British Columbia

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown: how a royal representative could shape B.C.'s political landscape

B.C.'s lieutenant-governor is set to make one of the most crucial decisions for our province, drawing attention to the power of Crown representatives.

B.C.'s confidence vote brings to mind King-Byng

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge pose with B.C. Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon and her husband, Bruno Mailloux. (Province of British Columbia)

As B.C.'s Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon readies to make a decision that could potentially change the political landscape of British Columbia, it is an opportune moment to evaluate the institution of Crown power in Canada.

The B.C. Liberal government has fallen and Guichon will now have to decide whether to dissolve the legislature and call an election or invite NDP Leader John Horgan to form government.

Canada's formal head of state is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In Canada, she is represented by the Governor General on the federal level — the Governor General appoints lieutenant-governors to represent the Queen at the provincial level.

The Governor General and lieutenant-governors are unelected, appointed by the Queen and Governor General respectively on the advice of the Prime Minister, usually for a term of five years.

Queen Elizabeth II is Canada's head of state. She is represented by the Governor General federally, and by the lieutenant-governor at the provincial level. (Alastair Grant/Getty Images)

But because Canada is a constitutional monarchy, most of the Crown's real powers have been entrusted to the government.

For the most part, the queen's representatives carry out largely symbolic duties such as summoning the legislative assembly to session, dissolving government, calling an election, giving royal assent to bills, receiving the royal family and other dignitaries, and awarding special grants and prizes.

On rare occasions — like today — the queen's representative is tasked to make a significant decision.

Often, these decisions are fraught with controversy with some questioning how an unelected official can suddenly wield so much power.

Like a 'fire extinguisher'

Barbara Messamore, a history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, studies the role of Canada's Crown representatives and says thinking a Crown representative's powers have "lapsed" is a mistake.

"You can have situations where you can go decades and decades without any kind of situation that would require any kind of decision or really anything beyond ceremonial input from the representative of the Crown," she explained.

"But the basic powers have remained constants for a very long time."

Messamore said a useful metaphor is one from late political scientist Frank MacKinnon who likened the Crown representative to a fire extinguisher.

"They're conspicuous. They're brightly coloured. But we almost never use them," she said. "So it's tempting to say oh, let's just get rid of them ... [but] they're there for emergencies. They can serve a vital function."

Going against a premier's advice

This function might be more powerful than people assume.

For example, in British Columbia's current situation the lieutenant-governor's top priority is to make sure a legitimate government is in place — and this could mean acting against the advice of Premier Christy Clark if necessary, Messamore says.

This seems to contradict the popular understanding of the 1926 King-Byng affair, where Governor General Lord Byng refused to dissolve parliament and call an election as per Prime Minister Mackenzie King's request.

Controversy erupted with King arguing the Governor General must always accept the advice of a sitting prime minister.

Eventually, an election was called and King won it handily. Later statutes and decisions helped cement a convention of non-interference.

The King-Byng Affair

18 years ago
Duration 0:50
It's war — between the prime minister and the governor general.

But Messamore said the Crown representative is still empowered to make a contrary decision.

"Yes, the representative of the Crown must act on the advice of her ministers but that would apply to ministers who enjoy the confidence of the assembly," she said.

"If Clark is defeated, then she can say what she likes but Judith Guichon's role is to appoint a ministry that has the confidence of the legislative assembly."

Always controversial

There is precedent.

During the 1985 Ontario election, the Conservatives won a minority government and were immediately defeated in their inaugural throne speech by a Liberal-NDP partnership.

The Conservatives asked Lt.-Gov. John Black Aird to dissolve the legislature and call a new election, but he declined and allowed the Liberals — who were four seats short and had the support of the NDP — to form government.

University of the Fraser Valley Professor Barbara Messamore says B.C. NDP leader John Horgan will likely be offered a chance to govern. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Even though Messamore says it is likely Lt. Gov. Guichon will offer a chance to Horgan to govern before seeking dissolution, any action will probably be met with controversy.

"Anytime a lieutenant-governor acts or doesn't act, they're going to be subject to criticism. That's just endemic to the office."