Category Archives: Governor General

The myth of the medals continues…

Rideau Hall announced a slew of new appointments to the Order of Canada yesterday, and, depressingly, the media once again took the opportunity to spread misinformation about how the candidates were chosen.

In today’s National Post, for example, we have the complete list of appointments, under the heading “Governor General’s Picks,” with a photo caption that begins “Governor-General Michaelle Jean appointed 61 Canadians to the Order of Canada yesterday…”

The two major Canadian wire services, CanWest News Service and the Canadian Press offered up stories on the appointments that were not quite as explicitly wrong, but still bad. They made no mention of who actually made the decision to award the medals, though both stories note in some form that Governor General Jean “announced” the winners, which in turn seems to imply that she was the only important figure involved in the matter.

As I noted in my earlier post detailing the brouhaha over Ms. Jean’s supposed “failure” to ensure that a popular slain police officer recieved a medal for bravery, the Governor General does not actually award medals in this country. Instead, it’s councils of bureaucrats who make the decisions, which are then rubber stamped by the GG in traditional GG rubber stamping fashion. In the case of the Order of Canada, the decision-making council is known as the “Council of the Order of Canada” and it consists of:

-the Chief Justice of Canada
-the Clerk of the Privy Council
-the Deputy Minister of the Department of Canadian Heritage 
– the Chair of the Canadian Council for the Arts
-the President of the the Royal Society of Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada
-the Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
-two other individuals, appointed by the council for a three-year term, both of whom must be Order of Canada holders themselves. I don’t know who these individuals are at present.

I am not sure if it is due to journalistic laziness, or just good ol’ fashioned Canadian deference to authority, but I find it quite astonishing that there is never any effort made in the Canadian media to track down members of this council and make them justify or explain the reasons why they made the appointments they did. It’s not that I disagree with Walter Gretzky  or whoever receiving the OoC, it’s just I think it would be nice if we treated the awarding of our nation’s highest honor as a process that deserves at least minor levels of scrutiny and accountability.

Of course, part of the poor reporting is almost doubtlessly due to the fact that the majority of Canadians simply do not understand how the Crown works in modern Canada, so writers are perfectly happy to just retreat behind the polite fiction, a la the National Post headlines, that the list of Order of Canada appointments is devised by Michaelle Jean herself personally  (I assume in a smoke-filled room at 3 AM, surrounded by news clippings and crumpled paper).

I am often asked why I care about the republican issue as much as I do. Part of the reason stems from my basic dislike of the Canadian system of government, which I consider to be badly designed, ineffective, undemocratic, and deceptive. The Crown embodies all of these flaws, and indeed, one can make a strong argument that the underlying principles of monarchy—which inspired the Canadian system of government—are directly responsible for creating them in the first place.

I’d like to have a system of government where all the component parts are honest, and do what they are supposed to do, without a lot of symbolism and ceremony clouding and confusing the chains of command and accountability. The story of medals in Canada is interesting, because it really highlights this status quo so well. No one is really clear who is making the decision to award the medals, because the fiction of the monarchy hides the considerably blander reality. A minor case study to be sure, but the lesson is profound.

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I advise you to obey

I’ve often fought with monarchist editors on Wikipedia over the accuracy of certain statements regarding the political role of the crown in Canada. They (or more specifically, he, since it tends to largely just be a single overzealous person) insist that every mention of a political appointment in Canada be phrased something like this:

So-and-so was appointed by Governor General Romeo LeBlanc in 1994 on the advice of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Only in the most rigidly legalistic sense is this statement even remotely true, however. When a normal person thinks of “advice” one thinks of a sort of negotiation of ideas and opinions, as in, say, giving a friend advice on redecorating. You’d express your opinion to your friend, he would respond, either by rejecting, agreeing, or compromising.

If your advice was accepted 100% of the time, and was never questioned, you wouldn’t really be giving advice at all, however. You’d simply be bossing a subservient person around, which is a fairly good description of the dynamic between the Prime Minister of Canada and the Governor General.

Since no empirical test will ever prove otherwise, I think there’s nothing wrong with stating in sites like Wikipedia that “the Prime Minister appoints the Senate” or “the Prime Minister appoints the Supreme Court.” Indeed, to state otherwise is actually far more deceptive, since it implies that the GG and PM are somehow both important figures in the decision-making process, when really only the latter is. But monarchists prefer fantasy to reality, and will mention the Crown as constantly as possible to create the illusion of relevance and hide the fact that they lack the real thing.  

 Anyway, the only reason I mention all this is because of an amusing little editorial in today’s National Post. Detailing an “irreverent history of the Senate,” Larry Zolf proudly mentions that he himself has never solicited a Senate seat from a Prime Minister, except once:

In the 1980s, Senator Andrew Thompson was hiding in Mexico while being paid handsomely by the Canadian taxpayer. Senator Thompson’s poor attendance record soon became a front-page news story.

At the retirement party of governor-general Romeo LeBlanc, I saw prime minister Jean Chretien alone at the pastry table. I walked up and said: “Prime Minister, put me in the Senate and I will solve your Senator Thompson attendance problem.” “How will you do that?” Chretien asked quietly. “Simple, Prime Minister, I’ll live, eat and sleep in the red chamber and never leave the place.”

Chretien shrugged. He never put me in the Senate. 

Ho ho. Anyway, I just found this anecdote quite amusing for unintentional reasons. Zolf is at a party where both the Governor General and Prime Minister are in attendance, yet when he wants a Senate seat, who does he dash straight for?

The Governor General, Poodle of the Bureaucracy

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.