Six months after former GG Payette's resignation, chief justice still juggling two jobs

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner has maintained a punishing schedule over the past six months — juggling his top court duties while also serving as acting governor general after the last one left under a cloud.

'I am proud to fulfil this constitutional duty but yes, yes, it's been a lot of work,' Justice Wagner says

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Richard Wagner speaks during a news conference to update Canadians on the work of the Supreme Court, in Ottawa, on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner has maintained a punishing schedule over the past six months — juggling his top court duties while also serving as acting governor general after the last one left under a cloud.

Speaking to reporters today at his annual press conference, Wagner said he has done his best to serve as the Queen's representative in Canada but signalled he's ready for the government to finally name a successor to Julie Payette.

Never before has one person simultaneously held two of the country's most important jobs for so long. In fact, Canada has never gone this long without a governor general. The next-closest gap was the five months it took to replace Lord Tweedsmuir, the former governor general who died in office during the Second World War.

Payette hastily resigned in January after an outside workplace review found she had presided over a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall. The law stipulates that, if that office becomes vacant, the chief justice must serve as the country's "administrator" until a new governor general is appointed.

'A lot of work'

"I am proud to fulfil this constitutional duty but yes, yes, it's been a lot of work," Wagner said. "I've tried to do as much as I can."

In addition to hearing a full docket of cases, Wagner has performed many viceregal duties — granting royal assent to a dozen bills and signing 557 orders-in-council issued by cabinet.

He has welcomed new ambassadors and high commissioners, accredited Canadian heads of mission for diplomatic postings abroad and handed out the Order of Canada, meritorious service decorations and sovereign medals to dozens of Canadians.

He also has been nominally in charge of the 125 people who work at Rideau Hall — employees, he said, "who have been through a very difficult period of time."

WATCH: Wagner's 'duty' includes acting as an interim GG

Wagner's "duty" includes acting as interim GG

3 months ago
Chief Justice Richard Wagner of the Supreme Court of Canada explains how he and his predecessor dealt with the responsibility of being an interim Governor General. 1:07

"It has had no impact on the work of the court — it had an impact on my workload — but not on the work of the court," Wagner said.

While the judicial system nationwide is facing severe backlogs because of pandemic-related restrictions, the work of the top court has been largely unaffected, Wagner said, because it rapidly adopted new technologies to conduct hearings virtually.

The dual role also has put him in an awkward position: he's both the person charged with granting royal assent to legislation and a Supreme Court justice who could end up hearing legal challenges to that legislation down the road.

Writing in her autobiography, Truth Be Told, Wagner's predecessor, former chief justice Beverley McLachlin, expressed discomfort with signing legislation when the governor general of the day, Adrienne Clarkson, was on sick leave.

In 2005, McLachlin was tasked with granting royal assent to the same-sex marriage bill, the Civil Marriage Act, which passed Parliament after a contentious debate.

Former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin. (Credit: The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

"Signing bills into law in the capacity of deputy governor general was common. But this was a sensitive bill that might well end up before a court," she wrote.

"At law, there was no problem — I would not be signing in my judicial capacity — but not everyone is aware of such constitutional niceties. It was a bill I would have preferred not to sign."

Asked Thursday if he would recuse himself from any cases that relate to legislation he has signed into law, Wagner said he didn't think that would be necessary given his administrator duties are largely ceremonial.

"I don't have any intention of recusing myself because I did not give any legal opinion or any type of opinion," he said. "When I wear the hat of administrator, I don't wear the hat of the judge."

'One day at a time'

Wagner also could be put in a difficult position if the current minority government falls on a vote of no-confidence on his watch.

If that happens, Wagner could be called on to dissolve Parliament and trigger an election — or he could dismiss the prime minister and invite the opposition parties to form a government.

"This is a hypothetical," Wagner said. "We'll see whether that question arises. I take it one day at a time."

Wagner said today he's been assured that a permanent replacement will be named soon.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, and four outside advisers handpicked by the prime minister, have been reviewing possible replacements for months.

LeBlanc has said the new governor general should be named by month's end. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the issue of appointing a new governor general with the Queen last week during their meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit.


John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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