Back to Yesterday
WHO IS THE GOVERNOR GENERAL?
Roland Michener and Jules Léger
March 1, 1990
Roland Michener The Last Viceroy
Jules Léger parle
Éditions de l'HEXAGONE.
Jeanne Sauvé thought she was Canada's head of state, and said so.
Monarchists' protests would not stop her. But her misrepresentation was
not simply personal ignorance or conceit. It reflected a dissembled
government policy of many years. The resulting misconception has become
general and references to the Governor General as head of state are
commonplace. It is not surprising that there is a lot of confusion
about the Governor General's role and dissatisfaction with how it is
being filled. Commentary on Ray Hnatyshyn's appointment revealed more
uncertainty about the role he was to play than doubts about his
At this moment of succession comes Peter Stursberg's puzzlingly titled biography of Roland Michener, The Last Viceroy,
published a few months before his 90th birthday in April. Governors
General of Canada have never been called viceroys. In the British
Empire the title was reserved for India and, informally, Ireland. And
whatever Michener was, he was not the last. But there is some sense to
the book's title. Michener was the last Governor General to fill his
office adequately, the last to try to play the role straight, as the
Queen's representative in Canada. Even the fact that he was the last to
wear the Governor General's splendid uniform, in which he appears on
the dustcover of Stursberg's book, is a sign of a conception of his
role in which he was the last of a line.
The key to understanding the role is the obvious point. Le Monde reporting Sauvé's January 1988 visit to France got it right, if she would not: «représentante officielle du chef de l'État canadien (La reine Elizabeth II)».
The Governor General is not the head of state but the representative of
the the Queen, who is the head of state. It is on this obvious basis
that the role and its execution should be judged.
general agreement that separating the roles of head of state and head
of government is a good idea. Where it is possible, a constitutional
monarchy is the best institution for providing a head of state who
combines prestige with detachment from partisan politics. Republics
only occasionally provide a satisfactory head of state. Either the
president is too closely associated with partisan politics or he lacks
prestige or both. He is usually elderly.
partisan politics and prestige are both necessary in a head of state.
The public, ceremonial role of the head of state is not adequately
filled when the office is held by a nonentity. The head of state must
be able to occupy the central place in public life against the
competition of the more powerful head of government. Only monarchies
generally manage to bring this off. Republics can only approach their
success in producing a head of state with prestige by risking
partisanship and elevating a major political figure to the presidency.
The fond hope is to find a great artist, a Vaclav Havel, but this is
too rare to serve as a model.
A head of state has more than
just a public role. He has a private role in intercourse with the
government. It is in this role that he may exercise the rights of the
constitutional monarch defined by Bagehot: to be consulted, to
encourage and to warn. In exercising these rights, the prestige or
authority of the head of state is even more important than in his
public role. The successful politician may acknowledge the abstract
duty to serve the people. But he knows the people only as an admiring
crowd or as tiresome complainers. An effective head of state can
enforce humility and a sense of duty in a head of government. Even so
strong and refractory a personality as Margaret Thatcher must be
chastened by her attendance on the Queen. An effective head of state
can make concrete and personal the politician's duty to serve. He
should be able to inspire deference in his ministers.
after the Second World War Canada got on well with a kind of delegated
monarchy. The physical distance of the Queen or King only enhanced the
prestige of the Crown, while a dignified, often quite young, British
aristocrat, detached from Canadian politics, stood in as Governor
General. With the obliviousness that accompanies the fashion for
"heritage", the general success of Canada's British Governors General,
their enthusiasm, their sensitivity, their youth and the respect and
affection that they earned, have been largely forgotten. They appear
now only as elderly, faintly ridiculous, blimpish figures in CBC
The British Governors General were not always
famous, or even very distinguished, when they were appointed. Several
went on to greater things; four became Viceroys of India. Three of them
were either members of or married into the Royal Family. Apart from his
marriage to Princess Louise the Marquess of Lorne was undistinguished,
and at 33 the youngest Governor General, but a distinct success. The
Governors General seldom knew much of Canada before they came. Their
role was to represent the Crown. Their titles and whatever distinction
they brought to the role suited them for that, but there was no
pretence that they represented Canadians or filled their roles by some
personal excellence or prestige. It was from the Crown that they had
their prestige and for the Crown that they received respect. Sure of
their role their personal qualities were assets rather than a
distraction. Their occasional lack of distinction was no liability.
