For a great many Canadians the office of Governor General is thought to be little more than a useless and wasteful ceremonial position. The long series of stable governments that Canada has enjoyed has certainly contributed to this belief, much like an expensive insurance policy from which we never make a claim. As a result, Prime Ministers have become somewhat careless in their task of nominating one. Instead of giving it the careful consideration it deserves, PM’s appear to have used it as a means to reward accomplishment and to curry favour from voters by choosing someone with general appeal.
In 2008, this approach proved to be a mistake. In December, a mere two months after a federal election, the Conservative minority government was facing a vote of confidence which would have likely done them in. A proposed coalition between the Liberals and the NDP, with the backing of the Bloc, was in the works. In an attempt to suspend the vote and save his government, Prime Minister Harper asked the Governor General of the time, Michaëlle Jean, to prorogue parliament until January.
Not being used to such instability, Canada suddenly had a constitutional crisis on its hands. The media was in frenzy, and all eyes fell on the Governor General. What would she do? Our insurance policy would now come in handy.
I recall my disappointment, when hearing a former Martin Liberal cabinet minister, turned political pundit, embarrassingly admit that Michaëlle Jean had been selected on the basis of how well she represented the country, not on her ability to actually make these types of important decisions. As her true role of safeguarding our institutions came into focus, the traits of wisdom and foresight suddenly became important, as was a profound knowledge of our constitution and our centuries-old traditions.
In a speech she gave to a group of scientists last week, our current Governor General, Julie Payette, disappointingly demonstrated a lack of these much needed qualities. She scornfully mocked those who would dare believe that life is the result of divine intervention rather than the result of a long series of random processes. Many critics have correctly pointed out that this was an error in judgement on her part, and that she has compromised her impartiality as a result. I would suggest, however, that it is actually worse than that.
Regardless of anyone’s worldview, it is imperative to understand that our system of law is predicated on the idea that we are created beings, that free will is a characteristic with which we have been endowed, and that at the core of us all is something unique and sacred. This recognition is what gives us equal value as human beings under the law, and it is what secures and legitimizes the inviolability of our liberty. It is a defining feature of a free society, and the fact that these principles and ideas have been successfully translated into reality, and that they have become the cornerstone of our system of law, is an amazing historical achievement.
If Julie Payette, like many other Canadians, simply doesn’t share in these principles and beliefs, that is one thing. If, however, as Governor General, she cannot even acknowledge, respect, and appreciate the magnitude of their achievements, if she openly ridicules them, then how can she be expected to properly guard the very systems and institutions built on their foundation?
Her statements go beyond a simple error in judgement and a failure to remain neutral; they reveal an incompatibility between her character and the office she holds. They reveal a lack of knowledge and respect for our history, a failure to engage in diligent thought, and an inclination to undermine that which she should uphold. Though our Governor General is a highly accomplished and likeable person, we can nonetheless conclude that the Prime Minister failed in his duty of carefully selecting the proper candidate.
(Kevin Richard is a freelance Quebec writer and a Discourse Online contributor.)