The majority of Canadians did not pay any real attention to the Governor General prior to January 2021. Even fewer people understood the Governor General’s role in Canada’s government. This all changed under the authority of the 29th Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette. She resigned on January 21st following allegations of abusive behaviour towards her staff. The disturbing scandal brought the normally muted Governor General’s office into a tremendous controversy. It is also difficult to find a government office with more colonial connotations than the Governor General’s. Every year the old British connection to Canada ages and polls reveal the royal family’s popularity has grown more ambiguous. If only for a brief moment, an ethics scandal has Canadians questioning the Governor General’s colonial ties and its usefulness to modern Canada.
The Role of the Governor General and the Recent Scandal
In short, the Governor General represents the reigning monarch in Canada. The country remains a constitutional monarchy under Queen Elizabeth II who resides in the United Kingdom. The Governor General’s role is not exciting or very visible. Most Canadians will see the Governor General once or twice a year on the television Remembrance Day or Canada Day.
From Rideau Hall, the Governor General signs bills passed by Parliament as a way to legitimize them. Evolved from Canada’s former colonial governors, the symbolic role also entails attending important ceremonies as the Queen’s representative. Newsworthy events usually emerge from Parliament Hill while Rideau Hall languishes in procedural obscurity. That changed however, when Julie Payette assumed the role of Governor General. The recent scandal revealed that Payette transformed Rideau Hall into a house of horrors for its staffers. This scandal marked a rare historical moment in which Rideau Hall usurped Parliament Hill to be at the heart of the national conversation.
As the monarch’s representative, it is the Governor General’s responsibility to uphold the dignity and grace of the monarch. However, in light of recent accusations against Payette, it is clear that this obligation has not been met. Insults, bullying and even physically abusing her own staff were commonplace.
In any professional workplace, a single complaint regarding any of these cruel, undignified actions is a serious matter. Over one-hundred civil servants were interviewed by investigators regarding the abusive conduct of the 29th Governor General. In retrospect, it is not an exaggeration to label Payette’s whole term as an abject disgrace to the office. The Governor General’s office itself was already criticized as a colonial relic by Canadian and even American publications.
Canada’s Enduring British Colonial Roots
Canada is a young country and its colonial roots as a modern state stem from being part of the former British Empire. The British imperial legacy is still hugely evident throughout Canada. For example, in the province of British Columbia, the city of Vancouver has streets named Kingsway, King Edward Avenue, and Victoria Drive. The Vancouver Royal Yacht Club is located near Stanley Park, named in honour of Lord Stanley, another Governor General of Canada. Canada’s lineage of British colonialism is blended into the landscape.
The same is true about Canada’s political system. The modern British parliamentary system was pioneered at the Palace of Westminster in London and endures to this day. With a few alterations, Canada uses the “Westminster” system of parliamentary governance. In this system, the Prime Minister is the head of the government (akin to a manager) whereas the reigning monarch is the head of state and is the living embodiment of the state itself. Aside from calling new elections at the behest of the Prime Minister, the monarch has no genuine legislative power. This system is referred to as a constitutional monarchy.
The way in which the Governor General is chosen is another reflection of Canada’s British and French colonial roots. The Governor General of Canada has been moulded to fit long-standing notions about the Canadian nation’s makeup. Since 1952, the office of Governor General has alternated between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians. This makes perfect sense in a bilingual state that emphasizes the cultural heritage of its British and French founding peoples.
However, the idea of a national heritage of simply British and French exclusively has been recently falling out of favour. Canada’s national news service has published pieces declaring the First Nations the third founding people of the country, as there is no part of Canada’s territory that did not originally belong to the First Nations. Since the Payette scandal emerged, a surge of calls has followed calling for the Governor General’s office to be abolished with the monarchy in Canada.
There also have been demands to appoint Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General. Appointing an Indigenous Governor General would not upset the bilingual balance of the office as Indigenous Canadians can typically speak English, French, or often both. This initiative would allow Indigeneous people to embody the state of Canada on the international stage.
The Monarchy’s Uncertain Future in Canada
A 2020 poll in Canada revealed 53% of those polled were doubtful about the monarchy’s future in Canada when Queen Elizabeth II dies. That same year following the exit of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle from the royal family, 66% of Canadians polled agreed the monarchy has declined in relevance. Polled approval for the monarchy tends to rise above disapproval during royal visits to Canada and the birth of new royal family members. If Canada is to remain a constitutional monarchy, royal visits and happy news from Buckingham Palace appear essential to its popularity in Canada.
In the absence of royal visits however, the Governor General is the monarchy’s substitute and Payette’s misconduct has done great damage to the institution in Canada. A school in the Greater Toronto Area bearing Julie Payette’s name has considered a new name due to the allegations. No polls have been conducted on the Governor General and the monarchy since the Payette scandal. However, the school’s renaming and volume of critiques of the institution provide clues as to what the results would be in such a poll.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously stated his government will not cut ties to the monarchy. However, this was years before the Payette scandal. The CBC has laid part of the blame for the scandal on Trudeau as the one who appointed Payette. Trudeau’s party has been labelled a “chameleon act” regarding their policy decisions. Commentators point out the party’s sensitivity to popular consensus and adapting its policies to fit public opinion.
If the Payette scandal becomes a permanent blight against the Governor General’s office, changes may be on the horizon for Canada’s monarchical ties. Whether that change is appointing an Indigenous Governor General or simply abolishing it is unclear.