By George Brown, editor
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean’s five-year term, which began in September 2005, expires this fall and it has been reported the prime minister will not extend her term. Who the next viceroy should be and whether we should continue to be tied to the former British Empire with monarchial apron strings will be bandied about for the next six months.
Growing up in Ontario, I was surrounded by the reminders of past Canadian governors general. They are forever remembered in the names of towns and streets you visited: Amherst, Carleton, Prescott, Metcalfe, Colborne, Sydenham, Elgin and Bagot…
They’re an interesting part of Canadian history and trace the evolution and maturation of our nation. Some were deeply involved in the political and cultural life of Canada; others coasted under the radar
Sports fans, whether they know it or not, owe a debt to the lords and ladies who have represented their majesties here in Canada — or at least to the silverware they left behind when they returned to England to live out their years. Lord Stanley of Preston, the Earl Grey, the wife of Gov. Gen. Lord Bing of Vimy, Gov. Gen. Vanier are today vaguely remembered as having donated the Stanley Cup, Grey Cup, Lady Bing Trophy and Vanier Cup to honour our sports heroes.
Today, as a symptom of my philatelic addiction, I have a binder of stamps and first day covers commemorating the Canadian governors general who have died. There aren’t as many as you might think, most were British peers sent to the wilds of the dominion before retiring in England. Vincent Massey, brother of Hollywood actor Raymond Massey, the first Canadian, was appointed to the position by King George VI in 1952, just days before the king’s death. There have been only 10 and the last two, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, moved to Canada as refugees.
I became interested in our governors general as a young student in 1967 when Gov. Gen. Georges-PhileasVanier died. We had to write some sort of biography of a famous person and I chose Vanier has we shared the same first name, sort of. He was the first governor general appointed by Queen Elizabeth II, a hero in the First World War, a successful diplomat in the Second World War, and a huge sports fan, particularly of the Montreal Canadiens but I couldn’t hold that against him. Vanier was looking forward to celebrating Canada’s centennial year and opening Expo 67 when he died.
Vanier’s selection by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker recognized the political need to strengthen Quebec’s ties to Canada and the monarchy. It started the practice of alternating French and English viceroys.
Many residents of central Alberta have visited Gov. Gen. Roland Michener’s childhood home in Lacombe. He succeeded Vanier and probably was the mould from which future governors general would be created: a former MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, ambassador, and physical fitness nut, being a strong supporter of the Participaction program. At a time when Canadians had a worldly rock star prime minister in Pierre Trudeau, Michener was a Canadian folk hero.
Over the last 25 years the office of governor general has taken a beating in the media. It probably hasn’t helped that four of the last five viceroys have been journalists — the last two CBC personalities, causing me to put forward —half in jest — the name of one Donald S. Cherry for consideration. Born in Kingston, Ont., disputed birthplace of hockey, and former national capital, Cherry is a staunch supporter of the Canadian military, philanthropist and number 7 on the list of Greatest Canadians.
But rather than allowing the prime minister to appoint washed up politicians or CBC hacks to the position, why not give ordinary Canadians the right to elect their next governor general? Much as this province is trying to do by having senators in waiting elected by Albertans, have the PMO or provincial premiers put forward a list from which the governor general would be elected in a nationwide ballot.
As Prime Minister Harper has twice chosen to demonstrate, the government general does have real constitutional powers. Shouldn’t selection of Canada’s head of state, or at least the Queen’s representative here, reflect that we are a democracy and that the governor general is not beholden to the prime minister, but is independent of his government and impartial?
Wouldn’t an elected governor general be the next step in Canada’s evolution?