Choosing a Canadian
Thursday, September 9, 1999
She's Adrienne Clarkson and she's the Governor-General-designate. Under our system, Ms. Clarkson will carry out the duties of the Queen when Her Majesty is not in the country, which, of course, is most of the time.
Canada is both a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. That means we have an elected prime minister who is head of government, and we recognize the Queen in the largely ceremonial role of head of state. The Governor-General represents the Queen in Canada and, theoretically, is chosen by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister. In practice, the prime minister of the day chooses the Governor-General, and the Queen graciously concurs. In other words, it is a patronage appointment that is bestowed at the prime minister's prerogative.
Ms. Clarkson is not a bad choice for the role; in many ways, she is an excellent candidate. She was born in Hong Kong in 1939 and immigrated to Canada with her family during the Second World War. Like so many other newcomers, Ms. Clarkson knows what it is like to be a stranger trying to settle in and make her way in a new country. That she has been more successful than most is to her credit.
As a novelist, broadcaster, diplomat, volunteer and cultural maven, she brings a refreshing breadth of experience to her new role. She is fluently bilingual and has diplomatic experience from her tenure as Ontario's agent-general in Paris from 1982 to 1987. She is a Liberal supporter to be certain, but, unlike so many other patronage appointees who have curried favour with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, she is not a retired, defeated or sitting politician.
Our problem is not with the person this time, but with the office and the manner of her appointment. Ms. Clarkson is a fitting choice and we wish her well in her new role, but, at this stage of our evolution as a nation and as a parliamentary democracy, it is time to think about casting off the reins of Empire.
Moreover, we should move a seemly distance beyond partisan politics and implement a selection process that doesn't depend on the whim of the prime minister of the day.
The Queen is a popular and dedicated monarch; there is no need to be precipitous. After her death or abdication (long may she reign), let us change the system so that the next head of state is a Canadian Governor-General who is appointed by a more representative group of Canadians, say, the 165 Companions of the Order of Canada.
The Order of Canada is our highest honour. All Canadians are eligible, whatever their political stripe, and every Canadian has the right to nominate anybody who has made a difference to our nation. There are three classes: Member, Officer and Companion. Ms. Clarkson, by the way, is an Officer, which puts her in the second rank. Let the Companions, our most distinguished citizens, choose the person best suited to be head of state.
As we move into a new millennium, we should be preparing for the final act of patriation by choosing a head of state who is Canadian all the time, and not just when the Queen is busy.