There's always been tension between G-G and PMO

The 'head of state' spat is nothing new in their relationship

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, October 13, 2009

Here's a constitutional conundrum for you. The governor-general is the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, but she is not the head of state.

Huh? How in the name of Barack Obama, who is both in his country, in addition to being a head of government, does that work?

Well, because she's the queen's representative in Canada, representing the crown in our constitutional configuration.

And technically, she has no standing outside the country, so that on her foreign visits she has a constitutional role when visiting our troops abroad, say, in theatre in Afghanistan, or elsewhere.

The rest is pomp and circumstance, signifying nothing, at least in the strict sense of the constitution.

But the last two governors-general, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, enjoy pushing the envelope, and both have styled themselves Canada's head of state, both at home and, occasionally, even abroad, as the current governor-general did last week in Paris.

Speaking at a UNESCO meeting, she shared her inspirational narrative as "a francophone, born in Haiti, who carries in her the history of the slave trade and the emancipation of blacks, at once Québécoise and Canadian, and today before you, Canada's head of state, proudly represents the promises and possibilities of that ideal of society."

Yes, she can, so to speak. But no, she can't, because she isn't head of state.

That was sure to get them all riled up over at the Monarchist League of Canada, which misses no slight to the crown, and no snub of Her Majesty.

They weren't too thrilled over at the Prime Minister's Office, either. The next day, the PM's principal spokesperson was unequivocal in clarifying the GGH's role.

"Queen Elizabeth the Second is queen of Canada and head of state," quoth Dimitri Soudas. "The governor-general represents the crown in Canada."

Period. End of story. Except that last Friday, as the Ottawa Citizen reported yesterday, "when Rideau Hall launched a new website sprinkled with references to the governor-general as the 'head of state' - and Jean's officials indicated she would continue to use the phrase to describe the position - the PMO weighed in again, urging the queen's representative to cease and desist."

Well, welcome to an interesting conversation between the Langevin Block and Rideau Hall.

There's always a certain amount of jostling between the PM's office and the G-G's. When Ronald Reagan visited Quebec City for the famous Shamrock Summit in 1985, there was no role for the governor-general, because it was designated a working rather than a state visit. Not only was Jeanne Sauvé shunted aside from even greeting Reagan at the airport, the PMO appropriated her residence, the Citadel, for a famous photo op of Reagan and Brian Mulroney standing by a cannon with the Chateau Frontenac in the background. It was another two years before she got to host a state dinner for Reagan at Rideau Hall. Again, in 1989, when George Bush flew into Ottawa for a brief working visit, there was no role for the G-G.

That wasn't going to happen to Michaëlle Jean, not when Barack Obama was coming to Ottawa in February, not with a black American president, and not during Black History Month. The vibe between them was electric, as they walked down the red carpet from Air Force One. They had half an hour together at the airport VIP lounge, and later Rideau Hall put it out that they talked about the problems of her native land, and Obama invited her to Washington to talk some more.

And this was during a working visit, not a state one, in which the U.S. president got nowhere near Rideau Hall. But she came very close to upstaging the PM at a time when he was down in the polls, and needed a good visit from Obama as part of a political turnaround.

On a personal level, Harper and the G-G get along quite well, and she was known to be very grateful for his support when the opposition Conservatives refused to join the drive-by-shooting over her husband's views, as well as her own, at the time of the last Quebec referendum in 1995.

All that being said, the PM's office is quite right to insist that she is not the head of state, but the queen's representative.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and even one that doesn't.

 
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