I do pity the Governor General at times. There is an enormous amount of public ignorance surrounding her office, which gives rise to all manner of unrealistic expectations about what she can and can’t do. Then, when the GG fails to meet those expectations, she becomes a lightning rod for criticism. It’s all tremendously unfair, because in most cases the Governor General is a hapless figure, thoroughly irresponsible and ignorant of the many decisions which are made in her name.
Take for example, the present petty scandal over the case of the late Constable Christopher Garrett, a police officer from Cobourg, Ontario.
In May of 2004 Garrett was dispatched to respond to what turned out to be a bogus robbery tip, set up by a deranged teenager named Troy Davey. Having lured him into his trap, Davey proceeded to slit the officer’s throat . Before bleeding to death, Garrett managed to shoot Davey in the leg, badly wounding the teen, who was later arrested after checking into an emergency room.
Garrett was celebrated as a town hero in the aftermath of his death. It was later revealed that Davey had been planning to go on a massive cop-killing spree that day, including a stopover to bomb the police station. By giving his own life, Garrett was heralded as having nipped a potential massacre in the bud.
The community figured that Garrett should get some sort of posthumous medal for his actions, namely the Governor General’s Cross of Valour, which is Canada’s highest decoration for bravery. According to the GG’s website, it recognizes “acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.”
Rideau Hall does not just hand these things out, however. First the relevant police department (in this case) is expected to do a thorough investigation of the nominee, to verify all the facts of the case, and determine if the individual in question meets their criteria for being sufficiently “brave”. Problem is, this takes time, and the Canadian legal system does not always make all the facts of a case readily available for public consumption.
So there is inevitable conflict with Rideau Hall’s rather odd demand that all medal applications be verified and awarded within “two years” of the incident. Considering that Mr. Davey was only convicted in February of 2007, it was therefore impossible to gather the necessary information in time for Constable Garrett to be able to receive his posthumous award.
His supporters submitted a late application anyway, but it was promptly rejected by Rideau Hall earlier this month. The rejection has proceeded to trigger a tidal wave of indignation and protest, including petitions from police officers and letters from politicians, all directed at Governor General Michaelle Jean personally.
And of course, the punditocracy has hardly been silent either:
Says Don Martin of the National Post:
“…our ‘hot’ Governor General has become a bit of a ‘not’ recently, and this procedural inflexibility won’t polish her once-glowing aura. […] If Ms. Jean continues to dig in her heels on a stuffy point of protocol, might I suggest our law-and-order Prime Minister demand she bend the rules so that Const. Garrett can receive his well-deserved medal posthumously.”
…says Colby Cosh, again in the Post:
“One can’t help feeling that this is what comes of trying to fit a liberal, someone of inherently republican sentiments and instincts, into an office that symbolizes monarchical tradition.”
…and even harsher words from Joe Warmington in the Toronto Sun:
“[If I ever] get within earshot of Her Majesty, I will ask her to relieve Michaelle Jean from her duties immediately and send her back to the CBC where she can find out how frustrating it is to cover the lack of logic and pure stupidity of the likes of her.”
Amid all the hubbub and whining about the Governor General, one huge fact goes unmentioned. The Governor General does not award medals.
Medals in Canada, from the Order of Canada on down, are actually awarded by various secret boards of shadowy figures. In the case of medals for bravery, such as the Cross of Valour, the medals are doled out by something known as the “Canadian Decorations Advisory Committee.” Their board consists of:
–The Clerk of the Privy Council
-The Secretary to the Governor General
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of Canadian Heritage
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defense
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of Transportation
-The Commissioner of the RCMP
-“up to four additional members” (it is unclear who any of these are at present)
It’s quite remarkable how bureaucratic-dominated these boards are. Nary a single elected representative to be found on most of them. But that’s another issue. The bigger story this mini-scandal should highlight is just how useless the Governor General really is, even from a monarchist perspective.
We generally accept that the Governor General is a figurehead, in the sense that most of her powers are non-political and ceremonial. But what’s less well-known is that even her figurehead duties are largely delegated to other people. Duties such as granting pardons, giving royal assent, and handing out medals are all jobs which are outsourced to other individuals, who then make decisions in the GG’s name.
The Governor General has no medals which she can award unilaterally; it’s all done by committees which she does not even sit on. Contrast that to say, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States, which is awarded “at the sole discretion of the President.”
The problem with constitutional monarchy is that the monarch, and by extension, her representatives, have no real public legitimacy or mandate to do anything. Because the Governor General and Queen are unelected and unaccountable, they are constitutionally distrusted and given virtually no independent powers of their own. At best, they can only meekly obey the orders given by agents of the political class.
Of course, this breeds new problems, because the institutions that arise to boss the Governor General around are often not terribly accountable to the public either (who the hell knows who the Deputy Minister of Transportation is? And why is he in charge of deciding who our country’s greatest heroes are?).
At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is the simple fact that we don’t really have a head of state in Canada, in any serious sense. We have a person who prances around and acts as a head of state for photo-op purposes, but all powers of the office (even the seemingly insignificant ones) are exercised by either politicians or bureaucrats.
When Canada ditches the monarchy and gets a republican head of state, one hopes he or she will be far less of a poodle of the bureaucracy, and more trusted to exercise powers and discretion in an independent manner. I suspect this would indeed be the case, because, as mentioned, at present the “institutional distrust” of the Governor General—ie, the fact that we have all these bureaucratic structures built up to prevent the GG from being involved in any sort of decision-making process—is largely a predictable result of having a head of state who is not selected democratically. Since we live in a democratic society an elected head of state would enjoy public legitimacy in making decisions, even if they were the wrong ones. And if she did make the wrong ones, we could at least vote her out or impeach her, rather than having to fantasize about lobbying the Queen to do so.
It will interesting to see how medal-gate eventually plays out. Someone may step in to make a decision and see that the late Constable Garrett receives his Cross of Valour somehow. But I can assure you, no matter what eventually happens, it won’t be our powerless Governor General who makes the decision.