Office of the Governor General of Canada

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jan 1, 2006

The Office of Governor General is one of the least discussed political institutions in Canadian politics, yet represents one of the most historical and symbolic offices in the nation’s system of government. In recent years, the Office of Governor General has been the focus of some debate in Canada, with some questioning its overall relevance, while others have taken issue with the costs of running the Office, and spending by the Governor General.

This article provides an introduction to the Office of Governor General: it discusses the nature of the Office, its history, roles and customs, its relationship with other government institutions, as well as debates surrounding the Office.

What is the Governor General?

An introduction to the Office of Governor General

History of the Governor General in Canada

How has the Office evolved over the years?

Government & the Governor General

What are the powers and duties of the Office today?

Rules and Customs of the Governor General

An overview of the traditions of the Governor General

Governor General: Political Issues

Debates and controversies surrounding the Office

Links to More Information

List of links for more on this topic


What is the Governor General?

An introduction to the Office of Governor General

Only a few countries in the world have a political position that can be likened to that of Canada’s Governor General. The following provides a brief introduction to the Office.

Governor General & Canada’s Colonial Past

Governors General have their historical roots in Canada’s colonial past. In the 15th and 16th centuries, British and French monarchies founded several colonies across present day Canada. As there were no forms of immediate communication, and travel was by sail across the Atlantic Ocean, these colonies were often difficult to govern. While the French and British monarchs were the rulers of their respective Canadian colonies, they could not be physically present to govern them. Accordingly, royal representatives, or governors, were sent to each colony to represent the monarch and his/her interests. Over the years, these original colonial governors have evolved into the office that we know today as the Governor General of Canada.

See the History of the Governor General’s Office section of this article for more information on the colonial history and evolution of the Governor General’s Office.

The Governor General Today

Today, Canada is a self-governing and independent nation. So why do Canadians still have a Governor General? The reason lies with Canada’s modern system of government and its continuing links with the monarchy.

The monarchy continues to play a central ceremonial and symbolic role in the nation’s democratic system. Canada’s Head of State is a King or Queen, and, while this monarch no longer has any real political power, s/he continues to serve as a symbol of the Canadian “nation” or “peoples” and has important ceremonial roles to play in the day-to-day operation of government.

For more information on the Canadian Monarchy:

Like the colonial governors of Canada’s past, the modern Governor General continues the tradition of representing the monarch in the domestic politics of the country. When the monarch is not present in Canada, the Governor General is tasked with the job of standing in his/her stead. This includes acting as the monarchy's representative at important public ceremonies, and performing the daily royal duties required under Canada’s system of government.

Over the years, the role of the Governor General has expanded beyond simply representing the monarch. For example, it is now common for Governors General to make official visits to foreign countries. In doing so, the Governor General is acting as a representative of the Canadian government and state to other countries, as opposed to his/her customary role of representing the King or Queen in Canada's domestic politics.

See the Government & Governor General section of this article for more information on the Governor General's responsibilities.

Provincial Lieutenant Governors

The Governor General is not the only official representative of the monarch. While the Governor General is responsible for performing this function at the federal level, Lieutenant Governors are appointed at the provincial level. These provincial Lieutenant Governors represent the monarch in provincial public ceremonies, and perform the royal duties required by the day-to-day operation of provincial legislatures. Canada’s territories have “Commissioners,” who perform some of the same functions as provincial Lieutenant Governors.


History of the Governor General’s Office

How has the Office of Governor General evolved over the years?

The Office of Governor General has changed considerably over Canada’s history. From time to time, it has also had an important impact on Canadian political affairs. The following section offers an overview of important events in the history of the Governor General’s office.

French Governors in Canada

The Office of Governor General can be traced back to the days of French colonization of Canada. French exploration and settlement began in the late 1500s, eventually leading to the establishment of three colonies in present-day Canada: Acadia (which included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, parts of Eastern Quebec, and parts of New England), the colony of New France (now Ontario and Quebec), and Plaisance (which included parts of Newfoundland).

