The office has developed with Canada's evolution from colony to nation. At first, governors general represented imperial governments and were responsible to various colonial ministers. After Confederation they were empowered to govern according to the wishes of the Canadian PRIME MINISTER in all internal issues, but until WWI they were still obliged to acknowledge British policy in EXTERNAL RELATIONS. After the STATUTE OF WESTMINSTER of 1931, they became the SOVEREIGN's personal representatives. Finally, on 1 Oct 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 has emerged.
In Canada, as in many constitutional monarchies, there is a clear division between the office of the head of state and that of the head of government. The latter is occupied by the prime minister, an elected political leader. The former is held by the governor general who, like the sovereign, stands above politics. Appointed by the sovereign on the prime minister's recommendation, the governor general usually holds office for at least 5 years. Whereas the prime minister speaks for the political majority, the governor general represents the whole country.
On taking office (at a ceremony usually held in the Senate Chamber), a governor general is accorded the title "Right Honourable" for life and "His Excellency" or "Her Excellency" for the period in office. Two official residences are provided: RIDEAU HALL, which forms part of a 36 ha estate on the Ottawa R, and the Governor's Wing at the QUÉBEC CITADEL. The governor general's personal standard flies wherever he or she is in residence and takes precedence over all other flags in Canada except the monarch's. It is dark blue with, at the centre, the gold Canadian crest: a crowned lion carrying a red, stylized maple leaf in its right paw. Upon taking the vice-regal position, the governor general designs his or her own heraldic symbol (see HERALDRY). This allows the governor general to make both a personal statement of values and a statement about what he or she wishes to accomplish as vice regal. For instance, the heraldic symbol of Canada's current governor general, Haitian-born Jean, contains a shell and broken chains to symbolize her ancestors' escape from slavery. It is flanked by two Simbis (water spirits) from Haitian culture, feminine figures that symbolize the vital role women have played in advancing social justice. Its motto, "Breaking down solitudes" (Briser les solitudes), underlies the objectives Jean hopes to accomplish during her tenure.
Heraldic authority is a significant honour bestowed on select Canadians by the governor general. Until heraldry was patriated to Canada in 1988, Canadians who wished to acquire heraldic symbols from the Crown were required to apply to the queen's offices in the United Kingdom. On 4 June, Governor General Sauvé authorized the creation of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, a Canadian-based organization responsible for the creation of coats of arms, flags and badges for Canadian citizens and corporate bodies, and for maintaining an international standard when bestowing heraldic symbols. Canada was the first COMMONWEALTH country to patriate heraldic authority.
Parliament has 3 elements of which the governor general plays a significant role in one: the SENATE, the HOUSE OF COMMONS and the queen. 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 of Commons and the Senate, thereby giving them the force of law. By constitutional convention, the governor general exercises these prerogatives only in accordance with ministerial advice. 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 and may dissolve Parliament. On at least 2 occasions since Confederation (1891, 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).
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 and through regular visits from the prime minister and government officials. The governor general is the executive power of the governor-in-council, receiving advice from the Canadian PRIVY COUNCIL (the most important part of which is the CABINET) and signing ORDERS-IN-COUNCIL.
The governor general is designated by law as commander in chief of the Armed Forces, is 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, and is responsible for the administration of the whole 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. It is a subtle presence above divisions and differences, affirming acceptance of inherited loyalties and permanent ideals.
Author JACQUES MONET
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Watch the Heritage Minute about the concept of "responsible government" from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Monarchy in Canada
This website describes the components of Canada's constitutional monarchy, including the role of Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada and Canada's Head of State. Click on the links for more information on related topics. From Canadian Heritage.
Governor General of Canada
The official website for the Governor General of Canada features biographies of current and former Governors General, a summary of official duties, and more.
How Canadians Govern Themselves
See an online version of Eugene Forsey's very readable book about Canada's parliamentary system of government. Also compares Canadian and American forms of government. Includes biographical notes on the author. From the Parliament of Canada.
The British Monarchy
The official website of the British Monarchy. Features an extensive history of the Royal Family and a brief description of the duties of The Queen within Canada's system of constitutional monarchy. A good source for photos and videos depicting recent activities and events.
The Canadian State: Documents & Dialogue
The Canadian State Web exhibition enables students to explore the various aspects of Canadian governance and to use a set of unique "real life" activities to create their own political party. The activities cover a wide variety of Social Science disciplines: History, Civics, Law, Language Arts, World Issues, Communications, and Canada in a North American Perspective. From Library and Archives Canada.
Glossary: By Executive Decree
A glossary of terms related to Canadian history. From the website "By Executive Decree."
The Constitutional Act
Read an online digitized copy of the landmark "Constitutional Act," a decree signed by King George III of England on June 10, 1791, that created the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. On its pages are details pertaining to the establishment of effective government institutions, the responsibilities of the lieutenant governor, the role of the church, and more. From Canadiana Online.
The Citadelle of Québec
The website for the Residence of the Governor General at the Citadelle of Québec.