Our new governor general was sworn in last Friday.
David Johnston looks like a worthy candidate. But given that no one I talked to had ever heard of him before, it’s a good time to reflect on the profound weirdness of our constitution. Not only does our official head of state live in another country, but our de facto one is unelected.
Even though this 19th century historical quirk hasn’t stopped us from becoming a highly successful country, we should pause and think about it.
As an American lawyer familiar with our constitution once told me, “I really can’t believe you don’t get to vote for that.” And that was before she got started on our future King Charles III.
David Johnston, our new viceroy, is an accomplished individual. He was president of the University of Waterloo, principal of McGill and a well-known legal expert with training at Harvard, Cambridge and Queen’s. At Harvard, he was captain of the hockey team and apparently was the inspiration for a character in Eric Segal’s Love Story. He got the Order of Canada in 1988 and is 69 years old. All in all, a more distinguished curriculum vitae than the last governor general had when she was picked out of obscurity by the prime minister of the day (although her poise and charm made her a success in office).
Ottawa rumour has it that the prime minister and his selection committee decided not to go with a third CBC journalist in a row, and nixed a number of sports stars, entertainers and unilingual aboriginal leaders before choosing our new pseudo-head of state.
You can’t talk about the governor general without starting with the Queen. Everyone likes Elizabeth. She takes her job seriously and has been around so long that she seems like part of the national furniture. The Globe and Mail published a cringe-worthy but sincere editorial saluting the “Queen of Canada’s clear leadership” during one of her rare visits to the country last summer.
The strong connection we had with Britain a hundred years ago – remember our first prime minister’s famous election speech in which he said, “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die”? – has now withered. We are two countries on separate paths: friendly but diverging. The branding of Elizabeth as the “Queen of Canada” is increasingly thin. Let’s face it. She is the Queen of Britain, with an odd historical legacy here in former British North America.
There was talk at one point of replacing the governor general with one of the surplus children of Edward VII or George V. That way we could have had our own monarchy. Picture King Jeff II of Canada, great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria and fluently bilingual with Canadian accents in both English and French, posing in Hello! magazine with his royal cousins. This would have let us have a bit of fun, like the Nordics do with their royal families. The marriage of Swedish Crown Princess Victoria to her personal trainer was a happy event last summer, and was certainly good for newspaper sales and the commemorative coffee cup industry.
And in keeping with our easy-going Canadian natures, we could have amended the Succession Act to let heirs to the throne marry Catholics, something currently verboten. Believe it or not, in 2007 the Queen’s grandson, Peter Phillips, had to renounce his claim to be King of Canada (he was 10th in line) because of his plans to marry a Catholic woman from Montreal.
A separate monarchy wouldn’t fly today in Canada, which leaves us looking at the status quo or some kind of president to replace the governor general. The looming succession of Charles as King of Canada will provoke a debate. The prime minister of Australia recently said she thought Elizabeth should be the last monarch of Australia. So far, in Canada, everyone is doing their best to pretend Elizabeth will live forever.
Lots of places have presidents with governor general-type roles, with most of the power residing with the prime minister. In Germany, the president is elected by a special college composed of their equivalents of all the MPs, senators and an equal number of provincial MLAs. In contrast, the president of Ireland is directly elected by citizens, with the prime minister holding most of the power.
One idea that has come up is to have the members of the Order of Canada get together and elect the governor general. The American friend above called that “the stupidest idea ever.” We would end up with Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood, or worse.
Various reasons have been advanced in favour of the status quo. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument is a powerful one in constitution making. The French are on their fifth do-over since they became a Republic, and some of their constitutional tinkering has led to serious disaster.
Also, it’s unlikely Quebec would agree to an elected head of state. Many might fear a Francophone would never get elected by Don Cherry fans in the rest of Canada, or even worse that English speakers might actually elect Don Cherry. And while pushing an elected president would cause great controversy in Quebec, let’s remember that having a British monarch on our money hasn’t done great things for the federalist cause in that province.
Unfortunately, turfing the monarch would require unanimous consent among the provinces according to the amending formula brought in by Pierre Trudeau. So it would appear Charles and his offspring will be with us long after the Australians have dumped the House of Windsor.
Which turns our attention to the Senate, which can be rendered considerably less ridiculous than it is today with the consent of only seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population.
But that’s a topic for a future column.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of
the Yukon series of historical
children’s adventure novels.