Even Mackenzie King was duly deferential. The resentment at not being
top dog that he confided to his diary is evidence of the effectiveness
of the office.
By the 1950's Canada's development and
Americanization and Britain's decline had ruled out anything but
Canadian, and possibly Royal, Governors General. An interesting idea of
a Commonwealth trade in Governors General was allowed to die without
being tried. Two uniquely qualified Canadians made the transition
smooth. Vincent Massey was mocked as snob who made the English upper
classes feel like savages, but his long public career and association
with the Royal Family, his independence and culture and his readiness
to play a role made him a successful Governor General.
Georges Vanier's record as a soldier and diplomat, his remarkable
culture and dignity, made him an even more successful Governor General.
His age and death in office were hazards of native viceroyalty.
Vanier's success has obscured the fact that he was not famous before
his appointment, and the jump from his last post, ambassador to France,
to Governor General was a long one. His success came not from his
prestige or stature, but like Vincent Massey's, from his ability to
play the role of the Queen's representative to the hilt. He had a
quality of courtliness. As an ADC to Byng and Willingdon he had in a
sense been a courtier. His bows to the Queen were magnificent, profound
without obsequiousness. The sense that he served the Queen and
represented her in Canada was strong.
Michener could not hope
to match the exceptional impact of his immediate predecessors. But his
success is a better model precisely because he was more ordinary and it
could have become routine. His career prior to his appointment was
respectable but not outstanding. He had briefly served as a provincial
cabinet minister in Ontario after the war. Elected to the House of
Commons in 1953 he was a "Tuesday to Thursday" member until, passed
over for Diefenbaker's first cabinet, he was elected Speaker in 1957.
He served to general satisfaction and acclaim, but by Stursberg's own
sympathetic account without distinction, until his defeat in the
general election of 1962. The Speakership is a dignified, non-partisan
office, important in the sense that a poor Speaker can do a lot of
harm, but it is largely a matter of routine and good sense.
Michener's second rank public career resulted partly from a qualified
interest in public life. Whenever he could he kept up his law practice
and business interests. The same factor gave him a relative
independence suitable for a Governor General, which he would have
lacked had he been more committed to his public career and more
successful in it.
His rise to Governor General owed a lot to
his youthful friendship with Lester Pearson. A Rhodes scholar from
Alberta, where his father had led the provincial Conservatives and thus
earned appointment to the Senate by Borden in 1917, Michener met
Pearson at Oxford and played hockey happily with him there. They
travelled together in Europe. Michener's friendship with Pearson may
both have kept him out of the suspicious Diefenbaker's cabinet and made
him an acceptable Speaker. The Speakership gave him the standing and
the isolation from partisan politics that set him on his course to
Governor General. When Pearson had him appointed High Commissioner to
India in 1963 it was with the idea of keeping him ready to be Governor
When with Vanier's death in March of 1967 Michener
became Governor General for the Centennial Year he had Pearson as his
Prime Minister. Owing his eminence to his old friend he could hardly
expect deference from him. But Pearson had great regard for Michener
and Trudeau, almost twenty years his junior and barely three years in
politics when he became Prime Minister, was tolerably respectful and
saved his disdain for Michener's successors.
little intelligent conception of his role. He seems simply to have
carried on in the style of his predecessors performing to general
satisfaction on the strength of his sense of fitness and
conventionality. The less satisfactory performance of his successors
shows a need for a better understanding of the role of the Governor
Stursberg's book is no help. He has been a
journalist for over fifty years and has twelve books to his name,
several of them oral history compilations, but he writes poorly. He is
unsure how to approach his subject. He refers to him variously as
"Roly", "Michener", "Mitch", "Mr. Michener", "Roland Michener" and "Mr.
Speaker Michener". There are no references and Stursberg is
uncomfortable in the use of his sources. "Michener said" appears on
almost every page, presumably referring to some oral history transcript
but sounding more like a contemporaneous comment than a prompted
reminiscence decades later. The transformation of the amiable ramble of
oral history into indirect speech produces a flat and banal text. A
better book might have been produced if Michener had written memoirs.
His mother's private memoirs give some life to the acount of early days
in Alberta. His conventionality and discretion may be much to blame for
the weaknesses of Stursberg's book, but in writing one's memoirs one is
obliged to try to be interesting. Doing oral history one is let off
easy, invited to talk and free to be as dull as one pleases.
