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Do We Still Need the Lt-Gov?

Why the job of lieutenant-governor is obsolete.

Rafe Mair 10 Sep

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. You can find previous ones here. To register for free to hear Rafe Live, Mair's new webcast, visit

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James Dunsmuir, BC lieutenant-governor, 1906-1909.

The appointment by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Steve Point as lieutenant-governor of B.C. brings into focus the office itself. Apart from constitutional wonks or those offended by an appointment that's a different race than their own, this and similar appointments are greeted with a yawn and the certainty that within a week or so, most people will have forgotten his name.

Both governors-general and lieutenant-governors, within their own jurisdiction, are the Queen's representative and in her absence are pro tem "heads of state." This means that the lieutenant-governor has the residual powers of the Queen which is to say virtually none. The position is ceremonial only. In fact, what I always saw as the main duty, which is to host the Annual Lieutenant-Governor's Ball at Government House, no longer exists because the ball is no longer held.

Our crisis shortage

I can only find two cases where the lieutenant-governor or governor-general had to exercise power. The King-Byng Affair was a 1926 Canadian constitutional crisis that occurred when the Governor General of Canada, Lord Byng, refused a request by Prime Minister King to dissolve parliament and call a general election. The more interesting case, however, happened right here in Lotusland.

On Election Day, June 12, 1952, in an unbelievable upset, the Social Credit Party, leaderless, wound up with the largest number of seats by one over the CCF (now the NDP). Not until July 15, 1952, did they select W.A.C. Bennett as leader.

Having the most seats, Bennett went to Government House to see Lt.-Gov. Clarence Wallace. So did CCF leader Harold Winch who claimed the right to govern because of the experience of their members in the legislature and, besides, they surely could count upon Tom Uphill a "Labour" member from Fernie, to support them. Not for the first time, nor the last, Bennett had a trick up his sleeve, or rather in his pocket where he had a letter from Uphill saying he would support him. For over two months, B.C. was without a government while Wallace dithered. On August 1 he finally called upon Bennett to form a government -- which lasted 20 years.

It should be noted then that the last federal constitutional crisis was 81 years ago and the last in B.C. 55 years ago. And the last time the monarch had to make a decision was in 1909 when the House of Lords rejected Lloyd-George's "People's Budget" which led to a long-running constitutional crisis that saw two general elections, the threat of creating hundreds of new Liberal life-peers to reflect the political make-up of the elected house and eventually the Parliament Acts of 1909 and 1911 which, amongst other things, revoked the ability of the House of Lords to obstruct a government finance bill.

Favourite figurehead

But what if we did have a crisis?

The precedents are now clear and even if there were a crisis the governor-general or lieutenant-governor would act upon the advice of a constitutional lawyer. Thus the question of the candidate's ability to handle a constitutional crisis simply doesn't arise. And a damned good thing too when you consider who's held the jobs.

The best lieutenant-governor in my lifetime was my former colleague Garde Gardom. It's not that he did anything particularly noteworthy, because he didn't. They're not supposed to do anything noteworthy as Her Honour, the Honourable Iona Campagnolo, did when she added some stuff herself into a Throne Speech, a bit of vanity for which she was noted and which was unwarranted. No, Garde looked the part -- full body upon which to wear the medals he hadn't earned, in a uniform which rather brings back memories of Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty.

And Garde had both the booming voice with the bullshit to go with it that marked him as a natural figure of non-existent authority. Cub scouts trembled in awe as Garde's Wizard of Oz like voice filled the air with the platitudes which came so naturally to him.

Unquestionably the man for the moment. He should have been cloned.

White Spot denizen

Close family friend "Uncle" Walter Owen was great in the role. (He swore me into cabinet in December of 1975). In November of 1976 he and I took the plane from Victoria to Vancouver so we could both go to my real uncle, Dr. Bill Hatfield's, funeral. We were met at the airport by His Honour's mafia-like black limousine, driven by an eastern gentleman who looked for all the world like Kato. The vehicle closely resembled those Soviet jobs called the Zil that sped out of the Kremlin onto Red Square.