Administration of these French colonies was the responsibility of colonial governors. In New France, early governors were initially appointed by and responsible to private companies and investors that operated in the region. In the mid-1600s, the French monarchy took greater control over administration of New France by appointing governors that were responsible to the French state, not private companies. Colonial governors in Acadia and Plaisance had always been responsible directly to the French monarchy.

There was no democracy in the French colonies of Canada, and early French governors had absolute power over their colonies. They were responsible to the monarchs, governments, or private companies that appointed them, not the residents of the colony.

British Governors in Canada

During the 17th century, the British established several colonies along North America’s eastern coast, including the Canadian colony of Newfoundland. Private companies undertook early colonization of Newfoundland, and Proprietary Governors responsible to these companies acted as colonial administers. Beginning in the early 1700s, however, the British government began to appoint ‘Commodore-Governors’ to the colony. These Commodore-Governors commanded local British naval forces and were tasked with protecting Newfoundland from pirates and foreign fleets. Civil Governors responsible to the British monarchy eventually replaced Commodore-Governors in the early 19th century.

Following several European wars in the 18th century, the British gained control of the French colonies of Acadia and New France. The British eventually divided Acadia into the colonies of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Maine, appointing colonial governors to administer each colony. New France was renamed the Province of Quebec and was also given its own colonial governor. These governors had authoritarian powers and were responsible only to the British monarch and government.

In the 1780s, the British reorganized the governors’ offices. The governor posts for Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were merged into a single office called the Governor-in-Chief, later renamed the Governor General. Lieutenant Governors were also appointed to each individual colony. It was at that time that Canada’s modern system of a federal Governor General and provincial Lieutenant Governors first appeared. This system was formalized following Canadian Confederation in 1867.

Democracy & the Governor General

In the early 19th century, several democratic movements began to surface in the Canadian colonies that resulted in several rebellions against this authoritarian rule. This led the British to introduce responsible and representative government to the Canadian colonies. Accordingly, the posts of Governor General and Lieutenant Governor became largely ceremonial in nature, with the transfer of most political power to elected legislatures.

This governing structure continued following Canadian Confederation in 1867. Political power was held by the federal and provincial legislatures. The Governor General and Lieutenant Governors were charged with representing the monarchy and the British government in the domestic politics of the new Dominion of Canada.

The 1926 King-Byng Affair

One of the more controversial events in the recent history of the Governor General is the 1926 constitutional crisis involving Governor General Lord Byng and Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (often called the “King-Byng Affair”). This crisis led to changes in the role of the Governor General, not only in Canada, but throughout the Commonwealth.

The role of both the monarch and the Governor General in Canadian government had become largely ceremonial. In theory, the monarch continued to hold several important powers, including the power to dissolve Parliament and appoint the Prime Minister, which could be exercised by the Governor General in the name of the monarch. The custom, however, was that Governors General did not interfere in Canadian politics and exercised their royal powers in accordance with the wishes of elected Prime Ministers. The powers of the Governor General and this practice of non-interference were at the very centre of the King-Byng Affair.

It is worth noting that, at this time, Governors General acted as representatives of both the monarch and the British government. Moreover, they were appointed by the British government and were British, not Canadian, citizens. This left the Office vulnerable to charges of British influence.

In 1924, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King lost a general election to the Conservative Party, led by Arthur Meighen. Although the Conservatives won more seats than the Liberals, Mackenzie King was able to form a minority government by gaining the support of the Progressive Party. In the following months, a political scandal relating to the Ministry of Customs and Excise was exposed, leading to corruption charges against the Liberal government and Prime Minister Mackenzie King himself.

