The federal government has kicked off its efforts to choose a new governor general to succeed Julie Payette, who resigned in the face of allegations she created a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall.
The long delay in appointing Payette’s replacement illustrates how difficult it is to fill the job. Whoever is ultimately selected by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must represent Canada’s past, especially its linkage to a monarchy that’s currently in a state of crisis following recent allegations by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. But the new governor general must also exemplify its future.
Even more importantly, the individual must grasp Canada’s difficult and in some ways accidental road to nationhood.
In rejecting the siren call of the War of Independence in 1776, the northern colonies that became Canada cemented their allegiance to the British Crown.
Over the next century, the British offered protection against the expansion of the United States. Even after Confederation in 1867, the interests of the British Empire guided Canada’s foreign policy for decades.
The political culture and traditions inherited from Britain — a parliamentary system of government (House of Commons and Senate), common law, a strong degree of conservatism and emphasis on collective responsibility — have shaped contemporary Canada.
The very position of governor general, inherited from Great Britain when Canada was but a collection of independent colonies, is one of the features that differentiates Canada from other large countries settled by European powers in the Americas.
Although Canadians rejected the allure of republicanism, politicians over the centuries have felt free to borrow from their American counterparts. Canada pirated federalism (strong regional governments, namely provinces) and a reliance on a written constitution, with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ emphasis on individual rights.
At the same time, the U.S. has been useful as a model of what to avoid: a presidential system of government, slavery, an aversion to gun control and too great a reliance on the free market.
The defeat of France by Britain that resulted in Québec becoming an English colony is a defining event in Canadian history. However, the decision by the victors to guarantee the French their traditional rights and customs, and the political means to protect their culture, was just as important to Canada’s future.
This approach resulted in bilingualism and biculturalism, ultimately becoming multiculturalism, and it distinguishes Canada from many other nations.
But Québec has had historical grievances against the rest of Canada, leading to the 1995 sovereignty referendum that came within a few thousand votes of tearing Canada apart.
Québec separatism, even when in decline as it appears to be now, is an existential threat that surely features prominently in the darkest nightmares of every prime minister — and the governor general.
Life for Indigenous people in what is now called North America has drastically changed since settlers appeared and did everything in their power to wipe them out, including with longstanding colonial policies like residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop and numerous cases of land dispossession in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Starting in the 1970s, court decisions, changes in federal government policy and determined efforts by First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and individuals have slowly enlarged the political influence of Indigenous Peoples.
Defining events included Indigenous activist Elijah Harper’s opposition to the Meech Lake Accord in Manitoba, and the Oka crisis, a 78-day standoff over the proposed expansion of a golf course and development of townhouses on a Mohawk burial ground in Québec.
More recently, federal government policy has shifted toward reconciliation with Indigenous people, exemplified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Although most policy is largely symbolic, such as land acknowledgements, efforts are being made to improve the living conditions in many First Nations communities. The federal government, while missing the March 2021 goal of ending drinking water advisories that last more than a year, has made a dent in providing some communities with safe drinking water.
Yet Indigenous people make up only a small strand in national politics, culture and power structures. Only in Nunavut, with a population of 40,000, do Inuit comprise a majority that allows them to enact laws to protect, sustain and advance their culture and interests.
The new governor general will have to fuse the British, French, American and Indigenous elements of Canada that together are at the core of the country. It is not an easy job, especially given the position is mostly ceremonial and one that not all Canadians see as even necessary.
This article appears in The Conversation.