The Governor General of Canada

Governor general awards a medal.

Governor General Michaëlle Jean awards the Order of Canada to a prominent Canadian.

As we learned in the monarchy chapter, the Queen is a busy woman. She is not only queen of the United Kingdom, but also queen of Canada, Australia, Jamaica and over a dozen other countries as well. Since she can’t be everywhere at once, countries like Canada, that “share” the monarchy with Britain, appoint a special stand-in for the Queen known as the governor general.

History of the Governor General’s Office

The office of Governor General of Canada dates back to colonial times, when Britain would appoint men known as governors to run its colonies single-handedly. As the residents of the British colonies became more educated, wealthy, and independent-minded, eventually these governors saw their powers decline, and were forced to share lawmaking authority with elected cabinets and legislatures. By the time the modern Constitution of Canada was written 1867, it was understood that the governor was only supposed to supervise and oversee the affairs of the parliament, but no longer directly make laws or decisions himself.

Lord Byng

The Lord Byng (1862-1935), who served as governor general from 1921 to 1926, was the last GG to openly defy a prime minister. In 1926 he fired Prime Minister Mackenzie King (1874-1950) after King attempted to call an election that Byng considered unwarranted. The unprecedented move caused a big scandal, and to this day Canadian scholars still debate as to whether or not Byng abused his powers.

From 1867 to 1952, Britain appointed various lords, dukes and viscounts to serve as Governor General of Canada, and basically continue this trend of restraint. Though early governor generals were often a close and important adviser to the Canadian prime minister, and a crucial spokesman for British interests in Canada, they remained largely behind-the-scenes characters and are not usually remembered as historical figures of much importance. As the decades went on, they became even less influential (and interested) in political matters, and instead increasingly served as a symbolic figurehead representing the aristocratic pomp and ceremony of the British Empire with glittering uniforms, elaborate ceremonies, and lavish garden parties.

By the time World War II ended, Canada had won virtually complete political independence from Britain, and in recognition of this fact, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent (1882-1973) decided to end the practice of British governor generals altogether. In 1952, Vincent Massey (1887-1967) thus became the first-ever Canadian appointed to the post, and since then, all governor generals have been high-status Canadian citizens appointed by the prime minister of the day.

The Governor General Today

Today, we say the governor general’s main job is to “represent the Queen” and generally perform the sorts of symbolic, figurehead duties we associate with the Queen herself. This includes handing out medals, visiting hospitals, cutting ribbons, attending banquets and greeting world leaders at the airport. If there is a photo op to be had, you can be sure the governor general will be there.

Adrienne Clarkson

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (b. 1939) signs a bill into law as Prime Minister Paul Martin (b. 1938) looks on.

At the same time, the Canadian Constitution does grant rather sweeping powers to the “Crown,” and many of these powers are specifically entrusted to the governor general. A literal reading of the Constitution would seem to imply that Canada is ruled almost single-handedly by the governor general, in fact, since almost every major decision requires his approval or assent. He is responsible for inaugurating the prime minister and his cabinet ministers, signing all bills into law, calling elections, appointing judges and senators, commanding the armed forces and a host of other important tasks. In practice, however, the governor general performs these duties in a purely symbolic fashion. He automatically approves every law, appointment and proposal the prime minister of Canada puts before him, making his signature, known as royal assent, something of a ceremonial rubber stamp.

However! What makes the governor general interesting to a lot of people is the business of what are called his emergency reserve powers. In theory, if there was a serious enough crisis to justify it, the governor general could choose to stop being a figurehead and actually use one of his powers in defiance of the prime minister. He could veto a law, deny an appointment, or, most controversially of all, fire the prime minister and appoint a new one. Even though no governor general has done something like this in 80 years, it’s still a fun thought exercise to speculate about. Just how bad would things have to become before the GG would be justified in intervening?

Who Becomes Governor General?

Governor general in uniform

Governor General Michaëlle Jean (b. 1957) reviews a military parade in 2010. As the symbolic "commander-in-chief" of the Canadian armed forces, the governor general sometimes wears a fancy military uniform as part of his or her official duties. Even when wearing civilian clothes, they often wear medals to show rank, too.

The governor general is directly appointed by the prime minister of Canada, and until fairly recently it was common for the appointment to be openly partisan. Governor generals were usually retired politicians from the PM’s party, with the office being used as a patronage present for years of faithful service. This became gradually more and more controversial, considering that the GG is supposed to be a figure of national unity and a neutral arbitrator in times of democratic crisis — two tasks which can be quite hard for a partisan politician. In recognition of changing attitudes, Canada’s last three governor generals have all come from non-political backgrounds.

Since the GG is also supposed to personify the “face of Canada” at ceremonies both at home and abroad, another recent trend has been for prime ministers to appoint governor generals who represent some particular minority group. The last two governor generals were both non-white females, for instance, and were picked to acknowledge the racial diversity of modern Canada.

