State of the head of state debate -

State of the head of state debate


It’s not clear at all to me that the Governor General cannot be called Canada’s head of state in at least some contexts. (Monarchists, please direct your hate mail to my correspondence secretary, Nigel, who much prefers to read letters written in fountain pen and sealed with wax.)

Not that I’m claiming true expertise in matters vice-regal. All I know for sure about Rideau Hall is that it is customary when cricket is being played on the grounds to begin tea with cucumber sandwiches, whilst watercress is much preferred on croquet afternoons.

But be that as it may, in 1947, King George VI signed so-called “letters patent,” which gave the Canadian GG the main duties of a ceremonial head of state. In Governor General Roland Michener’s time, GGs traveling abroad on Canada’s behalf began to be greeted by foreign governments as Canadian head of state. (Read about it here, under the interesting heading “a Governor General as Head of State…”)

So our GG carries out the duties of a ceremonial head of state. And she is treated like a ceremonial head of state. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and wears a lot of gold brocade on its epaulets…

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State of the head of state debate

  1. I think Harper smacking her down was just because he knows that the Head of State (or Head of State-lite or whatever she is) is far more popular than the Head of Government.

    And anyway I thought C/conservatives were won over when she ate the seal heart and told the Europeans to go f themselves.

  2. Government and Royal protocol is impenetrable to all but a few gnomes who will sort this out.

    • The Queen is the Head of State, the Governor General is her representative.

      There. Impenetrable fog lifted.


      • Exactly! Just because the CEO of my company sends me to represent the company at a meeting, that doesn't make me the friggin' CEO!

  3. So here is the test…Can the Queen, the Head of State, replace the GG whenever…..yes, by convention on the advice of her First Minister.

    She was crowned Queen of Canada….she is the Head of State and she has a representative here that does most of her job for her. And the GG ceases those functions as soon as the Queen arrives on our soil.

    (BTW I am nether endorsing nor criticizing, it just is one of those "it is" things)

    This shouldnt be a big deal, and she shouldnt have said what she said. The GG does a ine job carrying out the monarch;s infrequent duties in this country.

  4. Maybe it's time to petition Her Majesty herself to reproach our head civil servant for precipitating this unnecessary contretemps.

  5. Declaration of Executive Power in the Queen

    9. The Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.

    Constitution of Parliament of Canada

    17. There shall be One Parliament for Canada, consisting of the Queen, an Upper House styled the Senate, and the House of Commons.

    The Constitution Act, 1867

    If, but not before, they manage to amend the constitution to change the authority of the Queen, then the GG will be free to call his or herself whatever suits the fashion of the day (Grand Poobah, Master of the Buckhounds, Lord High Auditor, etc…). Until then then, the chain of command is fairly clear, starting with the Sovereign, then the GG, then Bev McLachlin, and so on, and so on…

    It hardly surprises me that a former CBC employee can't keep it straight. The shame of it is that working for the Ceeb seems to be the only qualification that matters when it comes to appointing who the next, constitutionally-challenged, vice-regal will be.

  6. My mom used to say I was in charge when she had to leave my little sister and I at home when we were kids.

    Did that make me my sister's mother?

    So, the Head of State delegated some of her powers to her representative eh? Wow. That does make it confusing. Basically, the sovereign wrote a letter saying "in my absence, the Governor General can act in my name". What super complex constitutional procedure would be required to take that delegation of power back? Writing another letter.

    Yeah. It's super confusing as to who's in charge.

    • What happens when your mother leaves for good? Does that make you your sister's guardian?

      • So far, the Queen hasn't left us for good, so the question is moot. If LKO's mother had left for good, the whole familial organisation would have had to be re-organised. So, I suspect, if the Queen left Canada for good, we would (shudder) have to re-open the Constitution.

        No disrespect intended to LKO's mother. This is all hypothetical.

      • Well, I'd say that's an irrelevant analogy in this context, as the Queen has not "left for good" constitutionally speaking, but regardless, no. If my mother leaves for good that does not make me my sister's guardian. If I'm 14 years old and I'm in charge of my 10 year old sister while my Mom's away, and then my Mom doesn't come back, then we likely go in to foster care (I come from a single parent home, but it's also just easier to think of it in those terms for the purpose of this comparison).

