Did the Governor General say too much on refugees and the niqab?

However much the governor general is expected to speak to and of Canada and Canadians, touring the country and travelling abroad, he is perhaps advised to generally avoid saying anything too interesting. Consider, for instance, David Johnston.

David Johnston's comments to CBC prompt Conservative Senator Linda Frum's tweet about 'partisanship in Ottawa'

Gov. Gen. David Johnston is seen during an interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge in April 2016. (CBC)

However much a governor general is expected to speak to and of Canada and Canadians, touring the country and travelling abroad, he is perhaps best advised to generally avoid saying anything too interesting.

Consider, for instance, David Johnston.

In an interview broadcast this week with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, the viceroy discussed the relatively uncontroversial values of inclusiveness and diversity and was asked about the issues of Syrian refugees and the niqab, both of which generated controversy during last year's election.

"Look at the outcome of those two, quote, crises," said Johnston, who is releasing a collection of letters he has written. "Look at how Canada has managed the Syrian refugee crisis in an exemplary way and, in particular, how the grassroots communities have responded to that.

"And look at the debate with respect to the niqab, I think Canada showed its strength that that should not sidetrack us from who we really are."

He acknowledged, in response to the question, that he had been worried.

"And I continue to worry," he said, "about any initiatives that would cause us to be small minded and to lose that sense of a) inclusiveness, b) fairness [and] c) equality of opportunity."

In December, Johnston hosted a forum on the settlement of Syrian refugees and said, "this is a defining moment for Canada."

Governor General on niqab debate

The National

5 years ago
David Johnston talks to Peter Mansbridge about his worries during the niqab debate last fall. 1:10

'His remarks were ... inappropriate'

The governor general's comments apparently upset Conservative Senator Linda Frum.

"Despite rumours to contrary partisanship in Ottawa alive and well," Frum tweeted on Wednesday night.

She subsequently retweeted comments from others who felt the Governor General had overstepped. 

​"His excellency should not have opinions," offered political strategist Chad Rogers, a contributor to CBC's Power & Politics. "That's his job."

Asked whether she considers Johnston, who was nominated by Stephen Harper in 2010, to be a partisan, Frum replied, "Of course he's not a partisan, which is why ‎his remarks on CBC were so inappropriate."

'He did not weigh in on public policy'

Johnston is presumably still allowed to hold opinions; indeed, it has come to be accepted that a governor general has the right "to advise, to encourage and to warn" the head of government. (During the conversation with Mansbridge, it was noted that the Governor General met with Stephen Harper about once every month on average.) 

The question here is to what degree he is allowed to express his views outside the walls of Rideau Hall.

"As part of their responsibility of bringing Canadians together, governors general play a key role in promoting national identity by supporting and promoting Canadian values, diversity, inclusion, culture and heritage," Rideau Hall said Thursday in response to questions about whether Johnston had overstepped. 

"Gov. Gen. David Johnston addressed this topic in a non-partisan and apolitical way by focusing on Canadian values and identity. He did not weigh in on public policy."

Why this could matter

The concern is potentially fundamental.

Whatever else the governor general does in the course of representing the Queen and acting as head of state, his greatest responsibility is ensuring the orderly functioning of a federal government. It is the governor general who dissolves Parliament to launch new elections and it is the governor general who appoints a prime minister and invites him to form a government.  

In almost all cases, those decisions are straightforward, based on the party leader that has the confidence of the House or is clearly able to command the confidence of the House. But in rare circumstance — imagine an unclear election result or an attempt by a coalition of parties to defeat and replace a sitting government — the governor general could be compelled to invoke his reserve powers and decide to dismiss a prime minister or refuse his advice (or choose to offer someone else the opportunity to form a government).

Insofar as he might have to someday make a controversial decision with profound political implications, the governor general's impartiality is important. "The chief role of the governor general is to see that there is a government," says David E. Smith, the political and constitutional scholar. "And for a governor general to take any publicly perceived partisan position would compromise his or her impartiality."

Power Panel: Governor General's comments

Power and Politics

5 years ago
The Power Panel discusses the GG's comments in an interview with Peter Mansbridge and whether they cross into political territory. 6:55

A non-partisan GG

Partisans, or at least former partisans, have occupied Rideau Hall in the past. Roland Michener and Jeanne Sauvé were both former MPs, Michener a Progressive Conservative and Sauvé a Liberal (both also served as Speaker of the House of Commons). Ed Schreyer was a former NDP premier, Ray Hnatyshyn was a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and Roméo LeBlanc was a former Liberal minister.

But the last three vice-regals have come from outside partisan politics — Johnston is a former academic and university administrator — and, ahead of Johnston's appointment, Stephen Harper established a committee of academics and experts to advise on potential nominees.

The 2008 controversy over a Liberal-NDP plan to defeat and replace the Conservative government also brought new attention to the sorts of decisions a governor general could have to make. Were Justin Trudeau to select a Liberal partisan to replace Johnston next year, he would almost certainly be inviting criticism.

A fine line

Had Johnston made his comments in the midst of last year's campaign, or if there was a relevant matter currently before Parliament, greater controversy might have ensued. As is, his comments are also perhaps just opaque enough to avoid significant outcry.

Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, was among those who expressed concern on Wednesday night, but other scholars contacted this week thought Johnston's were within appropriate bounds.

"The governor general does have to be careful about not crossing into issues that are the subject of lively partisan debate. But that said, he can reflect on the general values he thinks Canadian have and should hold," says Andrew Heard, a professor at Simon Fraser University. "It's a fine line at times, admittedly, but I thought Johnson kept his comments generalized during that interview."

With the recent election completed, it is exceedingly unlikely that Johnston will be faced with a difficult constitutional decision before he steps aside in 2017. And so, however much his impartiality might be questioned now, there is at least no reason to believe it will be tested before leaving office.

Governor General David Johnston pens new book of letters

The National

5 years ago
Governor General David Johnston has a new book, a collection of letters he's written to Canadians about what makes Canada unique. He sat down to chat about it with Peter Mansbridge. 14:53


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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