It is not clear how far Stursberg's accounts of Alberta, Ontario, and
Conservative politics are based on anything more than Michener's
reminiscences. They certainly take a Michener line, conventional and
slightly Pollyannaish. There is a lot of trivia about Michener's
sporting days at Oxford. The sum of his three years at Oxford seems to
have been little more than sports and friendship with Pearson. Even the
balance of that friendship is doubtful. There are sixty references to
Pearson in Stursberg's 231 pages. There are nine references to Michener
in the 964 pages of Pearson's memoirs.
Michener's legal and
political careers were commonplace and their representative interest is
not developed. His campaigns in St. Paul's in 1949, 1953 and 1957 had
to contend with the last hurrah of old fashioned electoral fraud but
Stursberg's account is too superficial and too discreet to be
Norah Michener's somewhat hard edged character
appears but is glossed over with an indulgent account of her
accomplishments. A PhD in philosophy and rather implausibly claimed by
Stursberg to be fluent in several languages, Norah Michener had grand
and old fashioned ideas about etiquette, on which she published a
manual for M.P's wives. It was against her wishes that the curtsy was
abolished. Pearson settled the point with Michener just before his
installation. The suspicion has always been that Maryon Pearson was not
prepared to curtsy to the wife of her husband's old friend. But if
Norah Michener was not entirely amiable, she was interesting, and her
detailed diaries, not available until 2017, may turn out to be the
Micheners' chief contribution to Canadian history.
of Hnatyshyn's deficiency in French, Michener's record is interesting.
Stursberg stresses his, and Pearson's, ignorance of French. He says
that to be a history professor Pearson needed no languages, an odd
commentary on Canadian academic standards in the 1920's. He attributes
Pearson's enthusiasm for bilingualism to guilt at his ignorance of
French. Michener's study of French dated from his embarrassment at
having none when asked by Drew to investigate the state of the
Conservatives in Quebec in 1949. But his French appears more a matter
of application than accomplishment. Before simultaneous translation was
introduced in Parliament in 1957 he could not follow speeches in
French, and never bothered to read the translations in Hansard.
However, starting at about Hnatyshyn's age he managed to acquire enough
fluency to keep control of the House of Commons and later to pass as
Governor General. His wife's fluency was an asset.
Stursberg describes Michener as a "royalist" and quotes him as saying
of the suggestion that Canada should become a republic with the Queen
only Head of the Commonwealth "I never advocated that", he does not
appear as an advocate of the monarchy. He accepted Trudeau's
contemptuous musings about the office of Governor General and the Crown
with complacency. Trudeau condescended to be interviewed for the book
and to repeat his musings.
Michener's successors have
illustrated the difficulties of the office. Léger was a career diplomat
and civil servant who had spent his life working for politicians,
starting in the unwholesome atmosphere of Mackenzie King's office. His
highest diplomatic posting was Paris from 1964-8, where he is said to
have shown great skill in taking DeGaulle's snubs. He ended up as
undersecretary of state, administering Trudeau's bilingualism and
cultural policies, before a brief stint as ambassador to Belgium and
his appointment as Governor General in January 1974. Having been
Trudeau's conscientious servant shortly before his appointment he can
hardly have been a figure to whom Trudeau would feel any deference.
There was always a suspicion that he was thought suitable for the post
because his brother was a prince, of the Roman Catholic Church.
Léger started off badly, not only abandoning his uniform but indicating
that he would prefer that decorations not be worn at some formal
occasions when he was present. As he was ex officio
Chancellor of the Orders of Canada and Military Merit this was odd. But
the decorations he preferred not to be worn were mainly won in the
Second World War, during which he served in Ottawa.
stroke six months into his term secured his reputation. His wife
Gabrielle filled in for him conscientiously. He struggled bravely to
recover but always had serious difficulty speaking and writing. His
struggle and carrying on were hailed as an example. But he should have
resigned when it became apparent that he would not fully recover. To
serve four and a half years of a five year term in an office
significantly incapacitated shows little respect for the office and
must damage it. Had there been constitutional difficulties during his
term, as there might well have been, the country would have been ill
served. There is no other office in which he would have been permitted
to carry on. No doubt Trudeau was content with the situation.
