Governor General of Canada

Canada is a constitutional monarchy. As such, there is a clear division between the head of state and the head of government. The head of government is the prime minister, an elected political leader. The head of state is the Canadian monarch. Their duties are carried out by the governor general, who acts as the representative of the Crown — currently Elizabeth II — in Canada. (Lieutenant-Governors fulfill the same role in provincial governments.) The governor general performs a wide array of ceremonial duties. They also fulfill an important role in upholding the traditions of Parliament and other democratic institutions. Inuk leader Mary Simon was formally installed as Canada’s 30th Governor General on 26 July 2021. She is the first Indigenous person to hold Canada’s vice-regal position.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy. As such, there is a clear division between the head of state and the head of government. The head of government is the prime minister, an elected political leader. The head of state is the Canadian monarch. Their duties are carried out by the governor general, who acts as the representative of the Crown — currently Elizabeth II — in Canada. (Lieutenant-Governors fulfill the same role in provincial governments.) The governor general performs a wide array of ceremonial duties. They also fulfill an important role in upholding the traditions of Parliament and other democratic institutions. Inuk leader Mary Simon was formally installed as Canada’s 30th Governor General on 26 July 2021. She is the first Indigenous person to hold Canada’s vice-regal position.


Flag of the Governor-General of Canada

The governor general’s personal standard (flag) flies wherever he or she is in residence. It takes precedence over all other flags in Canada except the monarch’s.

History

A gouverneur or governor general has represented the Crown at the head of government since the beginning of European settlement in Canada. This was true in both New France and in British North America. Lord Monck, the country’s first governor general at Confederation, was sworn in on 1 July 1867. Jeanne Sauvé, the 23rd governor general (post-Confederation), was the first woman to be appointed to the office. Adrienne Clarkson, the 26th governor general (post-Confederation), was the first without a military or political background; as well as the first governor general of Asian heritage. Inuk leader Mary Simon, the 30th governor general, is the first Indigenous person named to the position.

Vaudreuil, Pierre
Pierre-Francois de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil (1703-1779).

Structure and Purpose

In Canada, as in many constitutional monarchies, there is a clear division between the head of state and the head of government. The head of government is the prime minister, an elected political leader. The head of state is the Canadian monarch. Their duties are carried out by the governor general. Like the sovereign, the governor general stands above politics. The governor general is appointed by the monarch on the prime minister’s recommendation. They usually hold office for at least five years. The prime minister speaks for the political majority. The governor general represents the whole country.

Governor General David Johnston
David Johnston meets the Queen and Prime Minister Stephen Harper prior to his investiture as Governor General of Canada.

Evolution of Role

The office has developed with Canada’s evolution from colony to nation. At first, governors general represented imperial governments. They were responsible to various colonial ministers. (See Colonial Office.) After Confederation, they were empowered to govern according to the wishes of the Canadian prime minister in all internal issues. However, until the First World War, they were still obliged to follow British policy in external relations. After the Statute of Westminster of 1931, they became the sovereign’s personal representatives. Finally, on 1 October 1947, George VI formally delegated to the governor general all the sovereign’s authority in Canada.

In 1952, Vincent Massey became the first Canadian since Pierre de Vaudreuil to be appointed governor general. Afterwards, a tradition of alternating anglophone and francophone governors general emerged. This custom was broken following Julie Payette’s resignation on 21 January 2021. As per constitutional convention, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Richard Wagner, assumed the responsibilities of the office. Canada’s 30th governor general, Inuk leader Mary Simon, was named to the position on 6 July 2021, making her the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. However, Simon’s appointment was controversial. The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson called it “the most controversial appointment to the vice-regal role in this country’s history.” This is because Simon, a former diplomat who is fluent in English and her first language, Inuktitut, does not speak French.

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Official Residences and Titles

The governor general takes office at a ceremony usually held in the Senate chamber. He or she is then accorded the title “Right Honourable” for life; as well as “His Excellency” or “Her Excellency” for the period in office. Two official residences are provided: Rideau Hall, which forms part of a 36-hectare estate on the Ottawa River; and the Governor’s Wing at the Québec Citadel. The governor general’s personal standard (flag) flies wherever he or she is in residence. It takes precedence over all other flags in Canada except that of the monarch. It is dark blue; in the centre is the gold Canadian crest — a crowned lion carrying a red, stylized maple leaf in its right paw.

Rideau Hall
Residence of the Governor General.