Once in office, governor generals are often fairly quiet and low-profile. They avoid speaking out on controversial topics (one former GG quipped that he learned to speak in nothing but “governor generalities”), and tend to busy themselves mostly with inconspicuous public appearances such as visits to elementary schools, travels to rural communities, and ceremonies for heroic, but unsung Canadian heroes.

Past Governor Generals

The British governor generals who served Canada between 1867 and 1952 are not particularly well remembered today (perhaps on purpose), and most official lists usually focus exclusively on the Canadian men and women who have held the office. So, here they are, in reverse chronological order:

Dr. David Johnston Dr. David Johnston (served 2010- )

Born in 1941, Canada’s current governor general is a career academic, having worked many decades as a professor of law before serving as president of the University of Waterloo from 1999 to 2010. In contrast to his two most recent predecessors, he’s had a relatively low profile in Ottawa.
Michaëlle Jean Michaëlle Jean (served 2005-2010)

A Haitian refugee with an inspiring life story, the glamorous Michaëlle Jean (b. 1957) worked as a host of a semi-popular documentary TV series before being appointed GG. Presiding over an era of shaky minority governments in Ottawa, she was pressured to intervene in politics during a few heated moments, but always refused.
Adrienne Clarkson Adrienne Clarkson (served 1999-2005)

Hong Kong-born Adrienne Clarkson (b. 1939) was the first non-white to hold the GG’s position, and the first without an actively political background. Like her successor, she was a former TV host of marginal fame. Near the end, Clarkson faced a lot of criticism for living a bit too lavishly in her tax-funded office.
Romeo LeBlanc Romeo LeBlanc (served 1995-1999)

A longtime Liberal politician with almost three decades of service to the party, Romeo LeBlanc (1927-2009) was a predictably partisan appointment of Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien (b. 1934). LeBlanc was known for being an Acadian — a member of New Brunswick’s French-speaking community — and not much else.
Ramon Hnatyshyn Ramon Hnatyshyn (served 1990-1995)

The son of poor Ukrainian immigrants, Ray Hnatyshyn (1934-2002) once quipped that his last name resembled “the top line of an eye chart.” He served as attorney general under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (b. 1939) before Mulroney promoted him to the top job.
Jeanne Sauvé Jeanne Sauvé (served 1984-1990)

Madame Sauvé (1922-1993) was a high-profile female politician back in the day when such creatures were uncommon. After serving in the cabinet of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), in 1980 she became the first female speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, and then first female governor general shortly after.
Edward Schreyer Edward Schreyer (served 1979-1984)

Eager to tweak the establishment with an anti-elitist appointment, Prime Minister Trudeau settled on Ed Schreyer (b. 1935). The former NDP premier of Manitoba was a fairly drab, working-class guy, and far from a model aristocrat. He recently attempted a political comeback with an unsuccessful run for parliament in 2008.
Jules Léger Jules Léger (served 1974-1979)

A longtime ambassador, Jules Légar (1913-1980) was a member of a powerful clique of diplomats that helped shape Canada’s postwar foreign policy. Tragically, he was badly crippled by a stroke shortly after becoming governor general and for the remainder of his term his wife had to perform many of his duties.
Roland Michener Roland Michener (served 1967-1974)

With his white mustache, stocky build and jolly laugh, Roland Michener (1900-1991) certainly looked like a governor general. A longtime Tory politician who served as Speaker of the House from 1957 to 1962, he was made governor general after his retirement from politics.
Robert Taschereau Robert Taschereau (served 1967)

If a governor general dies in office, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court takes over. Chief Justice Taschereau (1896-1970) served as acting governor general for a month in 1967 following the death of Georges Vanier.
General Georges Vanier General Georges Vanier (served 1959-1967)

A decorated soldier from World War I, General Vanier (1888-1967) was an acclaimed war hero who had survived multiple serious injuries on the battlefield. After the war, he served in numerous diplomatic posts, including UN ambassador. Weak and infirm at the time of his appointment, he died in office.
Vincent Massey Vincent Massey (served 1952-1959)

The first Canadian to serve as governor general of Canada, Vincent Massey (1887-1967) was chosen, in part, because his über-aristocratic manner was seen to help the transition from British lords. Born into a wealthy capitalist family, Massey served as an MP and later ambassador to Britain and the United States.
Viscount Alexander of Tunis The Viscount Alexander (served 1946-1952)

Lord Alexander of Tunis (1891-1961) was Canada’s last British governor, and perhaps a fairly typical pick. A major-general during World War II, Lord Tunis was one of Britain’s top soldiers during the conflict, and served as a deputy to generals Montgomery and Eisenhower. He was later appointed to the House of Lords.

Links About The Governor General:

Quick Facts:

  • The governor general is a man or woman who serves as Canada's ceremonial head of state on behalf of the Queen.
  • Governor generals were originally English aristocrats appointed by Britain, now they are Canadian citizens appointed by the prime minister.
  • Like the Queen, the governor general is mostly a symbolic figurehead who occasionally performs ceremonial duties.
  • In times of political crisis, the governor general has the power to intervene in politics, though this has not been done in over 80 years.