Léger left a curious posthumous souvenir of his time as Governor
General. From shortly after the election of the Parti Québecois
government in Quebec in November 1976 until the end of his term he
would every few weeks discuss his reflections on the country and his
office with Pierre Trottier, an old colleague and friend from External
Affairs and subsequently ambassador to UNESCO. Trottier would write
them up and Léger would later approve Trottier's record. The result was
published early last year as Jules Léger parle.
Trottier makes plain that his role was more than that of a stenographer
while leaving obscure exactly what it was. But the book can be taken as
the fragmentary journal or memoirs that Léger could manage. Though only
eighty pages it is a more interesting and much better written book than
The Last Viceroy.
Léger writes with a curious mixture of solicitude and detachment. There
is an analysis of census statistics on ethnic backgrounds and language,
an account of William Davis («souriant plutôt que jovial»),
commentary on Quebec and constitutional discussions. These read like
reports home from a diplomat on the politics of the country of his
posting. There is nothing new in them except to know what interested
Léger. There are highly entertaining descriptions of the state visit of
President Bongo of Gabon and the surprising turmoil caused at Rideau
Hall by the need to give Menachem Begin a kosher lunch.
seems to have had the almost extinct quasi-religious French-Canadian
reverence for the Crown, now represented only by the historian Jacques
Monet. He writes of an Ottawa transformed by the Queen during her
five day visit in October 1977:
une fois, elle avait une coeur. Pour une fois, elle se sentait
capitale....Sa majesté...nous apporter par sa seule présence un moment
de sérénité dont nous avions bien besoin en cette période de pénurie
d'idées claire autres qu'indépendantistes.
observations on his office are circumspect. He describes meeting Sir
John Kerr in London. He had discussed the 1975 Australian
constitutional crisis with Eugene Forsey. He has nice metaphors of
tapping a watch to make it go and the bee's one sting for a Governor
General's constitutional interventions. He records, without detailing
or explaining, the transfer of functions relating to letters of
credence and other matters from the Queen to the Governor General. He
is pleased that there was a minimum of upset and concludes, wrongly,
that the measures have no relation to the future of the monarchy in
Canada, which he believes is secure. A few days later he transcribes
without comment the exchange between Diefenbaker and Trudeau on the
subject in the House of Commons.
Schreyer's very appointment
was an injury to the office. The public and private expectation was
that George Ignatieff would be appointed. The expectation was not
groundless and could easily have been dispelled if Trudeau had wished.
His surprise nomination of Schreyer was a typically vain and capricious
act calculated to display his will and power. It made the Governor
General obviously Trudeau's creature. Trudeau exploited his advantage
by showing public disdain for Schreyer. At a notorious dinner with the
Premiers in 1980 he snapped at Schreyer to hurry up the meal and
ostentatiously walked out before the end. Disdain for Schreyer was a
common sentiment. The youngest Governor General since Lansdowne,
Schreyer was already languishing as leader of the opposition in
Manitoba. Partisanship was not a major issue on his appointment,
as he came from provincial politics and the "third party", but Schreyer
did not give up on active politics and seemed to be looking for trouble
during Clark's minority government and Trudeau's constitutional push of
Schreyer was signally unhappy in his public role. He
managed to be both pompous and common. He spoke more than he needed and
always dully. It must have marked a nadir for the Queen's
representative to be pelted with buns at a Press Gallery dinner. A
dignified non-partisan position was found for him as High Commissioner
to Australia on his leaving office, but still in his early fifties he
has toyed with escaping from oblivion by returning to politics, a
prospect that would forever taint young Governors General with the
suspicion of looking for future political advantage.
ill health Jeanne Sauvé was happier in her public role. But despite her
insulation in three and a half years as Speaker, her seven years as a
Liberal minister and her husband's four put an end to any inhibition
about appointing party politicians, as Hnatyshyn's appointment proves.
She settled too comfortably into her fancied role as head of state. She
connived at a practice of substituting a toast to herself for a toast
to the Queen. A vigorous reorganization of Rideau Hall led to closing
its grounds to the public. She would refer to the Queen as "Elizabeth".
Presumably she considered her an equal, as one head of state to another.
