The role of Canada's Governor General

The Governor General acts as the Queen's representative in Canada and is Canada's de facto head of state. (The Queen is the official head of state.)
Broadcaster Adrienne Clarkson, left, politician Romeo Leblanc, centre, and journalist Michaëlle Jean have all served as Canada's governor general.

The Governor General acts as the Queen's representative in Canada and Canada's de facto head of state. (The Queen is the official head of state.)

Before 1926, the Governor General acted as the representative of the British government in Canada.

Until the 1950s, the Governor General was always British. Since then, the post has alternated between an English-Canadian and a French-Canadian.

Duties, which are largely ceremonial, include:

  • Representing the Crown and ensuring there is always a prime minister.
  • Acting on advice of prime minister and cabinet ministers to give royal assent to bills passed in the Senate and House of Commons.
  • Signing state documents.
  • Reading the throne speech.
  • Presiding over swearing-in of the prime minister, chief justice and cabinet ministers.

The King-Byng Affair


In 1926, Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked that Parliament be dissolved, but Gov. Gen. Lord Byng refused.

But as we see in this retrospective television clip, it was King who had the last laugh.

The Governor General isn't always a figurehead, however. Canada saw one of the most controversial uses of the powers of the position in what is now the Commonwealth. In 1926, Gov.-Gen. Viscount Byng sparked a constitutional crisis when he refused the prime minister's request to dissolve Parliament and call a general election.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose Liberals won a minority government the year before, wanted to avoid a scheduled vote on government corruption. When Byng turned him down, Mackenzie King resigned and the Governor General invited Conservative Arthur Meighen to form a government.

Mackenzie King soon returned to power with a majority government, but the "King-Byng Affair" led to reforms of the Governor General's role in Canada and throughout the dominions.

The lieutenant-governors of the provinces once represented the governor general, but now act as direct representatives of the Queen.

The Governor General is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister. The term is traditionally five years and can be extended to seven.

David Johnston was to be sworn in as the 28th governor general on Oct. 1, 2010.

Previous governors general

Michaëlle Jean

27th governor general, sworn in on Sept. 27, 2005.

Michaëlle Jean smiles during her visits to the Montreal pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. ((Aly Song/Reuters))

Born: Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Early life: In 1968, as violence under dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier escalated, the Jean family fled Haiti and settled in Quebec. Jean was 11.

Experience before appointment: Jean completed undergraduate studies at the University of Montreal, earning a degree in Spanish and Italian language and literature and a master's degree in comparative literature. She studied Italian language, culture and literature at universities in Italy between 1982 and 1985. Jean shifted to journalism in the late 1980s and became a fixture on Radio-Canada.

Focus/accomplishments: Jean put an emphasis on issues involving youth, aboriginal Canadians, the military, the arts and fighting violence against women. She was front and centre in efforts to help Haiti after the nation was devastated by an earthquake in January 2010.

Other notes: Jean renounced her French citizenship before taking up her vice-regal duties when it became an issue, and denied accusations of separatist leanings that emerged after her appointment was announced. She also drew headlines in Canada and around the world when she ate a small piece of raw seal heart during a visit to an Inuit community in May 2009.

Adrienne Clarkson

26th governor general, sworn in Oct. 7, 1999.

Born: Hong Kong, 1939.

Early life: Clarkson came to Canada as a refugee in 1942, and completed BA and MA degrees at the University of Toronto.

Sporting legacies

Several governors general have left a legacy in the sporting world, contributing or having their names on trophies that have in some cases become iconic. They include:

Stanley Cup

Donated in 1892 by Lord Stanley, it originally recognized Canada's best amateur hockey club. It became the National Hockey League trophy in 1926.

Minto Cup

Donated in 1901 by Lord Minto, it has become the top prize for junior men's lacrosse in Canada.

Grey Cup

Donated in 1909 by Lord Grey, it originally recognized the top amateur rugby football team in Canada. It eventually became the top prize of the Canadian Football League.

Willingdon Cup

Donated to the Royal Canadian Golf Association in 1927 by Lord Willingdon, the prize now recognizes the top team in inter-provincial amateur men's golf. 

Vanier Cup

Named after Georges Vanier and awarded first in 1965, it is the championship trophy for Canadian Interuniversity Sport Football. Vanier also established the Governor General's Fencing Award.

