Governors General: the opposite of different

His Excellency, David Johnston (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Today in Ottawa, His Excellency The Right Honourable David Lloyd Johnston, Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Canada, Chancellor and Commander of the Order of Military Merit, Chancellor and Commander of the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief in and over Canada was sworn in to his new role.

Despite his admirable resume, much is being made of the fact that His Excellency David Johnston, our 28th Governor General,  is “the opposite” of his immediate predecessor, The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean.

He is male, she is female; he is white, she is black; he is an Anglophone, she is a Francophone; he is a landed Canadian, she is a new Canadian; he is elderly, she is relatively young.

Madame Jean was frequently seen to represent women, minorities, French speakers, and immigrants; His Excellency David Johnston will easily (and probably unfairly) be cast as representing old, incumbent, English-speaking white males.

Madame Michaelle Jean (Errol McGihon/The Ottawa Sun)

These are symbolic differences, important perhaps but symbolic nonetheless. In point of fact, cloaked in the trappings of the office, David Johnston and Michaëlle Jean as Governors General are not opposite, but the same.

Formally, they are appointees, who represent exactly the same thing: the ancient, anachronistic authority of the British monarchy in Canadian society.

The Governor General serves as the Queen’s Vice-Regal, representing her as our Head of State. As much as they may differ in personal appearance and approach, all Governors General are alike in this regard. They may execute their largely ceremonial roles differently – Madame Jean’s style and grace were widely admired – but in the end it’s the same role, and the script is written into the constitution, the history and the customs of this nation.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly the British Commonwealth. Our government and constitution were fundamentally shaped by our having been a British colony. The Queen is our true Head of State. The Governor General is the living embodiment of that fact. We also have a democratically elected government, of course, for political purposes, but the Crown, rather than the Prime Minister or Parliament wields ultimate authority over Canada.

This is not mere history. The Governor General, and by extension the Queen, can still make a huge difference in how our country is governed. In the 2008-2009 parliamentary dispute that came about under threat of a non-confidence vote against the Stephen Harper government, the Governor General had the ultimate say. As it happened, Madame Jean went along with Prime Minister Harper’s wishes and allowed him to prorogue parliament to stave off defeat.

It need not have happened that way, and it may not happen that way the next time such a crisis arises. Canadians can likely look forward to frequent minority governments from here on in, and threats of non-confidence votes that might topple a given party’s rule are a probable corollary.

These crises won’t be decided by popular vote. You, the citizen, will have no formal say. Any such crisis can potentially be decided just like the last one was: by the decision of the Queen’s Vice-Regal, an unelected official representing the traditional authority of the British Crown in Canada.

Madame Jean had her style, His Excellency David Johnston will have his. But the role of Governor General won’t change in any fundamental way so long as the institution represents British monarchic authority, rather than the democratically expressed will of the people of this country.

The Governors General of Canada have, in recent memory at least, represented some of the best qualities of character Canada’s citizenry has to offer. They’ve been diverse, admirable, effective, successful individuals. But can any individual in such a role be greater than the role itself allows? Can an archaic British institution ever truly reflect the real differences that define Canadian society today, and separate us from our distant, troubled colonial past?

These are the challenges that implicitly face every appointed Governor General, and so long as he or she represents the British Monarch, the answer to all of the above, regrettably must be “no.”

You may call Madame Jean and His Excellency David Johnston “opposites” for their obvious differences. But appearances can deceive: as Governors General, they are the opposite of different.

One comment on “Governors General: the opposite of different

  1. I couldn’t agree more, David, and lest anyone think the new boss will be more Harper-friendly than the old one. She let him get away with several prorogations, last winter’s being the most glaring (as you pointed out). I guess the question is: what is the alternative? Given that Oz has now elected a leader that wishes to kiss the Queen farewell once she finds her rightful place within the Abbey, perhaps they can show us some decent ideas. An elected President? Could be interesting. Meanwhile, your point is very well made.

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