Mulroney's juvenile extreme of the politician's craving for publicity
and centre stage led to a clash with Sauvé over the Shamrock Summit of
March 1985. He tricked Sauvé into giving up the Citadel and not showing
up to greet the visiting American head of state, claiming that it would
be a working visit. He then played host to Reagan at a largely public
summit. Sauvé confined her public protest to some light verse at a
Press Gallery Dinner. With the general backlash at Mulroney's shameless
performance nothing more was indicated. Mulroney was too obsessedly
agreeable and Sauvé too emollient for there to be any lasting friction.
She left office praising Meech Lake, an unhappy political initiative
that must have gratified Mulroney as it must have irritated Trudeau. It
earned her a hug from Mulroney on her departure from Ottawa. It is
unlikely either man showed her much deference. Each was in particular
need of someone to impress upon him that political office does not
exist to gratify the vanity of politicians.
the only insulation from partisan politics is his defeat in the last
general election. No doubt he and Mulroney will discuss politics freely
but Mulroney can hardly feel any deference for someone he made both
Minister of Justice and Governor General. In a less formal role
overlooking his deficiency in French would have been a refreshing
change from the obsessive bilingualism of Ottawa's hierarchy. But it is
a surprising mistake for a Governor General.
installation illustrated the too strong sense of the Governor General's
being the Prime Minister's creature and the Liberal-inspired republican
misconception of the role. Led into the Senate Chamber by Mulroney, he
was then as it were introduced by Mulroney in a speech in which the
Prime Minister seemed to be promoting his product. He proclaimed the
puissant symbole de la nationalité Canadien...l'emblème de l'unité et
la communauté d'interêts de tous les Canadiens et Canadiennes et
l'étendard...de notre souveraineté. He did not say
that he would represent the Queen. His formulas described a head of
state midway between a president and a monarch. Despite the solemnity
of the occasion and the respect indicated for the new Governor General
Mulroney could not leave it to him to make any jokes and ended feebly
and facetiously with "Sounds good to me." Not surprisingly through all
this Hnatyshyn looked unsure of himself. He proceeded through the
Parliament Buildings like a gladhanding politician. He is likely to
remain unsure of himself in the present, partly calculated, confusion
over the Governor General's role.
The search for an ideal
Canadian combining prestige, dignity, representativeness and detachment
from partisan politics is essentially the republic's impossible search
for a satisfactory president. It has been an unnecessary result of
appointing Canadians. Michael Valpy in the Globe & Mail,
condemning Hnatyshyn as an undistinguished out-of-work politician
accepting Mulroney's patronage, listed a variety of implausible
candidates. Stephen Lewis's and Trudeau's ineligibility and unfitness
should be obvious. But names like Mel Hurtig, Barbara Frum, David
Suzuki and Thomas Berger could only be considered jokes were they not
solemnly offered by Valpy, who sees himself as a progressive
monarchist. The mistake generally made is to try to bolster the office
of Governor General by the fame of the appointee. But no republic
manages to assure the prestige of its presidency by the distinction of
its incumbents. And monarchs do not have their prestige from their
personal distinction. They have it simply because they are monarchs.
That is the virtue of monarchy. Monarchies do not fail because monarchs
are undistinguished. They fail in general revolutions or, more rarely,
because monarchs are exceptionally bad.
Valpy and Jacques Monet fall into a trap trying to support the monarchy
by boosting the Governor General, even calling him the head of state.
The result is to obscure the Governor General's role as representative
of the Queen and to set him up as a president by another name. The
Governor General can only draw his prestige from the Crown. It was
because he played this role straight that an ordinary man like Michener
could make a success of his term. If there is to be any recovery it
must be by a return to his model: conscientious, dignified, amiable,
without pretension to personal importance, but a sense of what is fit
in the office. Only the sense that the Governor General represents the
Queen can make him interesting. To give the office a role independent
of the Crown is to make it indistinguishable from a presidency. That
has been the trend of Liberal policy on the Governor General's role in
the last twenty five years. The policy can be most distinctly seen in
the obscure story of the letters of credence of Canada's ambassadors.