In 1926, facing a possible censure vote against his government because of the corruption scandal, Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. Normally, a Governor General would automatically grant such a request from a Prime Minister. In this case, however, Governor General Byng declined, instead choosing to call on the Meighen Conservatives to form a new minority government. In making this decision, the Governor General was aware that the House of Commons was in the process of deciding a censure motion against Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government, and that the Conservatives held the largest number of seats in the House and could form another government with the support of the Progressive Party. For Governor General Byng it was preferable to permit the Conservatives to form a new government and allow the censure debate to continue, rather than dissolve Parliament and hold a general election.

The new Conservative minority government, however, only lasted a few days. In the subsequent election, Mackenzie King’s Liberals charged that the Governor General had favoured the Conservatives over the Liberals and that the British were again interfering in the politics of Canada. In the ensuing vote, the Liberals were returned to power with a majority government.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King immediately petitioned the British to change the role of the Governor General. This led to the Belfour Declaration of 1926, in which it was agreed the Governors General of all Commonwealth countries would cease to be agents of the British government; instead, they would only represent the monarchy. A new office, that of the British High Commissioner, was created to provide representation for the British government in Canada, with powers and duties similar to those of an ambassador.

Other Recent Events in the Office

Other important recent events in the history of the Governor General include:

  • 1947: The British government agrees to grant the Governor General the ceremonial position of Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian military in the name of the monarch. The monarch previously held the position.
  • 1952: Vincent Massey is the first Canadian-appointed Governor General. Previously, it was customary for Governors General to be British. Since Massey’s appointment, all Governors General have been Canadian.
  • 1971: Roland Michener becomes the first Governor General to make a state visit to another country (Michener visited Trinidad and Tobago). Since that time, it has been customary for Governors General to make state visits, around the world, on behalf of Canada and its citizens.
  • 1984: Jeanne Sauvé is the first woman to be appointed Governor General.
  • 1999: Adrienne Clarkson is the first person of a visible minority group to be appointed Governor General.

Governors General Since Confederation

Canada's first Governor General was Sir Charles Stanley Monk, who served in the position from 1867 to 1868. Since Monk, Canada has had over 25 governor generals.

For information on past Canadian Governor Generals:

For information on Canada's Current Governor General:


Government & the Governor General

What are the powers and duties of the Office today?

While the Governor General has no real power, the Office nevertheless plays an integral role in the operation of government in Canada.

Parliamentary Duties of the Governor General

Granting Royal Assent

Before any piece of legislation becomes law in Canada, it must receive Royal approval or ‘Royal Assent’ by the Governor General. The legislation is first voted upon in the elected House of Commons and, if it passes through a majority vote, it is then sent to the appointed Senate for approval. Once the legislation passes both the House of Commons and the Senate, it must receive Royal approval from the Canadian monarch or the Governor General, as the monarch’s representative in Canada. Once the legislation receives this Royal Assent, it officially becomes Canadian law.
 
Both the vote in the Senate and the granting of Royal Assent are largely formalities. The most important test for any piece of legislation is the vote that takes place in the elected House of Commons. Once a piece of legislation receives the support of the majority of Members in the House, it is customary for it to receive essentially automatic approval by both the Senate and the Governor General.

Appointing Government Officials

Another important parliamentary duty of the Governor General is to appoint key government officers, including the Prime Minister, federal cabinet ministers, judges, and other government officials. This responsibility is largely ceremonial. In the case of government officials such as Members of Cabinet and judges, the Governor General always acts on the wishes of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister makes the decision, while the Governor General simply carries out his or her mandate as counselled.

In appointing the Prime Minister following a general election, the Governor General follows the custom of asking the leader of the political party (or coalition of political parties) with the most seats in the House of Commons to assume the role. However, in some rare circumstances, this custom is unavailable to the Governor General. For example, if the Prime Minister were to die while in office and his or her political party was unable to appoint an interim leader, or, if no political party was able form a government. In such cases, the Governor General can rely on his/her own discretion to appoint the Prime Minister. Such occasions, however, have rarely occurred in Canada’s history.

