As I write this column, it’s too early to know which way the Governor General of Canada will jump. Prodded on both sides to decide the future of the 40th Parliament, and to add a new brick to the foundation of precedent and tradition that supports our constitution, the singularly unqualified Michaelle Jean may have spoken by the time this appears.
To an outside observer — one from outside the British parliamentary tradition that is — it must surely seem like the most profound of anachronisms. I don’t know about you, but I’m embarrassed to admit that the fate of my country’s Parliament lies in the hands of the representative of the Queen of England.
Michaelle Jean is an accomplished woman. She has an MA in literature, she is fluent in five languages, and has enjoyed a successful career as a journalist in both radio and television. Despite these accomplishments, she has no demonstrated ability in the field of constitutional law, and no background in parliamentary politics.
If her job had turned out to be entirely ceremonial, as she no doubt expected, Jean’s lack of experience wouldn’t have mattered. She was probably very close to the truth when she told the 2005 parliamentary press dinner that then-prime minister Paul Martin appointed her “because I’m hot.” There’s no denying she looks good in the viceregal ermine.
In truth though, Jean has been a bit of a loose cannon on the deck of Rideau Hall. As ceremonial head of state she is supposed to steer well clear of politics. Instead she waded into the Afghanistan controversy, not simply “supporting the troops,” but making a case for the war itself. She hasn’t been shy to weigh in on Quebec’s relationship to the rest of Canada either, once stirring up some dust by calling Quebecers “disconnected from the rest of Canada.”
It appears that Jean herself is no great monarchist. Early on, she stirred up a bit of controversy by clearing out some of the (no doubt hideous) portraits of English royals from Rideau Hall and replacing them with Canadian art. Good for her, but the fact remains that she was appointed by the Queen of England, albeit on the advice of a Canadian prime minister. No matter what her personal feelings on the subject, when she responds to Harper’s weaseling request to shut down Parliament, she does so on the Queen’s behalf.
There is no constitutional crisis in Canada. Parliament has lost confidence in the Prime Minister. Our constitution and parliamentary tradition provide a simple, proper and legal solution for this: he has to step down.
There is, however, a constitutional anomaly that we have yet to address, and Harper’s maneuvering to keep his job highlights it perfectly. To call ourselves a mature democracy, we need to replace the monarchy and all it’s trappings from our system of government.
There are qualified people in Canada who could be making the decision Michaelle Jean is considering today. Whether it should be the Supreme Court, or whether we ought to have a constitutional college of some kind, arbitration on our country’s Parliament can’t continue to fall on the shoulders of a viceroy with no known expertise on the subject.
The English, to their discredit, have allowed the monarchy to survive long past its usefulness, and support it to the tune of millions of pounds a year their country can ill afford. The monarch is the inheritor of a tradition of murder, theft, and oppression, of brutal imperialism and the rule of force. It’s a national embarrassment, but at least it’s their national embarrassment, and it does bring in the tourist dollars.
Canada on the other hand gets nothing out of our continued connection to the House of Windsor. If we need a ceremonial head of state, then by all means let it be an attractive intelligent Canadian — preferably one who can remain aloof from politics for her term in office — but let her be appointed directly by the PM, without the approval of some foreign dignitary.
And for pity’s sake let’s keep her function ceremonial. When someone like Michaelle Jean makes a historic decision that may affect Canada’s future for years to come, she may decide well, or she may decide poorly. What is remarkable for its utter wrongness is that she decides at all.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.