Canada is getting a new Governor General, the ceremonial head of state who represents Queen Elizabeth II in Ottawa. Mary Simon, an Inuit leader, will be the first in the job to come from Canada’s Aboriginal First Nations peoples.
“Ms. Simon’s career has always been one of breaking down barriers: Today, after one hundred and fifty-four years, our country takes an historic step,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment.”
The appointment comes in touchy circumstances. Previous Governor General Julie Payette, a former Canadian astronaut, resigned partway through her five-year term after an investigative report described a toxic workplace and tempermental boss at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa.
Canadians are also engaged in painful soul searching following discovery of hundreds of human remains at the British Columbia and Saskatchewan sites for former native residential schools, to which young native boys and girls were forcibly taken from their native villages and forbidden to speak their native languages. The results: High suicide rates, deaths during epidemics, and rampant sexual and emotional abuse.
Simon, a former Canadian Ambassador to Denmark, spoke of her challenge in diplomatic terms: “The past is something we have to come to terms with but I am going to look forward to ensure Canadians together will be building a better Canada and I think that is my important role.”
The selection by Justin Trudeau received formal assent from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Starting four decades ago, under the Prime Minister’s father Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s long-dominant Liberal Party has named a succession of regal women to be the royal representative. The appointments have expanded the sense of Canada as a multicultural country.
The first woman to serve as Governor General was Mme. Jeanne Sauve, a Quebec political leader and former House of Commons Speaker. Subsequent governors general have included Adrienne Clarkson, a CBC broadcaster and refugee from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, the first Chinese Canadian in the post.
(Clarkson and longtime companion John Ralston Saul were hastily wed just before her appointment was announced.)
Documentary filmmaker Michaelle Jean, a Haitian immigrant whose family fled the regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, served in the post from 2005 to 2010.
The Governor General’s job is to summon, prorogue and dissolve parliament, usually on instructions by the Prime Minister. They deliver the government’s program in an annual Speech from the Throne, subject of much jest during years when Victoria was dumping raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The Governor General gives royal assent so parliamentary bills become law and serves as Commander in Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces. (Adrienne Clarkson remains colonel-in-chief of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.)
The Governor General steers clear of politics, as does the queen in London.
What this means is the Great White North has both a head of government, and a ceremonial head of state. The royals frequently drop in from across The Pond.
On one visit, Queen Elizabeth dropped a hockey puck center ice at a Vancouver Canucks exhibition game while Prince Philip dedicated the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary north of Prince Rupert.
Newlyweds Prince William and Kate betted down at the remote Skoki Lodge in the backcountry of Banff National Park. Prince Harry and Meghan began their self-exile staying at seaside digs near Sooke on Vancouver Island.
Mary Simon does not speak French, one of Canada’s two official languages. She is fluent in Inukitat, which is not a language of business in Ottawa. The language deficiency – Simon is learning French – has revived a joke about the garbled syntax of one former prime minister. Jean Chretien, the quip goes, was Canada’s first prime minister to speak neither of his country’s official languages.
One of Mary Simon’s first tasks may be to dissolve the House of Commons. Trudeau is considering a snap national election, riding his country’s COVID-19 recovery in hopes of winning a majority of the 338 seats in parliament.
The Liberals under Trudeau won a surprise majority in 2015, ousting the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Dogged by scandal allegations, the Liberals came up short in the 2019 general election with one hundred and fifty-seven seats. They were wiped out in the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
They have since formed a minority government, dependent on parliamentary support from the left-leaning New Democratic Party to stay in power.
Recent polls show the Liberals in position to regain a majority.
They lead in populous Ontario and are poised to pick up seats in Quebec.
The Liberals’ one stronghold in Western Canada is metropolitan Vancouver, where they hold eleven House of Commons seats.
Three Canadian premiers have called elections during the COVID-19 crisis. All have been returned to power. The best showing was by the provincial New Democrats under British Columbia Premier John Horgan, who took fifty-seven of eighty-seven seats in the British Columbia Assembly.
Trudeau has lavished government spending on social services during the coronavirus pandemic. During the worst of the crisis, the PM would emerge each morning from a twenty three room “cottage” on grounds of Rideau Hall – his official residence was under renovation – and report to the nation. He did not pull rank. With hair salons shut across Canada, Trudeau grew ever shaggier.
He has also kept the U.S.-Canada border closed since March of 2020, although a reopening is possible later this month.
The move kept Canada shielded from the Trump regime’s chaotic COVID-19 response and a death toll in “the States” that has topped 600,000.
The Conservatives dislike and denounce Trudeau but have presented little by way of a program to rouse the country.
New party leader Erin O’Toole has not caught on in the polls, his public exposure limited by COVID-19. He has embarked on a Western tour, stopping at the Calgary Stampede and campaigning in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
British Columbia is likely a three-way battleground. The Liberals and New Democrats each hold eleven of the province’s forty-two seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative have seventeen seats, mainly in rural ridings (electoral districts) while the Green Party retained two seats in the 2019 election.
The Greens are showing signs of collapse. A Green MP from New Brunswick has decamped to the Liberal Party. Bitter internal controversy has broken out with accusations of Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism. New party leader Annamie Paul has kept her job, but does not have a seat in Parliament.
During his years as Prime Minister – from 1968 to 1984, save for one nine-month stretch of Conservative rule – the Liberals under Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre Trudeau won three majority governments, and survived as a minority government with support from the New Democratic Party.
It has become a tradition in Canadian politics. Whenever the federal New Democrats prop up a federal Liberal government, the Liberals appropriate popular NDP policy proposals and then capture NDP seats in the next election.