Toronto Star

Thursday, September 9, 1999

Appointment fuels debate, confusion

Governor-general a mystery for most Canadians

By Valerie Lawton
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - News of the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson as governor-general drew nothing but blank faces from a cluster of young tourists on Parliament Hill yesterday.

Rideau Hall, official home of the governor-general, is confused with Ottawa's Rideau Centre shopping mall.

Even the role of governor-general in Canada - something that comes with an $11.6-million annual price tag - is a fuzzy concept.

``I don't even know what they do,'' confessed Ellen Nelson, 19, visiting the capital with other Kemptville College students.

There's agreement from Nelson and her friends on two points: The governor-general isn't very important. And, if the position exists at all, it should be an elected one.

``The Prime Minister should do all of that stuff. We're voting him in,'' Shaun White, 21, said to nods from fellow students.

The appointment of governor-general - the Queen's representative in Canada - always draws debate around water coolers, kitchen tables and political circles.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe used the latest one as a chance to call for the abolishment of the vice-regal position.

``This post represents the vestiges of the past and has no sense today,'' Duceppe said. ``The role of the governor-general has become essentially an honorary one and the Bloc believes it should be abolished.''

The Monarchist League of Canada jumped to the governor-general's defence as a symbol of what Canadians treasure most, such as the rule of law and freedom.

``The Crown is what represents the values . . . the things that do not change and that I think we don't want to change,'' said league chairman John Aimers.

``We don't want responsibility for their care placed in the hands of politicians.''

`This post represents the vestiges of the past and has no sense today.'
- Gilles Duceppe
Bloc Québécois leader

Being governor-general in Canada centres on pomp. The job description includes reading speeches from the throne, inducting people into the Order of Canada, swearing in new military officers and receiving foreign heads of state and ambassadors.

Since 1995, outgoing governor-general Roméo LeBlanc has given 791 speeches, handed out 679 Order of Canada awards, and sent 76,354 letters offering congratulations on wedding anniversaries.

Clarkson, who will collect a $98,000 tax-free annual salary, defended her new role.

``Do you know any other country that has no head of state? I mean, every country has a head of state,'' she said.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said Canadians seem satisfied with the status quo of a Queen of Canada in Great Britain.

Pollsters say he's right.

``Canadians are strongly ambivalent towards the monarchy and the governor-general,'' said Bob Richardson of the Angus Reid Group.

``They understand we have to have a head of state. (But) it simply is not relevant to people in their day to day lives.''

Historians and political scientists argue there are good reasons for ordinary Canadians to support having a non-political governor-general.

``Once you have an elected president, you have nobody who can stand above the fray and represent the country in a non-political way,'' said the University of Toronto's Peter Russell.

A governor-general did once take a very public stand against a Canadian prime minister.

In 1926 Mackenzie King wanted Viscount Byng to dissolve Parliament for an election so his minority Liberals could escape a censure bill.

Byng refused.

King resigned and Byng designated Conservative Arthur Meighen to form a new government.

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