        Now, most importantly, no matter how many parental duties my Mom delegated to me, even if she delegated every conceivable parental power to me, and even if she never comes back, non of that ever made me my sister's parent. Now, the difference being that I can NEVER be my sister's parent, whereas the GG could conceivable, at some point in the future, become our Head of State. However, she's not now, and won't become such no matter how many powers our actual Head of State delegates to her.

        • Well, there are certain problems with taking that analogy too far. For instance, your 14 year old self and sister could not vote to remove your mother of her status and place the aunt who always cared for you, in your mother's place.

          • True, but the analogy still holds. In the analogy, I'm the Governor General, and my Mom is the Queen. The Governor General can't remove the Queen from her place and replace her with someone else either.

            Parliament could certainly amend the constitution to do so (along with the consent of the provinces) but in the babysitting analogy that's not me and my sister voting to replace my Mom with someone else, it's Family and Social Services doing so (i.e. our elected representatives in the Parliament and Provincial legislatures).

          • Typical Canadians. Splitting hairs, trying to make everyone happy. We are talking 'culture' here, which is entirely subjective. Well, some things pertaining to 'culture' is objective. But I don't want to get bogged down in an anthropoligical/sociological debate with you. Let's agree on this: Canadians and Brits are different. When you travel abroad, oftentimes we Canadians have to tell people we are not American. Does anyone ever mistake you for a Brit?

            The Queen is 'foreigner', CULTURALLY. Do we agree? If so, then we can move forward, and eventually depose her.

            If we disagree, and you say that, indeed, the Queen is as Canadian as Gordie Howe, then I doubt we can have an honest debate.

            I suspect you like the monarchy. Am I correct? If so, just come out and say it. You like the monarchy. You like to sip tea with your pinky finger pointing up, you like crumpets. You like cricket and saying things like, "jolly good". Just admit it. No harm not foul.

  7. Wow, I'm really, really surprised at Michaelle Jean. I like her very much and think she's done a marvelous job as GG, but I'm afraid I think that's a firing offense. Because if we don't, Harper may get it into his head to call himself the head of state, and if that happened I'm sure my heart would explode.

    And I say this even though I was pleased when Michaelle Jean represented us even in the presence of the Queen at a WWII memorial a year or two ago.

  8. Is there a news item I am not current with that makes this relevant?
    The Royals are coming next month (at some expense to us apparently) for a bit of a visit. ( security accommodations events etc…)
    Is that it?
    God Save the Queen!


    Duh. Ok. Found it.

    Have I mentioned what a Goof I think Mr Harper is?
    Go ahead give him a majority, then you'll be sorry.

    Append more…

    Wiki is never wrong … " The Governor General of Canada (French [masculine]: Gouverneur général du Canada, or [feminine]: Gouverneure générale du Canada) is the viceregal representative in the federal jurisdiction of the Canadian monarch and head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, who is equally shared with 15 other sovereign nations in a form of personal union, but resides predominantly in her oldest realm, the United Kingdom. "
    Ok Viceregal Representative of the Head of State of Canada (HRH QEII). What was the point again?

    • That a viceroy is by definition not the monarch, and therefore isn't the Canadian head of state, no matter how many such powers she has delegated to her.

    • That a viceroy is by definition not the monarch, and therefore isn't the Canadian head of state, no matter how many such powers she has delegated to her by said monarch. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court can also exercise some head of state powers in the absence of the GG, but that doesn't make her the head of state either.

      • It wouldn't be so mind numbingly annoying if something idiotic didn't come up every, like, six months to make everybody have to have a rudimentary civics lesson, eh? It's not even so much that I mind people needing to have something so simple explained.

        It's that we have to keep doing it over, and over, and over again…

  9. It's not clear at all to me that the Governor General cannot be called Canada's head of state in at least some contexts.

    I guess the real problem here is a trivial little thing known as the "constitution" or the "law", depending on the company.

    The head of state in our system needs to be sovereign, since (and I know this is hard to believe, given the dusty desuetude into which our system has fallen) the Crown is actually the primary check on government (and was really the only check on government until the Charter era).

    The GG, being a prime-ministerial appointment and usually a ribbon-cutting executive eunuch, is anything but sovereign and can hardly be considered as the "head" of anything, much less head of our state.

    • I couldn't agree more. The Governor-General may enjoy some of the ceremonial trappings of a head of state, but Michaelle Jean is merely the viceregal representative of our actual head of state – nothing more.

      For those who are still confused about the concept of "head of state" vs. "viceregal representative", check the back of any Canadian currency for a handy reminder.

