Strange Politics: What is a Governor-General?

July 26 will be a historic moment in Canada, as their first Governor-General of Inuit ancestry takes office. Mary Simon is a former diplomat and Inuit rights activist who will take her oath of office before the Canadian Senate on Monday. Queen Elizabeth II appointed Simon for the role on July 6, and Her Majesty spoke to Simon by video chat earlier this week in preparation for her inauguration.

Hold on. The Queen? As in, the British monarch? What is she doing picking a Canadian government official? Isn’t Justin Trudeau supposed to be Canada’s leader? What, exactly, is a Governor-General, anyway? What is going on here?

Strange Politics. That’s what’s going on.

To understand what the Governor-General of Canada’s role is, you first have to know an important fact about the “True North Strong and Free”. Canada has never actually declared its independence. To this day, Canadians acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as their sovereign ruler, who is recognized as “Queen of Canada”. This is why her portrait appears on all Canadian coins and the Canadian $20 bill. Canadian passports are issued in her name. All immigrants must swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Queen upon becoming Canadian citizens, and Canadian politicians, soldiers, and police officers also swear an oath to serve Her Majesty.

I’m still your colonial master, Canada!

In Canada today, you will sometimes see the Union Jack, officially called “the Royal Union Flag” by the Canadian government, flown from important buildings. The famed Canadian “Mounties” are officially named the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, one of many government agencies in our northern neighbor that uses the term “Royal”.

Yet on world maps, Canada is shown as an independent nation. The Canadian flag is listed on diagrams of the flags of the nations of the world. Canada has its own Olympic team, its own seat at the United Nations, and its own embassies in nations around the world. The world treats Canada like an independent nation, and in most senses, it functionally has become one.

To understand what is going on here, we need to dive into a bit of Canadian history. In the mid-19th century, Canada had a growing population that was increasingly tired of being governed by officials sent from Great Britain and having no say in their own local laws. In 1837, Canadian demands for self-government led to open revolt. The rebellion was quickly crushed, but the British remembered how they lost a certain set of 13 other colonies a half-century earlier and didn’t want to make the same mistakes. Gradually, the British began allowing Canadians to elect their own local leaders and allowing those leaders to act independently, without having to get London’s approval on everything. In 1867, the modern form of Canada’s government was largely set when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act.

This new law joined several of the British colonies in the northern part of North America together as provinces within a union that would have a Parliament of its own, as well as their own provincial legislatures. From this point onwards, the British began to largely leave Canada to its own devices on matters that didn’t affect the Empire as a whole. This arrangement was fine until World War I happened.

Battle of the Somme image from the Imperial War Museum

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the entire British Empire automatically went to war along with it. This proved to be rather controversial, as the war dragged on and Canadians died in the battlefields of Europe for what many saw as Britain’s war. In the aftermath, Canadian politicians began demanding even more freedom to control ALL Canadian affairs, including foreign policy. It wasn’t just Canada, either – Australia and New Zealand wanted similar freedom. After years of negotiations, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931. This law defined these colonies as “Dominions” of the British Empire, and declared that the United Kingdom would give up its right to pass laws for the Dominions without their permission.

At that point, the British were basically granting these colonies their independence without having to officially admit they were doing so.

Well, mostly. See, Canada actually did ask the British to pass laws for them in 1940, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1960, 1964, 1965, 1974, 1975, 1977, and 1982. What was going on here? Well, remember the British North America Act of 1867 that created Canada? That law, along with a collection of other laws passed by the British Parliament, were functionally serving as the “constitution” of Canada, and the only way to “amend” Canada’s “constitution” was with an Act of the British Parliament. This embarrassing situation was finally resolved in 1982, with the simultaneous passage of the Canada Act in the United Kingdom and the Constitution Act 1982 in Canada. These laws finally created a system for Canada to amend its own constitution without needing to ask Westminster to do it for them.

So, now Canada is an independent nation, right? In every practical way that matters in the real world, mostly, yes. However, Canada still symbolically acts like a British colony in a few key ways. One of these ways is with the office of the Governor-General of Canada.

So, what is a Governor-General?

Officially, the Governor-General is the representative of the reigning British monarch, chosen by Her Majesty to exercise her royal powers within Canada, as she can’t be in two places at once. No Canadian law can pass unless the Governor-General gives it the royal assent on the Queen’s behalf. The Governor-General is the commander-in-chief of the Canadian military and appoints the Canadian Prime Minister, the other ministers of the Canadian government, the judges of Canada’s Supreme Court, the members of the Canadian Senate, and the governors of Canada’s provinces. The Governor-General can dismiss the Prime Minister or dissolve the Canadian Parliament and call for new elections. Only the Queen can veto a Governor-General’s decision.

On paper, this makes the Governor-General an all-powerful figure who dominates Canada’s political system. However, the reality is far more nuanced. Just as how the Queen only uses her supposedly wide-ranging powers to do what the democratically-elected representatives of the British people want, the Governor-General only ever acts “on the advice of the Prime Minister”.

Every Governor-General has always automatically chosen the leader of the political party with the most seats in the elected Canadian House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister. Officially, Mary Simon is going to be Justin Trudeau’s boss, but if she acts the same way that every other Canadian Governor-General has, she will always do what Trudeau tells her to do. Indeed, it was Trudeau who recommended Simon for the role, and throughout her reign, Elizabeth II has always selected the Governor-General that Canada’s Prime Minister has recommended.

In practice, the Governor-General has a purely ceremonial role, her job being to act as a symbolic link to Canada’s past as a British colony.

Gen. David Hurley, the current Governor-General of Australia

This isn’t actually a political arrangement that is unique to Canada. Remember how the Statute of Westminster also covered Australia and New Zealand? Well, both have Governors-General to this day. In fact, these three original Dominions have been joined by Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. As the term “Dominion” is now seen as too colonial-y and Imperial-y, these days the collective term for these 15 countries is “Commonwealth realms”. Each Commonwealth realm is basically an independent nation that shares the same monarch as the United Kingdom, making Elizabeth II technically the sovereign of 16 separate countries simultaneously.

In short, Canada and 15 other nations around the world have gradually become independent nations in practice without ever having to declare it, but as a side-effect, they continue to symbolically pretend to be British colonies. This means that each has a Governor-General chosen by the local Prime Minister as a stand-in for the Queen to act like a colonial governor while only rubber-stamping the decisions of their country’s Prime Minister and Parliament.

Looks like the sun still hasn’t quite set on the British Empire yet.