On the way to the church the lieutenant-governor asked if I had eaten. "No", I replied, which brought the vice-regal order to go into the White Spot at 67th and Granville, the original Vancouver drive-in pioneered by Nat Bailey. It was quite a sight. Every jaw in the joint dropped as the driver finally eased our monstrous conveyance flying a B.C. flag into a parking spot. Naturally it was the original hamburger (mushrooms for me, cheese for him).

Uncle Walter always looked the part and dispensed his noblesse oblige as if he was born a duke instead of the son of the jailor at the B.C. Penitentiary. Hell of a guy and, in case you wondered, father of the future outstanding (I think) mayor of Vancouver, Philip Owen.

Multicultural politics

In 1988 Brian Mulroney appointed Hong Kong native David Lam as Lieutenant Governor of B.C. as a gesture to the Chinese-Canadian community, while B.C.’s latest Lieutenant-Governor is clearly a play to the Aboriginals of this province. This is no bad thing; indeed it's probably a very sensible approach considering that the office is only a glitzy sinecure.

Like most Ottawa appointments, these are hatched in the deepest secrecy. For many years the governor-general was a chinless British aristocrat and the lieutenant-governor a prominent member of the business community. In 1952 the wealthy and heartily Liberal Vincent Massey became the first Canadian governor-general. Since then the Prime Minister has used the office to either pay off political debts, get rid of unwanted colleagues, shore up his political base or make some other point. Lieutenant-governors are usually political rewards by the government in Ottawa.

Job review

We have, then, reached the point where we should ask two questions. Do we need a governor-general or lieutenant-governor? And, if the answer is yes, what should be the criteria for appointment?

Neither job, to all intents and purposes, has any practical significance. It's a ceremonial role so that the head of government need not spend time with visiting dignitaries, reviewing Boy Scout parades and taking goodwill jaunts to far flung places.

Assuming that we agree that it's important, though not very important, to have a ceremonial chief, what ought the criteria to be?

Pierre Trudeau used the governor-general's position to make a statement when, in 1979, he appointed former NDP premier of Manitoba Ed Schreyer to show that "the West" was important. That was the plan but Ed made such an ass of himself that no one from Western Canada has been even considered since. On May 14, 1984, he appointed Jeanne Sauvé to indicate that women were to be seen as full citizens with equal opportunities as men. She distinguished herself by closing the grounds of Government House to the surrounding villagers who, since man's mind runneth not to the contrary, had been permitted to use the grounds for purposes, public and private, usual to a public park.

The last two appointments to the Governor General's office were to non-Caucasian women.

The first, Adrian Clarkson, was selected because she's of Chinese origin and was beloved by the Central Canadian establishment, worked for the CBC and is married to a younger lad, a parlour pink who philosophizes about things no one else ever gives a thought to. Like the CBC in general, the Honourable Adrienne sure as hell knew how to spend public money. The latest, Michaëlle Jean, also a CBC type, got the nod because Paul Martin hoped to gain political support from black allophones in Quebec. He didn't but Mme. Jean has become very popular, at least with the national media.

Harmless entertainment

Are these throwbacks to long ago worth keeping?

Certainly the legal and constitutional stuff could be done by the chief justice of the B.C. Court of Appeal who now subs for the lieutenant-governor now or by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada for federal matters. The problem would be who would handle the frilly, feel-good, bits in that uniform straight out of Ruritania? Vexing question.

Maybe we should do what Canadians do best -- nothing. The arguments either way are not compelling or vigorous because the office is little more than a sentimental sinecure from the days of the British Raj and when Britannia did rule the waves.

It's harmless, doesn't cost all that much and the uniforms, if not the occupants of the office themselves, do look pretty funny, and these days we could all do with a little laugh at ourselves.

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