Opening and Closing of Parliament

The Governor General also has the power to call, in the name of the monarch of Canada, the opening of Parliament. This occurs after every general election and involves the setting of the date and time when the new Parliament will be officially summoned and when its members will sit for the first time. While it is the Governor General that actually makes the formal proclamation that summons Parliament, s/he always does so on the advice of the newly elected Prime Minister.

The Governor General also has the power to dissolve Parliament. Again, this is generally just a formality. Under the Canadian Constitution, a general election must occur at least every five years or whenever the government in power loses a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. The actual date is decided by the Prime Minister, who then advises the Governor General to make the formal proclamation dissolving Parliament. There have, however, been rare occasions when a Governor General has failed to take the advice of the Prime Minister in regard to dissolving the Parliament, the most famous being the 1926 King-Byng Affair.

See the History of the Governor General’s Office section of this article for more information on the King-Byng Affair.

Speech From the Throne

The Speech From the Throne, or Throne Speech, outlines the government's political agenda and priorities. This speech is given by the Governor General from the Royal Throne in the Senate and is attended by all members of both Houses of Parliament. While it is the Governor General who gives the Throne Speech, the address is actually prepared by the Prime Minister.

The Throne Speech is given at the opening of every new Parliament. Additional speeches may also be given during the course of a government’s term, whenever it feels the need to redefine its political agenda to the Canadian public.

Other Responsibilities of the Governor General

In addition to those duties relating to Parliament, the Governor General has other important responsibilities:

Commander-in-Chief

The Governor General is the ceremonial Commander-in-Chief of Canada’s Armed Forces. While Governors General do not make military policy, they nevertheless have several responsibilities:

Honouring Canadians

The Governor General also commemorates the achievements of Canadians by presenting special awards, decorations, and medals, including:

  • Order of Canada: This is the highest honour that a Canadian citizen can receive. It is given for exceptional achievement, merit, or service.
  • Order of Military Merit: As mentioned, this order recognizes exceptional service and performance by members of the Armed Forces.
  • Decorations for Bravery: Bravery awards go to people who have risked their own lives in acts of courage.
  • Caring Canadian Award: This is bestowed upon caregivers and volunteers who provide extraordinary service to families and community groups.
  • Heraldic Authority: The Governor General recognizes groups or individuals for public service of national importance by granting Coats of Arms.

For more information on the awards and honours presented by the Governor General:

National Identity and Unity

One of the expressed mandates of the Governor General is to promote Canada’s identity and national unity by participating in community and cultural events, visiting hospitals and other public institutions, and supporting a variety of organizations.

For more information on the Governor General and this work:

Ambassador to the World

Another of the Governor General’s primary duties is to travel the world, building ties between Canada and foreign countries. In the same vein, the Governor General also welcomes and receives world leaders and dignitaries from other countries. It also falls to the Governor General to receive the credentials of foreign High Commissioners and Ambassadors.

For more information on the ambassador duties of the Governor General:


Rules and Customs of the Governor General

An overview of the traditions of the Governor General

The Office of the Governor General is governed by important rules and customs:

Tenure of the Office

Generally, an appointment to the post of Governor General is for a period of five years. The term of office, however, can be extended by the monarch to seven on the advice of the Prime Minister. The tenures of several Governors General, including Adrienne Clarkson, Georges Vanier, and Roland Michener, exceeded five years. Governors General may also resign from office, as Roméo LeBlanc did in 1999 due to health concerns.

Appointment Protocols

There are no specific written rules pertaining to the appointments for the post of Governor General. Over the years, however, several unwritten customs have developed:

  • Canadian Citizenship: Early in the history of the Office it was customary to appoint elite British citizens to the position — usually military officers or members of the aristocracy. The appointment of Vincent Massey in 1952, however, established the precedent of selecting a Canadian citizen to fill the post.
  • Promoting Diversity & Equality: In the past it was customary to appoint only white males to the post of Governor General. Today, however, appointments have come to reflect the ideals of diversity and equality. The first woman, Jeanne Sauvé, was appointed in 1984, while the first member of a visible minority group, Adrienne Clarkson, was appointed in 1999.
  • French & English: Since the custom of appointing Canadian citizens was adopted in 1952, it has become tradition to alternate appointments for the post of Governor General between English and French Canadians.