Heraldry

Upon taking the vice-regal position, the governor general designs his or her own heraldic symbol. (See Heraldry.) This allows them to make a personal statement of values; as well as a statement about what he or she wishes to accomplish as vice regal. For instance, the heraldic symbol of Michaëlle Jean, governor general from 2005 to 2010, contains a shell and broken chains. this symbolizes her ancestors’ escape from enslavement. It is flanked by two Simbis (water spirits) from Haitian culture; these are feminine figures that symbolize the vital role women have played in advancing social justice. Its motto, “Breaking down solitudes” (Briser les solitudes), expresses the goals Jean hoped to accomplish during her tenure.

Heraldic authority is a significant honour bestowed on select Canadians by the governor general. Heraldry was patriated to Canada from Britain in 1988. Before that, Canadians who wished to acquire heraldic symbols from the Crown had to apply to the Queen’s offices in the United Kingdom. On 4 June 1988, Governor General Jeanne Sauvé authorized the creation of the Canadian Heraldic Authority. This Canadian-based organization creates the coats of arms, flags and badges for Canadian citizens and corporate bodies. They also maintain an international standard when bestowing heraldic symbols.

Canada was the first Commonwealth country to patriate its heraldic authority from Britain. (See also Heraldry Society of Canada; Emblems of Canada; Provincial and Territorial Emblems; Canadian Red Ensign.)

Michaн‚lle Jean
The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada from 2005 to 2010.

Duties and Powers

Parliament has three elements in which the governor general plays a prominent role: the Senate; the House of Commons; and the Crown, currently Elizabeth II. As the Queen’s representative, the governor general summons, prorogues and dissolves Parliament; authorizes treaties; receives and sends ambassadors; commissions officers in the armed forces; and gives royal assent to bills that have passed both the House and the Senate, thereby giving them the force of law.

By constitutional convention, the governor general exercises these prerogatives only in accordance with advice from the prime minister. But by the same conventions, he or she retains special personal authority in times of emergency or in exceptional circumstances. In such cases, he or she may appoint or dismiss a prime minister; they may also dissolve Parliament. On at least two occasions since Confederation (1891 and 1893) governors general (Lords Stanley and Aberdeen) had to designate a prime minister; but they have never had to dismiss one. At least once (1926), a governor general (Viscount Byng) refused a prime minister’s advice to dissolve Parliament. (See King-Byng Affair.)

Julian Byng
Governor General Julian Byng, in 1921.

The governor general also holds the constitutional rights of the head of state: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” These are usually exercised by the receipt of cabinet minutes; as well as through regular visits from the prime minister and government officials. The governor general is the executive power of the governor-in-council. As such, they receive advice from the Canadian Privy Council (the key part of which is the cabinet) and sign orders-in-council.

The governor general is designated by law as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. They are also charged with swearing in cabinet ministers and commissioning high officials of state. He or she is chancellor of the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit; as such, they administer the Canadian system of honours. The governor general is official host to visiting heads of state and can represent Canada abroad.

Extensive hospitality and travel within Canada make the governor general more familiar with the country, the people and the issues than most others can be. The office of governor general is also charged with symbolizing national community and continuity.

Order of Canada
Badge of a Companion (obverse), Order of Canada, established 1967, gold with enamel, approximately 65 mm.

Governors General of Canada since Confederation

Name

Term

Viscount Monck

1867–68

Lord Lisgar

1869–72

Earl of Dufferin

1872–78

Marquess of Lorne

1878–83

Marquess of Lansdowne

1883–88

Baron Stanley of Preston

1888–93

Earl of Aberdeen

1893–98

Earl of Minto

1898–1904

Earl Grey

1904–11

Duke of Connaught

1911–16

Duke of Devonshire

1916–21

Lord Byng

1921–26

Viscount Willingdon

1926–31

Earl of Bessborough

1931–35

Lord Tweedsmuir

1935–40

Earl of Athlone

1940–46

Viscount Alexander of Tunis

1946–52

Vincent Massey

1952–59

Georges Vanier

1959–67

Roland Michener

1967–74

Jules Léger

1974–79

Edward Schreyer

1979–84

Jeanne Sauvé

1984–90

Ramon John Hnatyshyn

1990–95

Roméo A. LeBlanc

1995–99

Adrienne Louise Clarkson

1999–2005

Michaëlle Jean

2005–10

David Johnston

2010–17

Julie Payette

2017–21

Mary Simon

2021–Present


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