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And the next G-G should be ...

Ideally, the transition period between incoming and outgoing governors-general should be three or four months. Since Adrienne Clarkson's extended tenure expires on Sept. 30, time is getting short for Paul Martin to pick Canada's next head of state.

That choice has never been more important. This unstable 38th Parliament may well be the shape of things to come. Minority governments could be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.

Last month's constitutional controversy over whether the Liberal government had been defeated on a vote of confidence and, if not, how quickly it had to test the confidence of the House hinted at the vital role the governor-general might play in any future disputes.

Were an electoral result to produce a hung Parliament, were a prime minister to test the limits of his authority, were an opposition leader to complain that the unwritten provisions of our Constitution were being violated, then a governor-general's enormous latent powers as the resident personification of Canadian sovereignty -- the Canadian head of state -- could quickly be revealed.

For this reason, Mr. Martin should choose Adrienne Clarkson's successor carefully. He might start by having a chat with Stephen Harper, Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

Ms. Clarkson's appointment was an exception, in that she was not a former politician being rewarded for good and faithful service. In a constitutional crisis, such a patronage-appointed governor-general could be accused of bias. Although there is real risk of the name leaking out, the Prime Minister should test the discretion of the Opposition Leader by sharing the preferred nominee with him, or perhaps even the short list.

A consensus between the governing party and the Official Opposition on the choice of governor-general would help to reinforce his or her legitimacy in the event of a constitutional crisis.

Who is on the short list? No one is saying. The principle of rotation suggests that the next governor-general should be a francophone from Quebec. (The previous two francophone governors-general were from New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, respectively.) Former astronaut Marc Garneau is the name most often mentioned as a possible candidate.

But we should face a fact: The pool of bilingual francophones is quite small, as a percentage of the total population. To guarantee that every second Liberal leader and governor-general will be drawn from this pool is not only unfair to the rest of Canadians, but dangerous: First-rate candidates could be hard to come by.

This is especially true of the choice for governor-general, since Mr. Martin is keen to select an aboriginal Canadian for the job. If there is a nationally prominent bilingual francophone native leader, that person's name has failed to reach these ears.

Were the bilingual and francophone restrictions to be set aside, several eminently qualified aboriginal leaders would emerge as candidates. Georges Erasmus, former head of the Assembly of First Nations and former co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, has been mentioned. Another strong contender would be Phil Fontaine, the current national chief, who has led the negotiations with the Liberal government in fashioning new solutions to the problems of aboriginal health, education and housing. Mr. Fontaine speaks Ojibway and Mr. Erasmus Dene -- which, when you think about it, are every bit as much founding languages as English and French.

Nonetheless, it is beyond unlikely that a Liberal prime minister will ever select a governor-general who cannot speak French -- which brings up the name of James Bartleman, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

The son of a Chippewa mother and a white father, an accomplished author and diplomat, fluently bilingual, former foreign policy adviser to Jean Chrétien, and a man who has spoken courageously about his battle with depression, Mr. Bartleman is a textbook candidate for the viceregal post.

Except he is not francophone, another reason to dispense with this outmoded tradition of rotation.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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