In the summer of 1999, Adrienne Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul spent a long—and presumably rather dull—week prowling the stacks of the Metro Toronto Reference Library, looking for the type of books that few people read, and even fewer write. The former television personality had accepted Jean Chrétien’s offer to become Canada’s next Governor General. And even though the appointment wouldn’t be made public until early fall, Clarkson, a keener of long-standing, wanted to get a better idea of her new job’s duties, powers and responsibilities. It was tough sledding. “Luckily, we already owned former Governor General Vincent Massey’s autobiography, and a collection of his speeches, and The Biography of Georges Vanier, by Robert Speaight,” she writes in her 2006 memoir Heart Matters. “But there was absolutely no literature on what a Governor General actually did once installed in Rideau Hall that wasn’t connected simply to the opening and closing of Parliament, the reading of the Speech from the Throne, receiving state visitors and ceremonies like the Order of Canada.”
Pity then, poor Michaëlle Jean, the current holder of the office. The Constitutional dilemmas she faces are all too real: Should she acquiesce to a Prime Minister’s request to prorogue Parliament just so he can stave off a vote of non-confidence? Can she give an opposition coalition (headed by a lame-duck Liberal leader who absorbed an electoral drubbing only weeks ago) a shot at power? The kind of tomes that might guide her through such a political crisis have hardly proliferated over the past decade. As Clarkson notes, this is the kind of stuff that the framers of the BNA Act and the Constitution were a little vague on. Namely, “reserve” (or rather default) powers that allow the Governor General to act on his or her own initiative to keep the government stable and functioning. They have rarely been used, and never in this exact situation. “It’s typically Canadian that this exercise of the reserve power is vague, uncertain, and to some degree debatable,” writes Clarkson, putting a positive spin on what currently looks to the rest of the country—and the wider world—like chaos. “What could be more Anglo-Saxon? The power all lies in the unspoken, the unexercised.”
Jean is not without resources. Her supporting bureaucracy, the Office of the Secretary of the Governor General, has some in-house expertise on Constitutional matters. There are briefing books, and the files of G.G.’s stretching back to 1867. (For example, when it looked like Paul Martin’s newly-sworn-in minority might fall in 2004, Clarkson did some research and pre-determined that she would give the opposition a crack at governing.) And Jean can seek counsel from the Privy Council Office, the Department of Justice, or even her “deputy,” the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Outside academics and lawyers are also on speed-dial. “In this particular case, I can confirm that the Governor General has sought outside advice,” says her spokesperson, Lucie Caron.
Ted McWhinney, a Constitutional expert and former Liberal Member of Parliament, says he has weighed-in for Governor Generals and their provincial counterparts on several occasions in the past. “The rules are that you don’t ask for a fee, and that your opinions are confidential.” But he maintains the vast majority of what Jean will be hearing is of dubious utility. “There’s virtually no writing of any value—based on empirical studies from here or abroad,” he says. “Most of the stuff she’s getting is just top of people’s heads.” Even the past experiences of other Commonwealth countries will be of little practical assistance. The closest parallel might be an Australian crisis in 1975, when a serious parliamentary deadlock prompted Governor General John Kerr to dismiss Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and invite the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser to form a government. The move sparked protests in the streets, and Kerr was eventually hounded from public life. “Constitutional law is 50 per cent rules, and 50 per cent high politics,” says McWhinney. “A successful G.G. knows how to maintain that balance. Reading public opinion is crucial.”
One person whom is unlikely to receive a call from Jean is Elizabeth II. Although Canadians still tend to view the Governor General as the Queen’s representative in Canada, the office has been fully independent since 1947. “Even many politicians don’t seem to know that the final authority of the state was transferred from the monarch to the Governor General,” Clarkson wrote in her memoirs. “This means that it is the Governor General who is the guarantor of responsible government and our parliamentary democracy.” It is an arrangement that the Queen seems comfortable with, notes Clarkson. In all their conversations, political or constitutional matters were never raised.