    • I couldn't agree more. The Governor-General may enjoy some of the ceremonial trappings of a head of state, but Michaelle Jean is merely the viceregal representative of our actual head of state – nothing more.

      For those who are still confused about the distinction between "head of state" and "viceregal representative", check the back of any Canadian currency for a handy reminder.

    • No problem: we can make the GG sovereign. problem solved. how hard was that? You didn't answer the question: why can't the GG be sovereign, if she is the DE FACTO sovereign? question still unanswered…

      • You didn't answer the question: why can't the GG be sovereign, if she is the DE FACTO sovereign?

        No. You didn't understand the answer. The GG is not sovereign,de facto or otherwise.

        Do you not know what "sovereign" means? It means "totally self-governing". The GG is not even minimally self-governing; she is governed. She exists only because the Crown exists and takes all of her prerogatives from it. She is the creature of an appointment–a civil servant, basically–who depends on the prime-minister (and the Queen, of course) for her job. The GG is almost entirely devoid of independence, conventionally doing everything the PM requests. This situation exemplifies the direct opposite of what "sovereign" means.

        As to your proposal to make the GG our sovereign, that would require a massive constitutional amendment. Good luck with that.

  10. Last December proved that constitutional nuances matter a great deal – as does ironing out who is the correct person to act in a particular role. This may seem like a small issue now, but could have big implications later. For instance, it means that the GG can be removed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister (useful to know, in case the governor general does something crazy).

    Of course I have also always suspected that Harper is a monarchist like me. Reminds me of his decision to fly a red ensign at the Vimy memorial. God save the Queen!

  11. Harper's a monarchist. First person he mentioned in his maiden speech as PM was the Queen. (I am too — "The Queen — God bless her!")

    I was under the impression that the Governor General could be called the "acting head of state". So I wouldn't have made any note of what the GG said in her speech… (Was I wrong? Perhaps. Dunno.)

  12. Harper's a monarchist. First person he mentioned in his maiden speech as PM was the Queen.

    I was under the impression that the Governor General could be called the "acting head of state". So I wouldn't have made any note of what the GG said in her speech… (Was I wrong? Perhaps. Dunno.)

  13. Steven Harper was appointed by Governor General Michaëlle Jean as the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada on February 6, 2006. I hope that the governor general would remind the prime minister of this whenever he claims that Canadians elected his government.

    The Queen is the head of state and the prime minister is the appointee of the governor general.

    • So you think it's wrong for the Canadian Prime Minister to claim that "Canadians elected his government"? Does that seem reasonable to you?

      • Technically Loraine is correct. the GG could have appointed whichever MP she wanted as her first advisor. But like all things governmenetal legitimacy is a primary factor here. it would be seen as illegitimate by Canadians if there was a choice that they hadnt indicated their will on or there wasnt some immeadiate collective acceptance (pick your own favourite obscure scenario)

        So by generally accepted conventions, and a few rules, the PM is the elected head of government, but it is officially a decision the office of the crown makes, as long as the peoples representatives continue to demonstrate confidence within the House.

        • Indeed, and we should remember that Mackenzie-King remained prime minister even though his party was not the one that had the most seats in the house, but as long as he could demonstrate that he had the confidence of the House he remained appointed. Later, when he asked Bying for dissolution, his request was denied.

        • The institutions of the monarchy stand as an endearing testament to Canadian's respect for tradition and reasonableness. If those institutions started acting in a manner that was in conflict with the underlying principle of Canada as a liberal democracy, the people would quickly enough come up with another arrangement.

          The PMO has far too much power in the current constitutional arrangement, but looking for our institutions of the monarchy to provide any fruitful resolution of that problem is a mistake.

      • Crit_Reasoning – I was thinking about this on the way to work. My understanding is that we elect a new parliament. To say that Canadians elected his governement is flat wrong.

  14. I don't think it's wrong – but I know that Harper was elected by voters in his riding – and so do you. I can't help the fact that the government is appointed by the governor general. So if Harper finds it appropriate to dot the i's and cross the t's for the GG, I think the GG should call the prime minister 'my appointee'. I certainly will be careful in future to refer to Stephen Harper as the appointee of the GG – these Conservatives are so picky, may as well use correct terminology or they'll get on my case.

  15. To all the fools trying to make this into some kind of anti Harper thing, go back to school. The reigning Monarch is Head of State. Period. Harper is correct.

