August 06, 2005

Canadian Civics 101: The Governor General

"Mike" asked in the comments to my previous post:

What does the Governor General do? Is that like the US Sec of State?

Canada is a former colony of Great Britain. Like them, we are a constitutional monarchy: the Queen of England is also the Queen of Canada. Unlike England, however, we don't have the Queen conveniently living up the road from Parliament. So she delegates her duties to a representative, and this is the Governor General of Canada.

As the representative of the Crown, the Governor General is Canada's de facto head of state. Before 1952, all the Governors General were British aristocrats; beginning with Raymond Massey in that year, all of them have been Canadian. Today the GG is a Canadian, selected by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. Traditionally the GG serves for five years, but this term can be extended; Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, for example, is currently in the sixth year of her term. The Prime Minister thought it wise to have an experienced Governor General in office while a minority government was in power, and asked the Queen to extend her tenure.

The typical Governor General is someone who has had a distinguished career of service to the country, typically a diplomat or high-ranking politician. Ms. Clarkson is the first who does not have a political or military background; she is a former broadcast journalist and author. It is also customary that English and French Canada get equal representation in the office. Ms. Clarkson is an English-speaking Chinese-Canadian from the West Coast; her designated successor, Michaëlle Jean, is a French-speaking Haitian-Canadian from Quebec.

The Governor General acts as the Queen's representative in Canada. Like the British crown, the office is constitutionally non-partisan. In theory, her power is quite extensive, but as the role is considered to be ceremonial and symbolic, there would be great public outrage if she acted on her own without the advice of the Prime Minister. She gives royal assent to legislation by signing it into law. She summons Parliament (i.e. begins a new session) and delivers the Speech from the Throne, which outlines the government's legislative agenda. She also dissolves Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister and issues the writ of election. Theoretically she has the power to refuse this, but it has been exercised only once in Canada's history, in 1926. Once the election is completed, it is the Governor General who selects the Prime Minister - usually the leader of the party that won the most seats, but if he is unable to form a government, then she is to appoint the person most likely to have the confidence of Parliament. She appoints Cabinet ministers, Senators, judges, and other public officials, again on the advice of the Prime Minister. Finally, though she is constitutionally neutral, she has the right to consult with and advise the Prime Minister.

(Thus the Governor General is not equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of State, which is a political, Cabinet position. The Canadian equivalent is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, also a member of the Cabinet.)

In addition, the Governor General has a number of other ceremonial roles. For example, she is the Commander-in-Chief of the military. She receives the credentials of ambassadors and visiting dignitaries and is herself Canada's chief diplomat.

Finally, it is her job to promote Canada and Canadian culture at home and abroad. She makes many goodwill visits to other countries - in fact, Ms. Clarkson has come under some fire for the money she has spent on these trips. She also promotes Canadian excellence by presenting various awards, such as military decorations or the coveted Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honour. The Governor General's Award is Canada's highest literary honour. In addition, the Stanley Cup for hockey and the Grey Cup for football were first presented by previous Governors General.

The official residence of the Governor General is Rideau Hall, a massive stone house on Sussex Drive, almost directly across the street from the Prime Minister's residence. Many official functions are carried out at Rideau Hall, including dropping the writ of election, the swearing of federal ministers and judges, and the awarding of decorations. The residence sits on 70 acres of land that includes some beautiful gardens, and dozens of ceremonial trees planted by visiting heads of state. Tours of the residence or the grounds are available, and the grounds are used for many public functions throughout the year, most notably concert series, the Governor General's Garden Party, and the Teddy Bear's Picnic, a charity event for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.