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Richard Berthelsen: How to find the next governor general

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TORONTO —
The unprecedented resignation of Julie Payette has demonstrated the necessity and importance of a thorough and well-considered process for selection of the governor general. While Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner can ably temporarily serve as administrator of the government of Canada to handle the constitutional duties, it is not a solution for more than a few weeks. The search is on to identify an individual who can be the next governor general.

The challenges in finding a suitable candidate now are great, and the options limited, considering the qualities needed in a governor general. There are many considerations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may consider when finding a replacement.

Since the first Canadian governor general was appointed in 1952, prime ministers have first considered language. This national office has been well-served by incumbents who have alternated between English and French Canada in all 12 appointments. If this custom continues, the next appointee would be drawn from English Canada.

In an officially bilingual nation, this linguistic alternation has served the office well. The governor general must be able to communicate in both official languages, and this has become increasingly important in recent years. It would be difficult for anyone to take the job who did not have this skill. The ability to communicate well in all forms is essential given the number of speeches that any governor general makes in a year. But requirements of the position go beyond language in this modern pluralistic and multicultural country.

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Three of the last four GGs have been female – the first woman to represent The Queen as governor general was appointed in 1984 (Jeanne Sauvé). The office has also been enriched by the appointments of someone who came to Canada as a refugee with her family (Adrienne Clarkson), and an immigrant from Haiti (Michaelle Jean). The appointment of Romeo LeBlanc was a milestone for Francophones outside Quebec, particularly given the historic injustice against the Acadians of 1755.

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The first representative of the Crown who was from a First Nation was appointed in Alberta in 1974 – Ralph Steinhauer. No governor general has been appointed from the Indigenous peoples to date. In the past 50 years, Indigenous peoples have been appointed to represent the Crown in five provinces and all three territories. There are several Indigenous candidates who may be considered in 2021.

Regional representation may also be a consideration in selection. Governors general have come from six provinces in the past 60 years: but not from B.C., Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI, or the territories. Five governors general were either born or lived in Montreal while three were associated with Toronto.

In addition to the demography, the most important consideration going forward will be the suitability and stature of the individual. The next governor general will have to rebuild Rideau Hall as an institution. Careful consideration of the roles a governor general plays creates a picture of the kind of person that should be sought.

The GG’s constitutional responsibilities are well known and for the most part, routine. But from time to time, challenges arise. In recent years we have seen more minority governments. This requires stature and personal integrity to perform this role in an apolitical manner and above reproach – considering constitutional norms rather than political consequences. A governor general must be prepared to do the right thing and be a safe pair of hands for the Constitution rather than the political or communications conveniences of the government. The role needs a seasoned individual with a track record and character to make sound judgments – come what may.

A governor general needs to have common sense and familiarity with government and public life. An experienced secretary to lead the staff at Rideau Hall, drawn from those who know how Ottawa works and with solid management skills, is essential to success.

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The GG also presides over national honours such as the Order of Canada, medals of bravery, military, and volunteer decorations as well as the awards given in the name of the governor general — many of which are administered by outside organizations. In recent years, GGs have been drawn from recipients who have already been recognized with the Order of Canada. This enabled them to be in a position of credibility to confer honours on others. It may well be that the next appointee will come from the Order of Canada or another high honour, demonstrating that they have already been recognized publicly for their contributions.

Most governors general have worn the Commander-in-Chief’s uniform with pride on military occasions to demonstrate leadership and solidarity with members of the Canadian Forces. Any appointee must be the kind of person who will inspire confidence and respect from all ranks and be comfortable in a military environment.

It is not always well understood that the governor general plays an important role as “Diplomat in Chief” for Canada, undertaking state and official visits abroad as well as receiving high-level visitors. The governor general is the key to many roles in the conduct of Canadian public diplomacy. In the past 25 years, most governors general have undertaken 50 to 60 visits abroad of significant duration, to all parts of the globe. The governor general must have the stamina, but also the charisma and personality to promote Canada in foreign capitals and with official visitors. While the PM makes the key foreign policy decisions, the governor general is asked to deliver messages through attendance at events in world capitals as well as in private closed-door discussions. In Ottawa, the governor general plays a key role in their arrival ceremonies and acts as their official host while in Canada.

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For all Canadians, the governor general demonstrates moral leadership in times of trouble and mourning and diverts attention from themselves to the success of others. With the country suffering through one of the worst crises since the Second World War, the next governor general will need to find ways to connect Canadians creatively and meaningfully. We look to a governor general to rise above the day-to-day political fray and provide encouragement to all without political advantage to any.

A governor general must be comfortable working in an apolitical way behind the scenes while not always being at the front of the news – in fact, they should not seek to be the story. At the same time, they act as a safeguard of parliamentary democracy as well as being a symbol of our common allegiance to Canada, our shared values, and ideals. A successful governor general will be one who Canadians respect – and are confident that their public and private conduct will personify the best in our country.

The common link from those who have been our most successful governors general has been a respect for people, enthusiasm for all things Canadian and a willingness to serve something bigger than themselves.

In a few weeks’ time, The Queen will receive a background briefing introducing her to our next governor general – the 13th in her 69-year reign. This will be followed by a call from the Prime Minister advising Her Majesty to appoint her next representative and Canada will have its 30th Governor General.

2021 will be one of the most challenging appointments in our history, given the public health crisis and the circumstances of the abrupt departure of the 29th GG. It is up to Prime Minister Trudeau alone to get it right.

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