Day 6·Q&A

Governor general an important safeguard in Canadian democracy, says journalist

While some may point to the resignation of Gov. Gen. Julie Payette as a reason to break ties with the British Monarchy, freelance Parliamentary reporter Dale Smith explains why he believes the role helps protect Canadian democracy.

'I don't know that it's necessarily a good time to be talking about a republic,' says Dale Smith

Julie Payette resigned as governor general Thursday following the completion of a report into allegations of a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Despite this week's hasty departure from Rideau Hall, the governor general's role in Canada is worth defending, according to one journalist.

Julie Payette stepped down as governor general Thursday afternoon following the completion of an independent review into allegations that she belittled, berated and publicly humiliated Rideau Hall staff. Sources briefed on the investigation's findings say that the report's conclusions were damning.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner will fill in as Canada's representative to the Queen until a new Governor General is named.

While some may point to the scandal as a reason to break ties with the British Monarchy, freelance parliamentary reporter Dale Smith spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about why he believes the governor general holds an important role in Canadian democracy.

Below is part of that conversation.

Even people who like the monarchy are uneasy about King Charles after season four of The Crown. Now we have a governor general resigning in scandal. Is this a good time to talk about having a republic?

I think after the last four years in the U.S. with a government that eroded the democratic norms, that created a cult of personality around itself and which was flirting with outright fascism in certain cases. With all of those in mind, I don't know that it's necessarily a good time to be talking about a republic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that he will look to improve the vetting process when appointing the next governor general. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Then what is it about a constitutional monarchy that protects against that kind of executive overreach? Why does it work as a bulwark here?

Part of it is the way in which powers are separated. The Crown has power, but doesn't exercise it. And the government of the day borrows that power to exercise it, but doesn't actually have it. 

That creates some good separation in terms of safeguards when it comes to upholding democracy.

Does that function as a kind of psychological block or cultural block on someone that's trying to convince the body politic that they're supreme?

If we look at how power is structured in our system, the prime minister has very few powers on his own that do not require signoff from the Crown. Most of that has to flow through the governor general. 

[The prime minister] can't just do things on his own, and I think people kind of forget that in their conception about the Crown as just symbolic. 

Yes, it's symbolic in that they will always follow the advice of the prime minister, but the fact is that they have that power.

But what if someone really dislikes the Windsors [the British Royal Family]? How can you explain to them why this system is still superior if they find those figures contemptible in the first place?

It's less about the figures themselves and about the position that they hold. It's more the symbol, or the embodiment, of what it is they represent. 

You may not like an individual figure, but it's the institution itself that's the more important consideration. It endures even through bad times or bad office holders, and I think that's incredibly important to recognize.

Trudeau is asked why Julie Payette wasn't thoroughly vetted before being appointed governor general

Politics News

1 month ago
1:35
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is questioned by the CBC's Ashley Burke, whose reporting led to Payette's resignation. 1:35

Do you think that the process of selecting a governor general could be streamlined or made more democratic, and do you have any ideas about that?

The previous government put into place a vice-regal appointments commission that worked very well. It was headed by the Canadian secretary to the Queen, and it really engaged civil society in looking for a good candidate for governor general, or lieutenant governor of a province, or territorial commissioner of the territories. 

That was a system that found very good candidates in all of the searches that they [did], and it was always mystifying to the rest of us as to why Prime Minister Trudeau scrapped that system when he came into power — and yet replicated its essential functions for his new Senate nomination process. Largely, as well, for Supreme Court justices. 

I think simply restoring that process would go a long way.

Certainly this last appointment showed us why a process is probably necessary, but when you heard that the governor general had resigned, did you imagine that it would embolden Canada's republican movement?

Any time anything happens, either with the governor general or we have a significant anniversary around the Crown, the republicans always make some noise and then just kind of disappear again afterward because there simply isn't the traction for the message they have to say. 

Even if there were, because the Crown is embedded in absolutely everything within the Constitution, trying to amend it to remove that would be nigh impossible.


Written by Jason Vermes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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