legislation that was unconstitutional, there would be outcries from the media and others, but somebody has to have the power to blow the whistle,” he says. “So far that hasn’t been used, but for me, it was a reassuring reality.” For Onley, his three decades of experience as a television journalist and reporter prior to becoming lieutenant governor helped ease him into the role. He was already comfortable speaking to large audiences, though he admits that “it can be overwhelming when you are speaking to crowds of 5,000 or more.” He also credits his academic background in political science with helping him understand the political nuances of the office.
According to Johnston, the vice-regal role brings with it a depth of responsibility that can be humbling. “No matter how good the office was when you arrived, you want to make it better. You are always moving from data to information to knowledge … and you do that by gathering the wisdom of other people.” Good judgment is essential, “and having confidence without arrogance.” In making vice-regal appointments, whether they are for commissions or the office of provincial lieutenant governor, “you aim for integrity, wise judgment and a capacity to work”.
The breadth of experience in serving as a governor general can be awe-inspiring. Johnston uses the repatriation of Canadian soldiers who died in combat as an example of how his job of supporting and comforting Canadian families struck an emotional chord in him. The process of repatriating a soldier’s body changed over time, from a private, family-only ceremony to the now well-known procedure of transporting the soldier’s body along Highway 401 from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Toronto, Ontario. In a public display of grief, crowds of onlookers stand on overpasses to show their respect as the cortege passes. This is underscored by a campaign to plant trees along Highway 401 in memory of fallen soldiers – one for each of the 117,000 who have died. For Johnston, being part of these events served to reinforce the caring of Canadians for their military. The greater participation of Canadians was a profound statement on what it meant to be a citizen, and Johnston says he was moved to be a part of that experience.
For Onley, poignant memories from his time in office are contained in letters, comments, or, in one unforgettable case, a small Ontario community’s legion hall event honouring a local hero, a woman dying of cancer. There was recognition and a celebration. After the woman died, Onley was touched to see that her obituary mentioned him. Her memorial stated that “it had been the most significant moment in her life to meet the Queen’s representative in Ontario,” he says. “I thought that was really significant – meeting not just me as David Onley but meeting the Queen’s representative.” It impressed upon him the significance of the vice-regal role.
Spanning the worlds of Queen’s representative, being the eyes and ears of the populace, and keeping tabs on the political sphere, can bring challenges – and it can spark innovation. For instance, in 2013, Onley made the unprecedented move to invite members of provincial parliament from the three major parties to a dinner to discuss ways to make the Ontario legislature – at the time a toxic place of sniping and angry remarks back and forth – a more civilized place. As reported by Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, Onley was concerned that “the bitter divide in the legislature is turning off the voting public: As the sniping increases, voter turnout decreases … when fewer than half of all eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot, ‘It should be a concern to all of us’ (said Onley) ‘… I don’t think there’s a 10-step blueprint to everyone being nicer with each other, and that therefore people are going to always be talking policy.’”
While this was a slight departure from the normally above-the-fray position of the lieutenant governor, Onley says he made the move because it would shed light on an area that the public needed to know about. “I fully support the idea of (political) confidentiality, but I think the vice regal office has a responsibility to explain (the way things are) and that’s what I did in that situation.”
As for the future of the vice-regal offices, Johnston reflects for a moment on the history of constitutional law, dating back to Magna Carta in 1215, then to the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which clarified Canada’s parliamentary powers, and on to the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights and the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1982 the country was “saying to each Canadian, ‘you have that constitution and that serves to underscore your rights as a Canadian,’” he says. That was an important step for the country to take in recognizing its citizens’ individual rights, and “something that will become even more important in the future”.
Also essential is the building of relationships that the vice-regal office represents, both within the country and with Canada’s international partners. “We are considered the country with the best brand, with a remarkable reputation,” says Johnston. “Canada is a social innovation, premised on the belief that diversity can really work for you.” Webber agrees. “The governor general and the lieutenant governor must be focused on the inclusion of people within the symbolism of Canada.” As a result, a stable, caring and forward-looking national vision can be nurtured – one that recognizes, honours, and celebrates the achievements of all Canadians.