The Queen is Canada’s head of state, not the Governor General

The question of whether the Queen or the Governor General is Canada’s head of state remains a subject of debate.

Here’s an op-ed I wrote about the issue for the Ottawa Citizen in 2012.

The Queen is Canada’s queen

Philippe Lagassé.

Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Accustomed to seeing the monarchy as a quaint symbol of Canada’s colonial past, many Canadians have been irked by the Conservatives’ blunt reminders that the Queen stands at the apex of the Canadian state. Surely, critics argue, it is time to have a Canadian head of state? Could we not, at the very least, bestow the title on the governor general?

In practice, the governor general could be called Canada’s head of state. The term has been applied to the office before. But unless the Canadian monarchy is abolished, attributing that title to the governor general is a misnomer, one that confuses our understanding of a key constitutional concept, the Crown. To appreciate why, it is necessary outline the relationship between the institution of the Crown, the person of the sovereign, and governor general who represents both.

Besides being one part of Parliament alongside the House of Commons and Senate, the Canadian Crown also serves as the foundation of executive authority and as our concept of the state. As such, the Crown is a legal entity that remains steadily in place while new Parliaments are elected, prime ministers are named, and different cabinets are formed. Throughout the unfolding of this democratic process, the Crown endures, allowing the executive to enforce the law, attend to Canadians, and operate the machinery of government.

The Crown as the state also provides for permanent civil servants and security forces whose political neutrality and legal independence derives from their constitutional loyalty to the formal executive. As well, the idea of the Crown as the state underlies other notions, such as Crown corporations, and it explains why First Nations are intent to reaffirm their relationship with the institution.

Appreciating that the Crown is our concept of the state helps us resolve the most contentious issue in the burgeoning monarchy-republic debate: whether the institution is Canadian or British. Historically, Canada and the United Kingdom shared the same Crown. With the enactment of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, however, the Canadian and British Crowns became two distinct institutions, reflecting Canada’s evolution from a self-governing colony to an independent state.

Where does the person of the sovereign fit in all this? The Queen embodies the Crown; she is essentially the holder of the Crown as an office. For this reason, the sovereign is both the Queen of Canada and Queen of the United Kingdom. Although they are separate and distinct, she holds both offices and embodies both Crowns.

As the personification of Canadian Crown, then, the Queen formally sits atop the Canadian state. As long as Canada is a constitutional monarchy, defined by British constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor as “a state which is headed by a sovereign who reigns but does not rule,” there is no easy way to get around this arrangement.

The office of the governor general highlights the point. On the one hand, the governor general represents the Canadian Crown. Indeed, the office is the clearest manifestation of institution in the day-to-day affairs of government. On the other hand, the governor general is the representative of the sovereign. The governor general is formally appointed by a personal exercise of the Crown’s prerogative by the Queen, and the powers of the viceregal office are delegated by the monarch via an instrument known as letters patent.

In that sense, the sovereign always remains one level above the governor general at the formal summit of the Canadian state. Calling the governor general the “head of state” would merely mask this reality.

Perhaps Canadians no longer want the Queen or her successors as their head of state. But if that is the case, cosmetic measures will not suffice. The nature of the Canadian Crown, and thus Canada’s Constitution, must first be amended.

Philippe Lagassé is an assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

© Ottawa Citizen 2012

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