Letters of credence are splendid old-fashioned documents by which one
head of state introduces his envoy to another. They were first used for
Canada when Vincent Massey went to Washington as Minister in 1927. King
George V hailed President Coolidge as "Our Good Friend" and signed
himself "Your Good Friend, George R. I.". When it came to be a question
of letters of credence of foreign envoys posted to Ottawa, the King
took a punctilious interest. While the American and French Ministers
presented their letters of credence to Lord Willingdon in Ottawa, the
King insisted that they should be forwarded unopened to him. As his
private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, put it to Willingdon:
Letters of Credence are addressed to the King and in special terms
reserved for such communications between Heads of States. But were
these Letters to be opened by the representatives of the Sovereign in
the respective Dominions, they would be dealt with by someone to whom
they were not addressed: and the Head of the State might not
unreasonably demur to your suggested process of short circuiting and
propose that the Letters should be sent direct to the
Governors-General. If such a procedure were adopted it would inevitably
result in Letters of Credence for Dominion Ministers to Foreign
Countries being signed not by the King but by the Governor-General.
This I feel sure you would not advocate. A chastened Willingdon, who had thought the procedure "needlessly laborious" replied:
I regret that with a view to convenience, I overlooked a constitutional issue, and will carry out the plan...
There the matter appears to have rested until 1972 when Trudeau took up
the course Stamfordham was sure Willingdon would not advocate. In a
curious move his office announced that changes had been proposed to the
Queen but that, true to the spirit of her grandfather, she had
objected, and nothing was done. Five years later the issue was raised
again and the Queen was somehow squared, apparently during the visit
when she brought such serenity to Ottawa, and when there was such a
dearth of clear thinking apart from the separatists. Other functions
were transferred to the Governor General from the Queen at the same
time, notably those relating to declarations of war and treaties.
Since January 1, 1978 a new form of letters of credence has been used.
Not easy to come by, it is an extraordinary document. It begins
"In the Name of and on Behalf of", big and bold, "Elizabeth II"
followed by her titles, and then comes, equally big and bold, "Ramon
John Hnatyshyn" and his title. From there on the Queen is out of it and
it is the Governor General, in the first person singular, who asks the
receiving head of state to give credence to what the ambassador may say
"in My name". It is now the Governor General who is the receiving head
of state's good friend. Government House, otherwise in official
documents "Our[i.e. the
Queen's] Government House" becomes "My Government House". "In the Name
of and on Behalf of" is contradicted by the document itself, which is
in the name of the Governor General and was redrawn to make that point.
"In the Name of and on Behalf of" correctly describes millions of
documents issued and signed over centuries by officers under the Crown,
notably governors, without the King or Queen being aware of them.
These, including letters patent granting land or appointing Queen's
Counsel are entirely in the Queen's name, in the first person plural,
and ending with an attestation clause reading, for example, "Witness:
Our Right Trusty and Well-beloved Jeanne Sauvé...Governor General and
Commander-in-Chief of Canada." This is from one of Sauvé's last
documents, a proclamation declaring some Canada Pension Plan
regulations in force, executed at "Our Government House" on December
21, 1989. It is not, as it is usually put, a question of who signs the
document, but in whose name it is truly drawn.
issue can seem impossibly fine and empty. Trudeau, in answering
Diefenbaker's questions on the changes in the Commons in January 1978,
brushed aside his concern, claiming that the they simply resulted from
the letters patent of 1947 constituting the office of Governor General.
Explaining the letters patent to the House of Commons in 1948 St.
Laurent had said: "There will be no legal necessity to alter existing
practice." No legal necessity had subsequently arisen but Liberal
policy on the monarchy had developed. And since the 1960's it has been
the Liberals' belief that in questions relating to the Crown dishonesty
is the best policy. They have tried to maintain that nothing was meant
by any change.
But of course something was meant by changes
that were pressed for, against the Queen's extraordinarily revealed
objections, for over five years. The Prime Minister's office's press
release of December 30, 1977 gives some sense of what was intended:
changes announced today will consolidate the transfer of authority
which has taken place over the last thirty years, and with them the
Governor General will discharge on behalf of the Queen all functions of
Head of State with respect to Canada. The changes were
meant as the culmination of a programme to build up the role of the
Governor General as against that of the Queen. Such a programme defies
the fact that the prestige of the Governor General is parasitic on that
of the Crown. It sets up the Governor General as a president by another
name. The "in the name of" formula can easily be dispensed with.
Trimming the top few lines from the form of letters of credence will be
a much simpler task than the redrafting undertaken in the 1970's. The
programme leaves nothing more to distinguish the monarchy from a
An anonymous "aide" was qoted as saying that the
changes were aimed at clearing up confusion abroad, allegedly resulting
from the previous practice, about the respective roles of the Queen and
the Governor General, particularly when the latter travelled abroad.