Previously, the Prime Minister would submit a list of several candidates for Governor General to the King or Queen. The monarch would then select Canada’s new Governor General from that list. Beginning in the 1960s, however, it became customary for the Prime Minister to submit a single name to the monarch for automatic approval.

Governor General’s Residences

The Governor General maintains two official residences: Rideau Hall in Ottawa, and La Citadelle in Quebec City.

Built in 1838, Rideau Hall is the Governor General’s primary residence. It first became associated with the Office in 1864, when the Governor General of the day, Sir Charles Stanley Monk, chose the home as his official residence. Today, the residence is used to officially receive foreign Heads of State and Ambassadors posted to Canada. It is also where various awards affiliated with the Office are presented, and where the official swearing-in of newly elected Prime Ministers and Cabinets occurs.

In 1872, Governor General Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood established a second residency at La Citadelle in Quebec City, Quebec. Since its establishment, every Governor General has spent part of the year at La Citadelle in the course of performing his/her official duties.

For more information on the official residencies of the Governor General:

Privileges & Symbols of the Governor General

The Office of the Governor General comes with several privileges and symbols:

  • In the Order of Precedence, the Governor General outranks all individuals except the King or Queen. The Order of Precedence is a symbolic hierarchy of important positions in the Government of Canada and is used to dictate ceremonial protocol.
  • Upon retirement, Governors General are appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. This is a ceremonial council to the King or Queen for Canada. Britain and Canada are the only two Commonwealth nations to have a Privy Council.
  • While in office, the Governor General is referred to as “Her Excellency” or “His Excellency.” A Governor General is also addressed as “The Right Honourable,” a designation that continues even after retirement.
  • The Governor General’s flag is blue with a crowned lion holding a red maple leaf. The Governor General’s flag takes precedence over all other Canadian state flags except the monarch’s. When travelling outside of Canada, the Governor General uses the Canadian national flag.

Governor General: Political Issues

Debates and controversies surrounding the Office

While the Governor General does not typically register on the radar of Canadian politics, the Office has found itself at the centre of some debate in various contexts:

Monarchism versus Republicanism

A continuing debate in Canadian politics centres on whether to continue the nation’s relationship with the monarchy. Some have argued that Canada should no longer have its political identity and authority invested in a Royal figurehead, but should instead adopt a Republican government model. In contrast, supporters of the monarchy stress the benefits of having a separate, apolitical, and well-recognized member of the British Royal Family as Canada’s Head of State.

For more information on the Monarchy versus Republic debate:

As the representative of the monarchy in Canada, this debate has major implications for the Governor General. If Canada were to ever reject the monarchy altogether, the Governor General would no longer have a true raison d’être. Canadians, however, have historically been strong supporters of the monarchy, and the Government of Canada has never officially expressed a desire to move to a Republican system.

The ‘Canadianization’ of the Crown

A second issue of contention pertains to the role of the Governor General within Canada’s monarchy itself. Technically, the King or Queen is Canada’s Head of State and the Governor General is tasked with the job of representing the monarch in the domestic politics of Canada. Over the years, however, the Governor General has been allowed to take on a much more prominent role. 

For example:

  • Beginning in the 1940s, the British agreed to grant the Governor General the ceremonial post of Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian military. Previously, this post was reserved for the reigning monarch.
  • In the 1970s, Governors General began making official state visits to foreign countries. In doing so, the Governor General took on the role of representing the Canadian government and peoples to other nations; this went far beyond the traditional duty of simply representing the monarchy and its interests vis-à-vis Canada’s domestic politics.
  • In 2005, the protocol for Letters of Credence and Recall (presented by newly appointed Ambassadors to Canada) was changed. While previously addressed to the King or Queen of Canada, with the change, they are now addressed to the Governor General of Canada, without any reference to the monarchy.