  16. Regardless of whether Ms Jean is or is not head of state (I am beliee that she represents the head of state, a largely ceremonial position in most circumstances), Mr Harper was exceptionally rude to make his point in public. To reproach or correct the Queen's representative in public like that is beyond the pale, totally unnecessary and insulting to her Excellency and offensive to the Crown.

    • Correcting the Queens rep on a faux pas like this is hardly insulting the Crown. It is actually doing the Head of State a favour.

      It is the Prime Ministers role to defend the Crown, by convention for sure, goes along with the job of being First Advisor.

      In the extreme, Ms Jean was making a republican statement. She didnt mean it, I think….makes you wonder when you get stories of the history being sold off, Royal family pictures being hidden etc etc…..the PM is doing his job by correcting the public statement. Would you have preferred the GG humble herself in public and correct it herself.

      corrected, forgotten.

      • Someone is correcting Harper when he says he was elected Prime Minister? He was elected as a PM, but he was appointed Prime Minister.

        Has Harper apologized for the use of the phrase coup d'etat in December? What about calling on Canadians to revolt against the GG if she decided something he didn't like?

        • Now this is a good point, although since GGs remarks were made in public, I do think Harper was right to correct those remarks in public. And as for my earlier thing about those comments being a firing offense for Michaelle Jean, I stand by my principles here. Harper should be fired too. :)

          My, the day has turned bright for a dreary, rainy morning.

          • Regarding this situation purely from the point of view of what would have been tactful, I think it might have been better if Harper had spoken privately to the GG and suggested that she make the public correction of her remarks. That would have seemed less like a reprimand.

          • At last, the voice of reason. Indeed he should have spoken to her privately.

        • Andrew (not P or C) Stephen Harper was elected as a member of parliament for his riding. Period.

  17. When I was a kid, we used to sing "God save the Queen" in school. We did not sing "God save the Governor General".

    Personally, I think the roll of GG has to go. It's become such a ceremonial position that the Queen herself could do the job by showing up in Canada once a decade, and have some kind of protocol officer do the ceremonial BS, while leaving day to day operations to the elected government.

    I like Michelle Jean, and think she's done as good a job as any GG can do. But this is just ridiculous, and she frankly has far too much power for an unelected representative.

    • Well it is probably time for one of them to go, but nothing is going to happen because it would require a change in the constitution, which is extremely unlikely for the foreseeable future.

      • I understand that it would need consent of all 10 provinces. What I'm not so sure of is why any would be opposed? I think that Quebec would be more than happy to cut lose the monarchy, and the other 9 don't get anything out of having a GG, and would give them all the opportunity to ditch the provincial LG's as well.

        • I would like to strongly, vociferously object to the removal of both the Queen and the GG. Good Lord, don't you realize that the Prime Minister would then become Head of State? While that might suit you right now (I don't know), please reflect that you might be asked to swear allegiance to Canada in the person of Ignatieff (or Layton or May or someone you dislike the politics of). I have always been pleased and proud that no matter my politics and the party in government at any time, my Head of State is above the political fray. I truly shudder to think of being an American under Bush, for example. To a lesser extent, the same goes for the LG.

          At this point I would be okay with the removal of the Queen and making the GG be the head of state (except she'd be appointed by her first minister and I can't quite see how that circular positioning would work), but I think the emotional resonance of pomp and circumstance is worth the many millions.

          • I'm far more comfortable with our head of state being an elected douche-bag than someone who was born into the job (no disrespect to the Queen). And I'm not advocating removing the Queen from Canada, I'd like her to represent the crown herself, in the off chance that it actually ever becomes necessary. She would obviously stay out of the political fray more than the current GG's who are appointed by the PM (and you're right – the circular logic of the PM appointing the GG and the GG appointing the PM is pure stupidity).

          • A republic is not the only alternative to our current constitution. It would be easy enough to install a head of state at a sufficient arm's length from the politicians, vested with the very narrow band of powers currently practiced by our GG. But again, it is moot.

        • and would give them all the opportunity to ditch the provincial LG's as well

          I'm not sure I understand why any province would want to ditch the one literal embodiment of the fact that they are independently sovereign and not creations of the feds.

          I also think there are at least two or three provinces that wouldn't let the Crown go without a heck of a fight.

  18. Changes to the Crown or to the office of the Governor General requires all ten provinces' consent.

    Not happening.