Governor General and the People of Canada in new age of Justin Trudeau

Nov 14th, 2015 | By | Category: In Brief

From left, Gov. Gen. David Johnston, Sharon Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau take part in the 2015 Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday. ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS.

We watched the TV coverage of various 2015 Remembrance Day ceremonies in the office lounge this past Wednesday. And there was general agreement that they were unusually crowded and poignant this year.

Some attributed this to a greater sense of fragility about the struggles of the global village, that seems to be in the air these days.

(Note, eg, the anxiety that still surrounds the good news of this past Sunday’s election in Burma/Myanmar : “Burma election: Aung San Suu Kyi wins seat —  but cannot be president” ; and finally, “Suu Kyi’s opposition party takes majority in Myanmar’s parliament.” And then, just as we go to press, there is the appalling new terrorist slaughter in Paris.)

Myanmar"s National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks to supporters after general elections in Yangon, Myanmar November 9, 2015. NREUTERS/Jorge Silva.

Others pointed to a short account of “Remembrance Day Canada — origins” on the Radio Canada International site (and in English), which concludes with “attendance at Remembrance Ceremonies across Canada seems to be increasing in recent years.”

Meanwhile, we were struck by the first wreath laid at the Ottawa war memorial this year, by Governor General David Johnston. Even just watching on TV you could see that it was clearly marked from “The People of Canada.”

Someone in our party, far away from Ottawa, wondered if this would prove upsetting to the Monarchist League Of Canada? As in the recent headline : “Trudeau Trying To ‘Excise’ Images Of Queen, Worries Monarchist League Of Canada.”

The Governor General is supposed to be the Queen’s representative in Canada, according to the Constitution Act, 1867 in which the British monarch is still theoretically the Canadian head of state. On any strict monarchist construction, the wreath laid by the Governor General on Remembrance Day ought to be from “The Queen of Canada.”

To label the wreath from“The People of Canada” implies that the Governor General is ultimately responsible to and a representative of the Canadian people. And this is an essentially republican conception — as well as the way Canada’s 21st century parliamentary democracy actually works in practice in the year 2015.

1. Off to London to see the Queen

Some preliminary investigation by our always hard-to-reach counterweights research staff has made clear that having the Governor General’s Remembrance Day wreath for 2015 read from “The People of Canada” is not some innovation of the new Justin Trudeau Liberal government.

(Or it is not like restoring two Canadian paintings to the space that Conservative Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird usurped for a portrait of the Queen, or moving the Canadian Secretary to the Queen from the Privy Council Office to the heritage department. Two things the new Justin Trudeau Cabinet government has in fact done.)

Our research staff has uncovered references to the Governor General’s laying a wreath from”The People of Canada” at Remembrance Day ceremonies in 2012, under the Harper Conservative government, and 2005, under the Martin Liberal government. They have not yet been able to determine just when the practice began.

Whenever it began, and whoever was responsible, it seems to us a good practice for today, in the year 2015 when an equal 15 women and 15 men in the cabinet is long overdue. We agree with the political scientist Frederick Vaughan, who has written that the “Constitution Act, 1982 [with its accompanying Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms] was the instrument that, with one stroke, severed Canadians from their ancestral monarchical foundations.”

Mr. Vaughan goes on : “With the Charter Canada began a new life as a nation, a republican nation. The Charter is based upon republican principles. It is the closest Canadians have ever come to a document that affirms the rights of the people.”

In fact, while Frederick Vaughan has underlined Pierre Trudeau’s essential “republicanism,” his eldest son will be having an audience with Queen Elizabeth II this coming Wednesday, November 25 at Buckingham Palace, on his way to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta, November 27–29.

Pierre Trudeau watches as Queen Elizabeth II signs the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Ottawa, April 17, 1982.

Justin Trudeau’s office has released a statement about this visit with the Queen : “I am absolutely delighted that Her Majesty has graciously agreed to this meeting … As the Queen’s 12th Canadian prime minister, I am honoured and very much look forward to spending this time in conversation with her … In her role as Queen of Canada, she has not only witnessed but also been an active participant in the evolution of our country over the past 63 years. Her Majesty will remain an integral part of our country’s progress and future.”

Legends of Pierre Trudeau’s essential republicanism nonetheless still haunt his son. Yesterday the Daily Mail in the UK reported that “Sophie Countess of Wessex, 50, due in Canada on a solo visit today, arrives at an awkward moment … New premier Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party is considering its position on the monarchy after formally debating republicanism in 2012 …  A large portrait of the Queen has been removed from Ottawa’s Foreign Affairs building and they’ve put on hold the job of an official who deals with Buckingham Palace …  Might HM’s image soon disappear from Canadian banknotes under plans to revise their currency?” (The Countess of Wessex, btw, is the wife of Prince Edward, youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II.)