Foreign officials were said to have had difficulty determining where
the Governor General fitted in the diplomatic hierarchy. In fact the
new form of letters of credence is highly confusing if "In the Name of
and on Behalf of" is taken seriously and there was nothing confusing
about the old form. The only possible interpretation of all this is
that the foreign officials, and Canadians, are to understand that the
Governor General is the head of state. Presumably the new form
indicated matching changes in letters of credence for foreign
ambassadors posted to Canada, though it may have required some
explaining before presidents understood that it was now the Governor
General rather than the Queen who was their good friend in Canada and
monarchs understood that they only had a good friend here, rather than
a sister, under the diplomatic fiction that all sovereigns are brothers
The Liberals' thinking was further exposed by
Trudeau's first stab at constitution making, introduced as Bill C-60 in
June 1978. This established the office of Governor General and vested
in it all executive authority "on behalf of and in the name of the
Queen" and declared the Governor General "the First Canadian". There
was far more about the Governor General than about the Queen, described
obscurely as "the sovereign head of Canada", and the trimming necessary
to make a republic, which would not have required any change in the
Governor General's title or role, would have been slight.
changes exploit the confused monarchism that calls for a stronger
Governor General in the hope that it will mean a stronger Crown while
satisfying republicans who expressly see the Governor General as a
president in waiting. No practical justification for the changes is
possible. By the 1970's passing letters of credence back and forth
across the Atlantic must have ceased to be an inconvenience if it ever
was. Far from feeling burdened by the task of signing them the Queen
was apparently keen to keep it. Rather than passing formal work from
Buckingham Palace to Rideau Hall, the ease of communications indicates
the opposite course. According to Trudeau, "It is either the Governor
General becoming more and more of a head of state or nothing." But if
anything the public's respect for the office and its incumbents has
declined while his programme has been put into effect.
Governors General have accepted the programme with all too human
complacency. It must have seemed to them a pleasing enhancement of
their role. Léger, despite his respect for the Queen, to whom he
continued to write after leaving office, was perfectly content to
assume her prerogatives, despite her reservations. According to
Stursberg, Michener, towards the end of whose term the issue of letters
of credence was first raised, "did not really approve", but was "quite
prepared to sign...if the government felt that was the best way to do
it". It is plain that he did not really disapprove. Vincent Massey saw
the issue differently, writing in his memoirs that "It is important
that the Sovereign should continue to be directly identified with these
A feature of Michener's term as Governor General
was his "state" visits to Caribbean Commonwealth countries and to the
Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Stursberg introduces the topic
with an account of the Queen and Prince Philip encouraging Michener to
travel abroad at their meeting at Windsor Castle on his way to his
installation. This breach of royal confidentiality is typical of the
way in which playing with traditions is given a spurious royal
endorsement, from the flag and the 1982 Constitution Act, to Meech Lake, and, although belatedly, the 1977 changes in the Governor General's functions.
An issue is made of Governors General's official visits abroad. It was
referred to by the anonymous "aide" in justifying the new letters of
credence. The Queen's state visits are usually visits of the Queen of
the United Kingdom. Though King George VI went to the United States in
1939 with Mackenzie King in attendance and the Queen's 1959 visit to
the United States after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway had a
strong Canadian aspect. But the Governor General's office is to
represent the Queen in Canada. In going abroad on official visits is he
acting as head of state? Stursberg, and Michener, make much of his
having been received abroad with full honours as a head of state. His
trips were exploited as part of the Liberal programme, culminating in
the affair of the letters of credence. It was not a question of
changing the Governor General's role so he could make trips abroad but
of his making trips abroad to change his role.
visits abroad by Governors General were not unprecedented. They had
regularly travelled to the United States. Presidents received them.
Would they have time for a Governor General now? Willingdon,
Tweedsmuir, Alexander and Massey all received grand official welcomes
in Washington. Such trips do not require the Governor General to assume
the role of head of state. The protocol can be played either way.
