Launch of the Book The Governors General of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario, Wednesday, April 17, 2013
I am pleased to be here for the launch of this new book on the governors general of Canada, past and present!
You may be familiar with Gabrielle Léger’s memorable quote on this subject.
She said: “The most ephemeral thing at Rideau Hall is the governor general; all the rest is history.”
That is certainly true, and I am keenly aware of the rich heritage of the office which I am privileged to occupy. In so many ways, the past is not past, and I continually draw ideas and inspiration from my predecessors.
I would like to take this opportunity to make two important points related to the office of governor general and to Canada.
My first point is this: institutions matter. This is particularly true in a country as geographically vast and culturally diverse as Canada. Without healthy and robust national institutions, we might be forgiven for asking: what is Canada? Our institutions are a reflection of the democratic values that bind us as Canadians. They are therefore infinitely precious.
Allow me to take a moment to talk about the democratic significance of this unique position I hold.
In our constitutional monarchy, the Crown plays a vital role in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of Canadians. And as you know, my duty as governor general is to represent the Canadian Crown and to act on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen to uphold Canada’s system of responsible government.
Let me stop there for a moment, with the term responsible government. It was defined by the late Eugene Forsey—one of Canada’s foremost constitutional experts—as “government by a Cabinet answerable to, and removable by, a majority of the assembly.”
And that assembly, of course, is elected by the people.
I pause by sharing Forsey’s definition because I think it may not be widely appreciated that a formal head of state—in our case, The Queen of Canada—is essential to our system of responsible government.
As another of our leading constitutional scholars, Peter Hogg, states:
“A system of responsible government cannot work without a formal head of state who is possessed of certain reserve powers.”
He goes on to write that, while the occasions requiring the governor general to use reserve powers are very rare, they are of “supreme importance” in ensuring Canada always has a government in place that has the confidence of Parliament.
As the Canadian Heritage publication A Crown of Maples puts it, power is only “entrusted” to governments to use on behalf of the people. In Canada, “the government rules while the Crown reigns.”
As governor general, my constitutional duties exercised on behalf of The Queen also include summoning and dissolving Parliament, granting Royal Assent and reading the Speech from the Throne.
The office that I hold also serves as a symbol of the continuity of our democratic values, while fostering a sense of national identity and unity by connecting, inspiring and honouring Canadians.
While not overly complex, Canada’s system of responsible government is more layered than, for example, the presidential form of government that exists in the United States.
This added complexity makes education as to our unique form of government all the more important. One of my responsibilities as governor general is to improve Canadians’ interest in and understanding of our constitutional monarchy, and I welcome educational efforts that share this goal.
All of which brings me to my second point: individuals matter. As this new book reminds us, my predecessors contributed a great deal to the development of this office and thus to the progress of Canada.
In fact, I can think of few national institutions where individuals have exerted such a profound influence, and the story of each respective viceregal mandate is indeed fascinating and instructive.
Each of my predecessors’ mandates was reflective of their unique backgrounds and experiences. Each governor general brings to the job their own love for Canada and their own particular concerns for the well-being of Canadians.
This blend of the institutional with the individual is one of the qualities that make this office so fascinating and, I think, effective. The fact that each governor general is an individual—a human being with a family and a previous career and a personal story—allows Canadians to connect with their government on a personal level.
Indeed, that’s why they call it government house, and why we call Rideau Hall the home of the people of Canada!
As the incumbent governor general, I encourage all Canadians to learn about the workings of our constitutional monarchy and the contributions of my predecessors as we approach our 150th birthday in 2017.