2. But what about King Charles?

He seems to know he’s not wanted — and thinks it’s amusing? Or, according to the Toronto Star : “Prince Charles, left, meets with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Government House in Canberra on Wednesday. Turnbull believes Australia should sever ties with the monarchy.” MICK TSIKAS / AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

Some of Justin Trudeau’s own past reflections on various subjects lend weight to speculations about the long-term commitment to republican values he shares with his father. He may finally be closest to the new republican prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull.

Back in 1999 Mr. Turnbull was a driving force behind the not quite successful republican referendum in Australia. Not long after he became Australian prime minister this past September, however, he indicated that “he is in no hurry to sever the nation’s constitutional links to Britain by appointing an Australian president as head of state.”

More exactly, “Turnbull said there needed to be a ‘genuine popular movement’ for change … ‘My own view … is that the next occasion for the republic referendum to come up is going to be after the end of the Queen’s reign … I think that will be the next watershed event, if you like, to make that issue relevant.’”

Anthony Furey, in Ottawa, 2012.

All this has a lot in common with a September 2015 piece by Anthony Furey in no less conservative (and Conservative) a place than the Toronto Sun : “Monarchy will be hard sell after Queen Elizabeth … Stability. Tradition. Culture. History. These are all wonderful things, but it’s about time Canada embraced these values in a standalone fashion — rather than relying on the symbolism of a monarch from across the pond to bolster our pride.”

Mr. Furey went on : “For better or worse, today’s young people are leading increasingly independent and purpose-driven lives. They don’t like answering to anyone … The idea of getting some sort of nationalist sense of self from a monarch, let alone a foreign one, just doesn’t make sense in today’s culture … It’ll be a hard sell to convince Canadians to willingly accept a new monarch once Elizabeth’s reign comes to an end.”

Perhaps, with all this in mind, our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believes “Her Majesty will remain an integral part of our country’s progress and future.” (Italics ours.)

Canadian fans cheer during the 2013 World Hockey Championship game between Canada and the Czech Republic in Stockholm, Sweden. (Fredrik Sandberg/AP.)

At the same time, with an eye on the future after her reign ends, he also believes in such things as restoring two Canadian paintings to the space that Conservative Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird usurped for a portrait of the Queen, or moving the Canadian Secretary to the Queen from the Privy Council Office to the heritage department.

And in this last spirit, it may even be that the Daily Mail in the UK is onto something, when it speculates that, under the Justin Trudeau Liberals  “HM’s image” may at least eventually “disappear from Canadian banknotes under plans to revise their currency.”

Or maybe we can finally have a citizenship oath in which new Canadian citizens actually swear allegiance to Canada — or even the same People of Canada on whose behalf the Governor General already lays wreaths at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Canada Day in Ottawa, 2015.

Whatever else, it seems clear enough that many who voted for the Liberals in 2015 would agree with the 2013 Harris Decima survey, which found that “55% of Canadians want change to Canadian head of state instead of continuing with any member of the British royal family … Only 34% want royal family member to continue to be Canada’s head of state.”

And some of us are going to be pretty disappointed if the Justin Trudeau Liberals turn out to have the same reactionary views about the future of the British monarchy in Canada as the Harper Conservatives. Enough to vote for the New Democrats the next time around!

(And meanwhile, we really would be pleased to see someone other than a British monarch on the $20 bill!)

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau hams it up with media on airplane : those were the days. Boris Spremo.

POSTSCRIPT : On Patrick Gossage. Randall White has asked us to make clear that his allusion to Patrick Gossage’s career as Pierre Trudeau’s press secretary, at the end of his Nov 7th posting on this site, in no way implies anything about the excellent advice Mr.Gossage has recently offered to Pierre Trudeau’s son in his Globe and Mail article from this past Wednesday,  “Why Trudeau is betting on a new era for Ottawa media.”

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  1. Randall…great picture of you with your refreshment (hic)…however, what is missing is another photo of you about a half an hour after the consumption phase. I can almost see your smile of accomplishment and contentment. BTW, I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles on Counterweights. With your journalistic abilities…that 55% of Canadians who support a Canadian head of state with continue to rise and soon that day will come when we will all have that feeling of accomplishment and contentment. Cheers!

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