How the term "head of state" is actually used in Canada

Some comments on previous posts insist there’s no ambiguity about who is Canada’s head of state. They assert, “It’s the Queen!”

Maybe it should be that clear. But the reality is that even eminent constitutional experts do not always make a clean distinction between Queen and Governor General when it comes to discussion of Canada’s head of state.

A recent example from Andrew Heard, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, and author of Canadian Constitutional Convention: The Marriage of Law and Politics, illustrates my point.

In his essay “The Governor General’s Decision to Prorogue Parliament: Parliamentary Democracy Defended or Endangered,” published early this year as an occasional paper by University of Alberta’s Centre for Constitutional Studies, Heard writes about the exercise of the GG’s so-called “reserve powers,” those rare cases where the GG uses discretion instead of simply following orders from a prime minister and cabinet:

“These reserve powers are the practical reason why the role of head of state (Queen or governor general) is separated from the head of government (prime minister) in all parliamentary systems. The office of governor general (and lieutenant governor at the provincial level) exists in order to ensure the proper functioning of parliamentary government. In some ways, the head of state acts like a referee to ensure the political actors play according to the rules, so that the business of government can continue.”

Now, is it not a fair to say that this passage would leave any reader with the impression that the GG either is the head of state or at least shares that designation with the Queen?

I’m not saying, “Aha! Here’s the proof about who is and who isn’t head of state!” I’m pointing out how the term “head of state” is actually used. We should acknowledge that “head of state” is not a label that can be easily affixed in Canada today. It would seem to apply best to the Queen in some contexts, the Governor General in others. And so that’s how the use of the term has evolved—to reflect that reality.

It’s used that way by experts like Heard, in government documents like Library and Archives Canada’s primer on the executive branch in Canadian government, and of course in past annual reports of governors-general.

Those who would prefer that “head of state” be applied exclusively to the Queen don’t have to like the way Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean used the term to describe herself, but they shouldn’t imagine that Jean was breaking new ground here.

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