Michener Tuna Trophy

Established by Roland Michener, it is as a championship trophy for sports fishing.

Clarkson Cup

Created by Adrienne Clarkson, it is awarded to the top women's hockey club team in Canada.

Experience before appointment: She joined CBC Television and worked as a host, writer and producer for 17 years (1965-1982). Clarkson was appointed agent general for Ontario in Paris in 1982 and served for five years. She rejoined the CBC in 1988 as host and writer for CBC's Adrienne Clarkson's Summer Festival and Adrienne Clarkson Presents (1988-1999).

Focus/accomplishments: Clarkson was considered by many observers to have raised the profile of the post. The military and the North were particular focuses for her. She was praised and criticized for her many trips to meet Canadians everywhere, from small aboriginal communities in the North to visits abroad to spend time with Canadian troops stationed in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Other notes: Clarkson is the first person from a visible minority to be chosen to be Governor General, and the first person to hold the post who did not have a political or military background. She faced controversy over expenses, and spending for the office of the governor general was reduced by 10 per cent. She defended trips she took, noting they had been at the request of the government.

Roméo Leblanc

25th governor general, sworn in on Feb. 8, 1995.

Born: Memramcook, N.B., 1927.

Early life: LeBlanc obtained BA and B.Ed. degrees from the University of St. Joseph's College in Memramcook.

Experience before appointment: He taught for several years before moving into journalism, as a correspondent for Radio-Canada. LeBlanc then shifted into the political world, where he became press secretary to Liberal prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and was elected a Liberal MP in 1972. He served as a cabinet minister before being appointed to the Senate in 1984. Nine years later, he became Speaker of the Senate.

Focus/accomplishments: LeBlanc created the Governor General's Caring Canadian Award, and focused on voluntarism, the teaching of Canadian history, aboriginal peoples, and peacekeeping and the military. Other notes: LeBlanc's appointment was criticized by some as patronage. He served until October 1999, and left office before the end of his term because of ill health. LeBlanc was the first Acadian and the first person from the Maritimes to serve in the role.  He died on June 24, 2009.

Ramon John Hnatyshyn

24th governor general, sworn in on Jan. 29, 1990.

Born: Saskatoon, 1934.

Early life: He obtained bachelor of arts and bachelor of law degrees from the University of Saskatchewan.

Experience before appointment: Hnatyshyn was called to the Saskatchewan bar in 1956. In 1974, he was elected as a Conservative MP, and held several cabinet portfolios. Focus/accomplishments: He created the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, the Fight for Freedom literacy award, the Canadian Bar Association's Hnatyshyn Award and scholarships in environmental engineering and science.

Other notes: Hnatyshyn helped turn the governor general's official residence into a tourist destination. He died on Dec. 18, 2002.

Jeanne Sauvé

23rd governor general, sworn in on May 14, 1984.

Born: Prud'homme, Sask., 1922.

Early life: Sauvé grew up in Ottawa and graduated from the University of Ottawa and the University of Paris.

Experience before appointment: She worked as a CBC journalist for more than 20 years before being elected Liberal MP for a Montreal riding in 1972. Sauvé held various cabinet posts before being appointed Speaker of the House of Commons, the first woman to hold that role.

Focus/accomplishments: Sauvé put a priority on youth, world peace and national unity. Other notes: Sauvé was the first woman to hold the post of governor general. Before assuming the role, she had also been the first female cabinet member from Quebec. During her tenure, Rideau Hall was closed to the public, a move that drew criticism. Sauvé served until January 1990. She died on Jan. 26, 1993.

Edward Schreyer

22nd governor general, sworn in on Jan. 22, 1979.

Born: Beausejour, Man., 1935.

Early life: Schreyer earned four university degrees, including a bachelor of pedagogy, a bachelor of education, a master of arts in international relations and a second master of arts in economics.

Experience before appointment: He was elected to the Manitoba legislature at age 22. Schreyer served as a professor of international relations at the University of Manitoba for three years before he was elected as an NDP MP in 1965. He became leader of the Manitoba NDP in 1969, and served as Manitoba premier from that year until 1977.