It is important to note here that while Canada shares the same monarch with other Commonwealth nations, it does have its own monarchical institution or Crown. The Crown of Canada is considered distinct, separate, and equal to the Crown of other Commonwealth nations, such as the United Kingdom and the Crown of Australia. It just so happens, however, that a British-born Royal Family holds all of these separate Crowns.

The issue, then, is over whether Canada should continue to base its monarchy solely around a British-born Royal Family that it shares with other Commonwealth nations, or whether the Canadian monarchy should be given a distinctively Canadian face. Those who support a greater role for the Governor General argue that such a reform would better symbolize Canada as an independent and distinct nation. Contrary arguments often stress the popularity of the British Royal Family, and Canada’s unique historical and cultural links to the British Commonwealth.

Finances of the Governor General

A more recent political issue to arise has involved the spending habits of the Governor General. Between 1996 and 2004, the annual budget of the Office rose considerably, from approximately $10 million to $19 million. The Office also receives tens of millions annually, in the form of services from other government agencies including the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the National Capital Commission (which maintains government buildings in Ottawa, including Rideau Hall), and the Department of National Defence. The Governor General’s Office defended these spending increases, citing a rise in costs to run programs, such as the Governor General’s Awards, as well as the visitor’s program to Rideau Hall.

Critics have also argued that spending by the Governor General in recent years has been much too extravagant. In this context, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was heavily criticized when she traveled with a large entourage of authors, artists, and other prominent cultural figured to promote Canadian culture abroad. The Governor General’s Office has rejected these criticisms, citing the need to raise Canada’s profile internationally, a task mandated to the Governor General by the Government of Canada.

In 2004, political criticism and public concern resulted in a review of the Governor General’s spending by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates (OGGO). In its report, the Committee concluded it was unable to fully assess the Office’s expenses due to a lack of information about the costs borne by other government agencies. The Committee did, however, express concern over the fact that the Office of the Governor General was exempt from reporting to Parliament on its plans, priorities, and performance. The Committee also acknowledged a lack of public awareness regarding the Governor General’s mandate, role, and responsibilities, calling for a public debate on the relevance and future of the institution.

For more information on the Committee’s review of Spending by the Governor General:

Appointments to Governor General

A final issue pertaining to the Office of Governor General focuses on the procedures for appointing persons to the position. As it stands now, the Prime Minister has complete discretion in his/her choice, and may or may not follow the unwritten customs that have come to exist, such as appointing Canadian citizens, persons from minority groups, or alternating between French- and English-speaking candidates.

Some have argued that the protocols of appointment should be codified and taken beyond the complete purview of the Prime Minister. For example, a government committee or agency could be formed with the task of creating a list of candidates for the post. Moreover, a written set of criteria could be established to govern who could be accepted as a potential candidate. Another approach could be to make the position democratic, allowing members of the public to vote for candidates for the post.

Supporters of reform suggested there would be benefits to changing the way in which the Governor General is appointed. By codifying the criteria for appointment, the argument goes, it might be the case that more highly qualified candidates would be selected. Further, by depoliticizing the process, taking it beyond the sole discretion of the Prime Minister, the Office would be less vulnerable to charges of political patronage. In this context, some have posited that allowing Canadians to elect their Governor General might just result in a heightened awareness and attachment to the Office and its holder.

Others have argued for the status quo, asserting that there are important advantages to the current system of appointment. With the great deal of power the Prime Minister exerts over the Governor General, there is less chance of a constitutional crisis occurring (similar to the King-Byng Affair), in which the Governor General openly contradicts the wishes of the elected government. Moreover, as the symbolic representative of the Crown and the nation as a whole, it is beneficial to have the Governor General remain non-partisan. If s/he were to be democratically elected, there is the risk the Office and its holder could become highly politicized, and more representative of a particular ideology, political party, or segment of Canadian society, than of Canada as a whole.


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