In December 2008, at the height of the most explosive political
crisis in Canada since the Quebec referendum of the mid-1990s,
Governor General Michaëlle Jean had to decide whether the
Conservative government of Stephen Harper would live or die. For
a moment, the Governor General stepped to the centre of Canadian
The crisis hit without warning. With Christmas only days away,
the national capital of Ottawa was fast asleep. Prime Minister
Harper had won the 2008 federal election a month before. He did
not possess a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but he
had substantially more backing than any other party leader. He
seemed likely to govern with ease.
Then Harper miscalculated. He appeared indifferent to the deep
recession that was rocking the Canadian and world economy, and
he combined that indifference with an announcement that his
government would end the public financing of political parties,
a direct attack on his rivals in Parliament.
The Liberals and the New Democratic Party declared that they
would combine with the Bloc Québécois to defeat Harper in the
House of Commons and replace him with a Liberal-NDP coalition
that could govern with the support of the Bloc. Taken together,
the Liberals of Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton’s NDP, and the Bloc
under Gilles Duceppe could deploy 163 Commons seats to Harper’s
Facing disaster in the House of Commons, Harper went to the
Governor General to request that she prorogue Parliament, a way
of saying that it would take a recess and meet again in several
weeks time. That would give the Prime Minister the chance to
find a strategy to save himself.
Governor General Jean accepted Harper’s advice, and he was able
to survive when Parliament met again in January 2009. The prime
minister concocted an economic stimulus package that won the
support of the House of Commons, and the coalition dissolved as
quickly as it had been created.
The Governor General could have said no. She might have sent the
prime minister back to face the House of Commons and certain
defeat. That would probably have brought Harper back to the
Governor General with a request for another election. She could
have refused that appeal too, and called instead on the
coalition, led by Stéphane Dion, to form a government.
Governors General do not ordinarily go against the advice of a
prime minister, but they have the power to do so if the
stability or integrity of the democratic process is in question.
As one expert, Frank MacKinnon, puts it, the Governor General’s
responsibility is to be like a fire extinguisher in a time of
emergency. Fire extinguishers are seldom used, but that does not
make them useless.
At the birth of the country in 1867, its founders created Canada
as a constitutional monarchy. The new country would maintain the
link to Britain’s Queen Victoria, and a Governor General would
represent her in Canada. The first prime minister, Sir John A.
Macdonald, wanted the Governor General to be “looked up to by
the whole people as the head and front of the nation.” American
presidents were both the head of state and the head of
government, so that when the president got in trouble the United
States itself was in trouble. Governors General were to stand
above partisan politics.
For a long time, the Governors Generals were British
aristocrats. In 1952, recognizing that Canada was by now fully
independent from Britain, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent chose
Vincent Massey to be the first Canadian to hold the office.
Jeanne Sauvé became the first woman Governor General in 1984.
Adrienne Clarkson, appointed Governor General in 1999, and
Michaëlle Jean, her successor, originally came to this country
of immigrants as immigrant children.
Most Canadians, when they think of the Governor General at all,
associate the office with speech-making (governor generalities,
people joke), ribbon-cutting or tree-planting to mark important
occasions, the greeting of foreign visitors, and presiding over
grand events such as the opening of Parliament.
But the Governor General’s responsibilities go beyond the public
and the ceremonial. She signs all the bills that Parliament
passes, and they do not become law until she has done so. The
Governor General authorizes the sending of diplomats to foreign
countries, dispenses honours such as the Order of Canada, and
has the title of commander-in-chief of the Canadian military.
She does not control the Canadian Armed Forces, but she is a
regular presence in the military life of Canada.
Governors General, presiding over the nation’s business in the
name of the people, are the symbols of Canadian democracy, but
they are also its protector. As the constitutional crisis of
2008 demonstrated, the Governor General is an essential part of
how Canada is governed.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs
at Carleton University. The best short accounts of the Governor
General’s role and responsibilities are Jacques Monet, The
Canadian Crown (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1979) and Frank
MacKinnon, The Crown in Canada (Calgary: McClelland and Stewart
Next Instalment: The House of Commons
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