Focus/accomplishments: During his tenure, Schreyer promoted the equality of women and the protection of the environment. He also set up the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case. Other notes: Schreyer was the youngest governor general in 100 years. He was 43 when he assumed the post. He served until May 1984.

Jules Léger

21st governor general, sworn in on Jan. 14, 1974

Born: St-Anicet, Que., 1913

Early life: Léger studied at College de Valleyfield, and the University of Montreal, graduating with a law degree before completing a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Experience before appointment: He served as an associate editor at Le Droit in Ottawa and taught the history of diplomacy at the University of Ottawa. In 1940, Léger joined the Department of External Affairs and held numerous diplomatic positions over more than three decades.

Focus/accomplishments: He encouraged national unity and is credited with modernizing the position of governor general.

Other notes: Léger suffered a stroke shortly after taking on the job. His wife, Gabrielle Léger, assumed some of his activities while he recovered. She is the only spouse featured in an official portrait of a governor general. Léger served until January 1979. He died on Nov. 22, 1980.

Roland Michener

20th governor general, sworn in on April 17, 1967.

Born: Lacombe, Alta., 1900

Early life: Michener graduated from the University of Alberta with a bachelor of arts degree, and studied on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University before being called to the bar.

Experience before appointment: Michener practised law in Toronto, and served as a Conservative member of the Ontario legislature and as an MP. He was also Speaker in the House of Commons and held diplomatic postings to India and Nepal.

Focus/accomplishments: He encouraged youth, promoted physical fitness, and created the Michener Awards for journalism. Michener also relaxed protocol during his term, with women no longer required to curtsey to a governor general.

Other notes: He took up the job during Canada's centennial year, and received a constant stream of foreign dignitaries at his official residence. The Order of Canada was created on July 1, 1967, and Michener handed out the first batch in November of that year. He served until January 1974 and died on Aug. 6, 1991.

Georges P. Vanier

19th governor general, sworn in on Sept. 15, 1959.

Born: Montreal, 1888.

Early life: He received a bachelor of arts degree from Loyola College, and a bachelor of laws from Laval University in Montreal.

Experience before appointment: After graduation and being called to the bar, Vanier enlisted and served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War.  He was injured in late 1918 during an attack, and lost his right leg. He had a lengthy diplomatic career that included a posting as Canada's ambassador to France.

Focus/accomplishments: Vanier promoted bilingualism and Canadian unity. The Vanier Institute of the Family grew out of the concern he and has wife, Pauline, had for family life and their organizing of the Canadian Conference of the Family in 1964.

Other notes: Thirty-eight years before his appointment as governor general, Vanier lived on the grounds of Rideau Hall after he was appointed as an aide to then Gov. Gen. Lord Byng. Vanier was the first French-Canadian to hold the role. His health was poor and he died on March 5, 1967, while still in office. He was the second in the role to die in office since Confederation.

Vincent Massey

18th governor general, sworn in on Feb. 28, 1952.

Born: Toronto, 1887.

Early life: He received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a master of arts from Oxford University.

Experience before appointment: Massey had a lengthy diplomatic career, which included serving as Canadian high commissioner to Britain from 1935 to 1946.

Focus/accomplishments: He promoted Canadian unity and identity, and a national arts festival that helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the National Arts Centre. He also founded the Governor General's Awards for Architecture.

Other notes: The appointment of the Toronto-born Massey marked the beginning of an era in Canada: Massey was the first Canadian to hold the position of governor general. Before his tenure, governors general were British. He held the post until September 1959. Massey died on Dec. 30, 1967.

Earlier governors general
 The Viscount Alexander 1946-1952
 The Earl of Athlone 1940-1946
 Lord Tweedsmuir 1935-1940
 The Earl of Bessborough 1931-1935
 The Viscount Willingdon 1926-1931
 Lord Byng 1921-1926
 The Duke of Devonshire 1916-1921
 H.R.H The Duke of Connaught 1911-1916
 Earl Grey 1904-1911
 The Earl of Minto 1898-1904
 The Earl of Aberdeen 1893-1898
 Lord Stanley 1888-1893
 The Marquess of Lansdowne 1883-1888
 The Duke of Argyll (Marquess of Lorne) 1878-1883
 The Earl of Dufferin 1872-1878
 Lord Lisgar 1869-1872
 The Viscount Monck 1867-1868