Ensuring Constitutional Wisdom during Unconventional Times

Article excerpt

The Governor General and Lieutenant Governors are viewed by many as mostly ceremonial figures and for the most part this is the case. But they have substantial constitutional powers which are used very sparingly because the need seldom arises. There have, however, been cases where the Crown has been called upon to make decisions that have a profound impact on the political landscape. This occurred in December 2008 when the Governor General Michaelle Jean approved Prime Minister Stephen Harper's request to prorogue Parliament after only a few days and while the Government was facing a motion of non confidence by the Official Opposition. In this article a former Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador reflects on the Vice-Regal role and offers some insights into the recent situation in Ottawa.


The extraordinary if not entirely unprecedented antics of Canada s parliamentary and political leaders last December made the constitutional powers of the Crown an issue for the first time in a generation. Therefore I want to offer some reflections and observations upon the events that may very well dominate political and public discourse in our country during the coming weeks and months.

The Lieutenant Governor's Job Description

I usually offer some rather light hearted advice to anyone considering an offer to become Lieutenant Governor--a position I enjoyed immensely during my tenure.

The three cardinal rules are:

1) Be on time, as the event cannot start without you;

2) Keep your speeches short, because people have not come simply to listen to you; and

3) Never pass a washroom because--as my longtime mentor and dear friend Jack Pickersgill used to tell me--there is no time in public life as long as when one has to but cannot.

However there is a very serious side to the Office. Canada is a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is our Head of State. As she also has other responsibilities, most of her Canadian duties have devolved upon the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governors.

There is a common misconception that Lieutenant Governors are somehow subordinate to the Governor General in the constitutional sense. That is not correct. Each is the Queen's personal representative and the institutional embodiment of the Crown. Each is governed by the same rules and conventions, and each has the same responsibilities. Everything that l say about the powers of a Lieutenant Governor is equally applicable to those of the Governor General. The sole distinction between them is that the Governor General deals with matters which fall within the authority of Parliament and the Government of Canada while a Lieutenant Governor is circumscribed by the constitutional rules that define the ambit of the provincial legislatures, ill our case the House of Assembly. This being so, I shall use the term "vice regal" to embrace all 11 of Canada's constitutional offices.

An authoritative, well-expressed contemporary definition of the vice regal office today was developed a few years ago by the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. They said:

   The head of state is the name given to the officer who
   exercises the formal executive power of the government
   and, on official occasions, represents the whole political
   community. While British Columbia is nominally
   monarchical in form, the powers of the Crown as head
   of state are exercised by the lieutenant governor of the
   Province. The head of state in parliamentary systems is
   an official who is seen to be above politics, in contrast
   to the head of government who is the prime minister
   or premier.

   Substitute Canada for British Columbia and you have
   a precise and authoritative description of the powers
   of the Governor General.

Vice-regal duties and responsibilities fall into two broad categories--representative and constitutional. …