Will the real Canadian head of state stand up?

Oct 13th, 2009 | By Counterweights Editors | Category: Canadian Republic
President Barack Obama is welcomed to Canada by Governor General Michaëlle Jean and a contingent of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, February 19, 2009.

President Barack Obama is welcomed to Canada by Governor General Michaëlle Jean and a contingent of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, February 19, 2009.

Just last week, on October 5, 2009, the Governor General of Canada, Michaelle Jean, gave a speech to a United Nations cultural group in Paris, in which she called herself — and not just once but twice — the Canadian “head of state.”

This soon enough brought a surge of protest from the diminishing forces of monarchism in Canada, urging that formally, or technically, the Canadian head of state is still the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. And then for several days various obscure corners of Canadian print and cyber media erupted into a “head of state debate” that one journalist has called a “bizarre spectacle.”

Bizarre or otherwise, it seems to us that this debate just may mark the beginning of some kind of more or less serious  public conversation  on the future of the British monarchy in Canada. And this could be a good thing to converse about at the moment, since anything practical that might result will cost virtually no money at all.

Counterweights may be pursuing the matter further, a little down the road. Meanwhile, read on at your own peril for a brief introductory guide to the great debate of the past several days, as it has unfolded in some of the more accessible parts of northern North American cyberspace:

(1) The October 5 speech in Paris and early press reports in Canada: For a time it seemed that someone was trying to suppress Governor General Jean’s actual speech on the net. But it is now available HERE.   The earliest press reports back in Canada did not delve into the head of state issue. See, e.g.: “Michaelle Jean talks up cultural diversity with speech to UNESCO.”

(2) October 6: The Monarchist League of Canada protests: As usual it didn’t take the diminishing but still well organized forces of the monarchic impulse in the true north long to lodge their complaints. See, e.g.: “Governor General calling herself `head of state’ riles monarchists.”

(3) October 8: The Prime Minister’s Office wades in on monarchist side: Three days after the Governor General’s speech, Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government, was supporting the claims of the Monarchist League. See: “You’re not head of state, Harper reminds Jean … Unusual move comes after GG’s gaffe in Paris, weeks ahead of royal visit.”

Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, 1999-2005, referred to herself in office as a “head of state” in 2004.  Here she is arriving on a controversial $1 million trip to Russia in September 2003.

Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, 1999-2005, referred to herself in office as a “head of state” in 2004. Here she is arriving on a controversial $1 million trip to Russia in September 2003.

(4) October 8: A Liberal Senator strikes back: No seriously informed person was denying that formally, or technically, the British monarch will remain Canada’s head of state, until the old colonial document now known as the Constitution Act 1867 is amended. But some in the media continued to fan the flames. See: “Governor General’s new website adds fuel to head-of-state debate … ‘The sooner we put an end to this monarchist system . . . the sooner we will accept the Governor General as the real head of state’: Liberal senator.”

(5) October 9: John Geddes’s voice of reason at Maclean’s magazine: It is also true that, as no seriously informed person can similarly deny, virtually all the practical responsibilities of the head of state in a parliamentary system of government are nowadays performed in Canada by the Governor General, not the British monarch across the sea. And so four days after Governor General Jean’s speech in Paris, John Geddes on the Maclean’s magazine website was asking: “If you do all the head-of-state stuff, aren’t you the head of state?

(6) October 9 and 10: On the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend — A Summing Up: On the holiday weekend there were various attempts at summing up. See, e.g.: “Signs, website ramp up controversy by calling governor-general Canada’s head of state” ; “New website refers to GG as ‘head of state’ … PM’s spokesman demands corrections” ; “A hot debate about head of state … Governor-General Jean, PM Harper appear to have differing interpretations of the phrase” ; “Head of state, c’est moi? Some are not amused … Governor General scolded by Monarchist League and PMO for the way she has described her role.”

For the moment, we just have four more things to say:

WHAT IT REALLY SAYS ON GG WEBSITE: As best we can make out, on what does seem to be the Governor General’s new website, it is written that: “Since Confederation in 1867, Canada has been a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the sovereign and Canada’s head of State … The role of the sovereign has evolved over time. In 1947, letters patent signed by King George VI redefined the powers of the governor general and authorized the governor general to carry out the responsibilities of the Crown previously assumed by the sovereign, without having to refer to the sovereign. Since then, the governor general has represented the Crown in Canada and carries out nearly all of the duties of the head of State.”

The late Romeo LeBlanc, Governor General of Canada, 1995–1999, referred to himself in office as a “head of state” in 1999. Here he performs his annual inspection of the ceremonial guard at Rideau Hall on June 22, 1999.

The late Romeo LeBlanc, Governor General of Canada, 1995–1999, referred to himself in office as a “head of state” in 1999. Here he performs his annual inspection of the ceremonial guard at Rideau Hall on June 22, 1999.

THE WISDOM OF JOHN GEDDES (CONT). In our own view, probably the most sensible concluding remarks on the great debate have come from John Geddes on the Maclean’s website, in the UPDATE to his original posting on October 9: “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.”

WHAT DO CANADIAN REPUBLICANS REALLY WANT? Randy Boswell has done yeoman service reporting on the great debate for Canwest News. But he gets at least one thing quite wrong, again as best we can make out. In his October 10 summing up, “Head-of-state debate makes for bizarre spectacle,” he aptly notes that: “Just as the uproar has prompted monarchists to urge renewed recognition of the Queen’s key place in Canada’s constitutional monarchy, others see the dispute as a good reason to eradicate all vestiges of the British-based Royal Family from Canada’s political order.” But in enumerating these others he goes on to say that still “Others are keen to see both the Queen and her Canadian viceroy dumped in favour of a single, elected, presidential-style prime minister who serves as both head of government and head of state — the long-sought goal of Canada’s considerable contingent of republicans.” This is not at all the goal of most of the considerable contingent of Canadian republicans we’ve ever met. See, e.g., the Wikipedia article on the organization known as Citizens for a Canadian Republic.

A CONSTITUTION SIMILAR IN PRINCIPLE TO THE UNITED KINGDOM. The Constitution Act 1867 still says that Canada is to have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” It is a key feature of this kind of constitution that it has important “unwritten” as well as “written” parts — and its unwritten parts evolve by precedent and practice over time, to keep up with changing circumstances. We often forget that the UK Constitution we in Canada, so to speak, inherited in 1867, has been evolving since then too, in its own right. Does this mean that we must follow the UK constitutional evolution since 1867 too, just as we must follow the British monarchy? In any case, for an interesting discussion of recent developments in this department see Stephen Sedley. “On the Move” [A review of  The New British Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor], London Review of Books, 8 October 2009.

UPDATE OCTOBER 19: See Randall White’s article in today’s Toronto Star, “Who is our head of state: Jean or the Queen? … The debate started by Michaëlle Jean touches on the future of the monarchy in Canada.”

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