Where the Monarchy Meets the State: Canada's Vice-Regal Offices.

AuthorCooper, John

It is a role that straddles several worlds--political, royal, legal and diplomatic--and combines tact, careful judgment, discretion and wisdom. Welcome to the offices of the governor general of Canada and the provincial lieutenant governors.

As a constitutional monarchy, Canada's Parliament has two well-known components, the House of Commons and the Senate, as well as a third entity: the Queen's vice-regal representative, the governor general. In a role that is sometimes not as well-known, the governor general nonetheless plays an important part in the national scene. Sometimes, the public views the role through the lens of pomp and circumstance, royal visits, ribbon cuttings and soft-focus meet-and-greets. But vice-regal officials at both the federal and provincial levels are also very much activists in their own rights. They advocate for essential Canadian causes and quietly keep an eye on the political balancing act at play in Ottawa and the provinces and also between Canada and Buckingham Palace. In the words of former Governor General David Johnston, it is an "awe-inspiring role" that demands diplomacy and leadership, and brings with it a dose of humility as well.

The Queen has executive power under Canada's 1867 Constitution Act, applied through the prime minister and the prime minister's cabinet. Canada's provinces each have their own lieutenant governors. While the governor general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, lieutenant governors are appointed by the governor general on the prime minister's recommendation, generally for a term of five years. While in the past governors general were British citizens, since 1952 the law has stipulated that they must be Canadian. They are chosen to represent the plurality of Canadian identities and are drawn from all walks of life.

Though some might consider the role to be little more than vice-regal window-dressing, the role has considerable power. According to Alfred Thomas Neitsch, in A Tradition of Vigilance: The Role of Lieutenant Governor in Alberta, "A contemporary misconception exists in Canada that the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governors are politically impotent. In fact, they have considerable power both of a legal and political nature."

So just what are the powers of the governor general? In a non-partisan role, the governor general exercises the Queen's responsibilities and powers, under advice of the Privy Council, the federal cabinet secretariat responsible for supporting the federal government's agencies. These powers include:

* provision of guidance to the prime minister's office;

* ensuring that the government is operating in a way conducive to a positive and forward-looking administration;

* presiding over swearing-in ceremonies for officials such as the prime minister, cabinet and Canada's chief justice;

* signing official documents;

* appointing the provinces' lieutenant governors; and

* opening and dissolving Parliament.

At the provincial level, the lieutenant governor's role is similar across Canada:

* ensuring the continuity of provincial government;

* appointing ministers on the advice of the premier;

* opening and dissolving the provincial...

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