Governor General may want to go back to school

As we learned from the coalition government controversy, many Canadians don’t understand our parliamentary system. The GG may want to add herself to the list

Earlier this week, Governor General Michaelle Jean offended some people by eating raw seal meat. Earlier today, she upset nobody by advocating forcefully, and not for the first time, for the federal government to create a university in the Arctic.

The former gesture wasn’t controversial: she was just doing her job. When you visit the citizens of your country as the Queen’s representative and the font of constitutional authority, and those citizens invite you to dine with them, you dine. When they ask you to take part in a legal cultural activity, you take part.

But when those citizens ask you to lobby the government on their behalf, you say “hey, that’s not my job. I’m the monarch — I reign, I don’t govern.” You want governing? Talk to the people who run in elections. Talk to your MP. Talk to the government.

Unfortunately, that’s not how Madame Jean responded to understandable calls from her hosts for the creation of a university in Canada’s vast, underpopulated and undereducated North. Asked if she would continue to push this idea to elected officials, she replied, “of course.”

“Canada is at least 40 years behind,” Jean told The Canadian Press. “Canada is the only northern state that doesn’t have a university in the North. Canada is four decades behind Norway, Finland, Sweden, the United States. The United States has three universities in Alaska. There’s a university in Greenland. In northern Sweden. In the Norwegian Arctic.”

She then apparently went on to describe to the CP reporter exactly how such a university would be organized, with satellite campuses spread across the region; how it would be open to people from all across the country; how it could be funded out of royalties imposed on mining companies, and so on and so forth. Reading the CP story, one gets the sense that the reporter was at least as baffled as I am. Perhaps next week, the G-G can come to Toronto to urge city council to build more bicycle paths, or the province to buy new streetcars.

The main trouble with Madame Jean’s argument is not that such a university might cost an enormous amount of money to serve an exceptionally small population. As the CP story helpfully points out, the entire Canadian north has a population counted in the tens of thousands — smaller than a small Canadian city — spread out over an area larger than most countries. The office building where I work in in downtown Toronto may have as many inhabitants at Nunavut’s largest city. There are powerful arguments against opening a university in the North; then again , there are also arguments in its favour, namely the need to up the abysmally low percentage of aboriginal Canadians receiving higher education, including those living in the North.

But these aren’t arguments that the Governor General should be making. The trouble isn’t the quality of her arguments (though I have some quibbles there too); it that she’s opening her mouth and making them. This isn’t how our constitution works. As Governor General, she embodies the Crown and the law, but she doesn’t represent the people to the government. She doesn’t lobby the government for her chosen causes, certainly not in public.

Does Jean get this? When asked if she would tone down her campaign for a northern university, Jean told CP that she sees nothing inappropriate about a vice-regal publicly lobbying the federal government to build a school. “I’ve always believed that the institution of Governor General could … make sure people’s voices are heard,” she said. “This is exactly what I’m doing.”

But that is exactly the opposite of what she’s supposed to be doing: Canada’s elected officials represent the people and speak for the people — to
her. She’s the sovereign. Parliament is the people. The people do the governing. The whole system falls apart if the unelected figurehead forgets that.

Perhaps part of the problem can be traced to something one our former bloggers pointed to last year.