Michener's successors have not carried the programme significantly
forward. Léger managed to get to Spain. Schreyer and Sauvé made only a
few trips abroad, Schreyer managing to take in Roumania, for which we
were repaid by a visit from Ceausescu during Sauvé's term. Foreign
countries have no interest in a campaign to establish the Governor
General as a head of state. And Prime Ministers are too keen on foreign
travel themselves to encourage viceregal competition. That is one
consideration in favour of such trips, to make the point that Prime
Ministers should go abroad to work, not to be celebrated.
notion that Governors General are important beyond their representation
of the Queen has lead to an inflation of their status after leaving
office. Retired Governors General have formal precedence after the
Chief Justice of Canada. They are apparently entitled to a kind of
state funeral and a stamp. The idea of Schreyer and Sauvé stamps is
even sillier than a Mackenzie Bowell stamp. There is no likelihood that
the British Governors General will be retrospectively honoured with
stamps as the dead Prime Ministers up to Bennett were in the 1950's.
Leaving Governors General simple private citizens after retirement
would emphasise that it is their office of service to the Crown and not
their person that is important.
There is no sign that a Tory
government intends to reverse the Liberal reconstitution of the office
of Governor General or is even unhappy with it. The public is unhappy
but Liberal dissembling has so clouded the issues that it cannot
understand why. Only the fact that a Governor General who is a
president by another name can never be satisfactory gives hope that the
office may one day again be understood as part of the monarchy. It may
be possible to forget fame and popularity and look at what is really
required for the role.
It is more important that a Governor
General should be his own man or woman than that he should be famous or
superlatively distinguished. Michener, though obviously highly
satisfied to be Governor General, was his own man. He could have done
without it. But with his four successors the case is different. Léger
the civil servant, Schreyer the young politician at loose ends, Sauvé
and Hnatyshyn the ex-ministers patronised by the Prime Ministers who
had put them in their cabinets, all had the look, and to a dangerous
degree the reality, of being their Prime Minister's man. Personal
independence and an ability to represent the Crown are the only
possible bases on which a Governor General can exact some deference
Some connection with or interest in
government is a necessary qualification. A Governor General has a role
in government and cannot exercise his rights of consultation,
encouragement and warning or his exceptional rights in a crisis, if
government is strange to him. Any connection with the Royal family,
like Massey's, though it may be rare, can help to make effective the
Governor General's representation of the Queen. Whether there is any
such connection or not a Governor General ought to have an intimate
sense of service to the Queen, what Sauvé most notably lacked. The
republican, head of state, conception of the role reflected in
Mulroney's introduction of Hnatyshyn, or the viceregality of the role
can otherwise have a conceiting effect on the ordinary people who must
generally be Governors General. Obviously a well behaved member of the
Royal family, when one is available, would be ideal.
the Governor General's is very much a ceremonial and formal public role
and he must be able to play the role as Massey, Vanier and Michener
could and none has since. A Governor General ought to be prepared to
wear his uniform without any false simplicity. It is part of his job.
It would be difficult for a Governor General to return of his own
motion to greater formality and to wearing the uniform but it is worth
trying. Canada, which had a dignified but unpompous public formality
setting it apart from the United States only a generation ago, now
prefers luxury to formality. Michener rather reduced the appreciation
of the uniform by designing for himself and too often wearing
completely superfluous Commander-in-Chief's uniforms. With Nova Scotia
and British Columbia the two happy holdouts, the Lieutenant Governors
have gradually abandoned their uniforms and the viceregal turnout for
men is reduced to a top hat reminiscent of the Hollywood jungle chief
resplendent in top hat and little else.
A full recovery for
the Governor General would require a general restoration of our
political and public culture and manners. Prime Ministers, and their
wives, would have to back away from the ceremonial and patronage
activities by which they pollute civic, sporting, cultural and
charitable functions. Even when the Governor General is present the
Prime Minister insists on sharing centre stage. Politicians would have
to show more deference to the Queen's representatives.
Despite his closeness to party politics Hnatyshyn is not unfit to be
Governor General. But the script for the role he is to play has been
scrambled and several pages are lost. He will receive promptings for
the wrong role. If he is to succeed he must go back beyond his three
immediate predecessors and study the performances of Michener and those
before him, not forgetting his British predecessors. as he did in his
installation speech. He can learn from them all. But even Massey and
Vanier would be dangerous models, in a style beyond him. Better will be
Michener, another Tory son of a senator from the West. And there is
still time before his next big scene to get his costume right.
Michener's uniform is in the Museum of Civilization in Hull. It must be
out of place there. It could fit Hnatyshyn well at his first Opening of
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