No one would call the governor general’s job an easy one. Juggling the roles of figurehead, political arbiter, patron, and diplomat demands someone adept at ceremony, attuned to political nuance, and comfortable in the public eye: that’s no straightforward combination. Is it any wonder the pool of potential candidates was kept so narrow for so long?
Since Confederation, Canada has had twenty-nine governors general. The first seventeen were British, all cut from the same aristocratic cloth. Today, those early representatives of the Crown might look like nothing more than colonial relics, but that view does them a disservice. Most were highly diligent, some even carving out lasting legacies. Lord Lorne, for example, was instrumental in establishing the National Gallery of Canada, in 1880, while John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, enthusiastically instituted the Governor General’s Literary Awards in 1937. Still, by the time Vincent Massey came along in 1952, there was widespread relief that the position had finally passed into Canadian-born hands. Massey himself was the perfect transitional figure, in many ways indistinguishable from his predecessors and with all the gravitas the post requires. His immediate successor, Georges Vanier, evinced a similar dignity; a proud francophone, Vanier wore the supremely Anglocentric title with ease.
Not all who followed were as scintillating in their talents, and it is probably fair to say that by the time Roméo LeBlanc stepped down in 1999, citing health reasons, there was a consensus that it was time to move past battle-hardened political warhorses. The initial trio of a new generation — Adrienne Clarkson, Michaëlle Jean, and David Johnston — proved highly successful. Each put a unique stamp on the job, not just modernizing its day-to-day features but recapturing some of the lustre that had faded since the days of Massey and Vanier.
There was every indication that Julie Payette would follow suit when she was tapped in 2017. A relatively young and highly accomplished trailblazer, and perfectly bilingual to boot, she seemed to embody so many favourable twenty-first-century Canadian attributes, at least as seen through the prism of the Liberal government’s “sunny ways.” Of course, the result did not turn out to be quite so sunny, and for a humdrum reason: when it came to checking whether image matched reality, no one in the PMO had bothered to do the essential legwork. So we are left with today’s inevitable round of recriminations. Thankfully, we also have an opportunity to reflect on how vice-regal appointments are — and could be — made.
It’d be more than a stretch to say the present process is perfect. Indeed, there is a basic conflict of interest in having a prime minister choose an official who might sit in judgment of his or her own political future (even if formally the PM only recommends a candidate to the Queen). This flaw is particularly relevant during minority governments, when a governor general’s decision-making power can play a pivotal role.
One of the many recommended improvements, bandied about in some other Commonwealth countries, is to have the governor general voted in by the general electorate. But it seems unlikely this suggestion will ever gain much purchase here. Other possibilities include passing the decision along to Parliament itself, or even involving the 1,000-plus members of the Order of Canada. Again, neither of these suggestions has gained much support. Not only would the constitutional obstacles associated with such options be immense, but each is inherently risky. In the immortal words of Walter Bagehot, the nineteenth-century observer of the British monarchy, “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
That leaves procedural tweaking, for which practical options do exist. The one receiving the most attention at the moment is the notion that Justin Trudeau should set aside whatever animus he feels toward Stephen Harper and reinstitute the perfectly sensible arrangements of his immediate predecessor. They involve constituting an arm’s-length committee to be in charge of each vice-regal appointment, at both the federal and provincial levels, with the task of passing on the names of five fully vetted candidates for the prime minister’s consideration. This process has much to recommend it: it incorporates outside expertise, allows for a modicum of confidentiality, and does not break with constitutional traditions. Still, its resurrection may not come to pass. The current government might resolve instead to selfishly guard its decision-making power, giving the prime minister full rein to meet broader political aims, especially at a time when racial inequity and the push for reconciliation loom large.
So where does this leave us? Alas, probably muddling along as before, with nothing more in the way of consolation than a few earnest promises from the praetorian guard around the prime minister that important lessons have been learned. We can only hope that those lessons really do stick — if for no other reason than to aid our thirtieth governor general. After all, this person is the one who will have to contend with the shambles Payette left in her wake. Canadians ought to offer a large measure of goodwill as the next holder of the office sets about this delicate but vital task.