UPDATED: If you do all the head-of-state stuff, aren't you the head of state?

I’m still not convinced this head-of-state argument is as simple as many are suggesting. Surely at some point, if the Queen no longer does any head-of-state tasks for us, she’s not really our head of state.

On Dec. 29, 2004, then-prime minister Paul Martin issued a news release explaining that foreign ambassadors and high commissioners arriving in Ottawa would from then on present their formal documents, or letters of credence, to the Governor General, not the Queen.

Martin’s release said “in international diplomatic practice, Letters of Credence are formal diplomatic instruments that are presented by High Commissioners and Ambassadors to the Head of State of the host country… Letters of Credence and Recall presented by foreign High Commissioners and Ambassadors to Canada will now be addressed to the Governor General directly.”

Thus, in 2005, our GG took on yet another definitive head-of-state role. I went looking for evidence of how that change was recorded. Strangely, I found that I couldn’t open the 2005-06 annual report of the Governor General, so I paste below this section (please note the section heading) taken from the handy “cached” file on my Google search:

Responsibilities as Head of State

The Governor General’s responsibilities as head of State and her fulfillment of these responsibilities in 2005-06 are as follows:

* Welcome and host world leaders. A State visit to Canada takes place at the invitation of the governor general on the advice and request of the prime minister. Canada usually hosts four or five State visits a year, although this number can fluctuate greatly due to national elections and other domestic considerations. While a State visit may last for a week or more, the official visit to Ottawa normally lasts approximately two days. The governor general typically hosts a visiting head of State and his or her accompanying party at Rideau Hall. This includes an official welcoming ceremony with a military guard of honour and 21-gun salute, the exchange of official gifts, meetings between the heads of State, and State functions. In 2005-06, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson hosted His Excellency Amadou Toumani Touré, President of the Republic of Mali, during his State visit to Canada. Governor General Clarkson also welcomed His Excellency Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China.

* Receive letters of credence or commission from foreign heads of mission. Letters of credence or commission are the formal documents by which a head of State introduces a new head of a diplomatic mission to the head of State of the receiving country. There are over 120 foreign heads of mission accredited to Canada, and, in 2005-06, the Governor General received the letters of credence or commission of 29 of these individuals, 14 during Governor General Clarkson’s mandate and 15 during Governor General Jean’s mandate.

* Confirm the appointment of Canadian heads of mission to be posted abroad. On the advice of the Prime Minister, the Governor General approved the appointment of 47 Canadian heads of mission in this year, including one special ambassador appointment.

* Represent Canada abroad. Governors general have travelled to represent Canada abroad ever since Lord Elgin went to Washington in 1854. It is customary for State visits to be made at the invitation of the host country. The first official State visit by a governor general of Canada took place in 1926, when Lord Willingdon travelled, also to Washington, at the invitation of President Calvin Coolidge. State visits by the governor general to foreign countries are an important instrument of Canadian foreign policy and are carried out at the request of the prime minister on the advice of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT). Since His Excellency the Right Honourable Roland Michener’s mandate (1967-74), State visits have been a significant component of the governor general’s program…


To assert, ‘The Queen is head of state and the Governor General is her representative,’ doesn’t come close to capturing the GG’s role. Putting it like that suggests the Queen retains all the head-of-state power and the GG merely exercises those powers as a delegate.

But that’s not how it works. The GG does things that we don’t let the Queen do, like represent Canada abroad and accept the credentials of ambassadors.

It’s not that the Queen in some sense retains those head-of-state powers but allows the GG to exercise them on her behalf. The Canadian government doesn’t acknowledge anymore that the Queen can do those things for us, not even in some symbolic sense.

So how can the GG be acting as head of state on behalf of the Queen, if the GG is performing functions the Queen cannot in any sense fulfill?

A closely related point—about the importance or recognizing where a power has or has not been delegated—is made rather subtly on the website of the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. Here’s the interesting passage:

In addition to being The Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General also has specific constitutional and statutory powers. In fact, since the passage of the Australia Act in 1986, the only action performed by The Queen under the Constitution is the appointment of the Governor-General, on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister.

In 1975 the then Commonwealth Solicitor-General, Mr Maurice Byers (later Sir Maurice Byers QC) gave the following legal opinion in relation to the powers of the Governor-General:

The Constitution binds the Crown. The Constitutional prescription is that executive power is exercisable by the Governor-General although vested in The Queen. What is exercisable is original executive power: that is, the very thing vested in The Queen by Section 61. And it is exercisable by The Queen’s representative, not her delegate or agent. The language of Sections 2 and 61 had in this respect no contemporary parallel…*

In other words, the Constitution does not describe the Governor-General’s power, it prescribes it.

The point here is that the “original executive power” is what the Australian GG exercises in his or her own right, not as a “delegate or agent.” Is the Canadian GG less autonomous? I would hope not.

I’m not arguing that there’s an open-and-shut case for the GG being head of state. But this is not a straightforward matter. It looks to me like the head of state function has been in some respects divided. It doesn’t reside entirely with the Queen anymore, but nor is it fully the GG’s.

There’s no point pretending this is an easy argument to settle one way or the other. We should recognize that there’s been an evolution over many decades in the GG’s status, and the job has, at the very least, taken on head-of-state shadings.

Just a final observation: it’s surprisingly commonplace to find references to the GG as head of state in federal government publications, references that have shown up without creating any outcry. Here’s one, from Library and Archives Canada: “Canada is a constitutional monarchy, where the governor general serves as the head of state, representing the Crown.”

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