On 21 January 2021, the Governor General, the Right Honourable Julie Payette announced her resignation. The resignation led to a relatively uncommon situation – the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, was appointed Administrator of the Government of Canada. He will fulfill the duties of Governor General until a successor takes office.
This HillNote provides an overview of the role of the Administrator. Based on former Chief Justice Laskin’s experience as Administrator in 1974, it illustrates the duties that an Administrator may perform and reviews the rules surrounding the appointment. It also compares Canada’s approach to that of other Commonwealth countries.
The Role of the Administrator
If the Governor General becomes unavailable to perform their duties, the powers of the office are temporarily conferred upon the Administrator of the Government of Canada. Several reasons may justify the appointment of an Administrator, including death, incapacity, absence from the country for more than 30 days or removal of the incumbent.
The Governor General is responsible for several important parliamentary and constitutional duties which, in their absence, are performed by the Administrator. These duties include:
- giving Royal Assent to bills as the last step of the legislative process;
- dissolving Parliament for a general election;
- calling together Parliament after a general election by way of a proclamation;
- choosing a Prime Minister to form government and seek the confidence of the House of Commons;
- opening each new session of Parliament by reading the Speech from the Throne;
- providing a recommendation for all spending measures initiated by the House of Commons; and
- appointing provincial Lieutenant Governors and various officers, including commissioners and diplomats.
The Rules Surrounding the Role of Administrator in Canada
The rules surrounding the role of the Administrator are established in the Letters Patent, 1947 issued by King George VI, which constituted the Office of the Governor General of Canada.
The Letters Patent provide that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada assumes the role of Administrator as needed. If the Chief Justice cannot assume the role, it falls to a senior judge of the Supreme Court. In addition, the Letters Patent allow both the Governor General and the Administrator to appoint a deputy or deputies to assist in the completion of their duties.
The Letters Patent, 1947 codified a practice that was already in use. Before that time, the monarch would appoint an Administrator on each separate occasion.
The provisions of the Letters Patent confirm that the appointment of the Chief Justice of Canada as Administrator is not automatic, as they must first take an oath. The delay between the vacancy of the position and the appointment of the Chief Justice can vary – in the case of Chief Justice Laskin, it took almost one month for his appointment, due in part to the election period at the time.
Chief Justice Wagner swore the oath of office on 23 January 2021, as confirmed in a statement by the Privy Council Office.
Administrators can also be designated to act on behalf of provincial Lieutenant Governors. Each province has a Lieutenant Governor who, like the Governor General, acts as the Crown’s representative. A Lieutenant Governor exercises similar constitutional powers as the Governor General, including reading the Speech from the Throne in the provincial legislature and granting Royal Assent to bills adopted by provincial legislatures.
If a lieutenant governor cannot act in their role, an order of the Governor in Council can designate a provincial Administrator. For example, in Ontario, the Chief Justice of Ontario and other judges of the courts of Ontario, in order of seniority, can act as the Administrator of the Government of Ontario.
The appointment of an Administrator ensures the continuity of the exercise of certain basic powers of government. Throughout Canadian history, there are several instances of an Administrator acting in the Governor General’s stead. Research into the historical archives does not always indicate the reason for the appointment of an Administrator, but incapacitation is a frequent justification. Appointing an Administrator has become a less frequent occurrence over time.
The example of Chief Justice Laskin’s tenure as Administrator of the Government of Canada illustrates the importance of this role and the wide-ranging duties that an Administrator may be called upon to perform.
Chief Justice Laskin’s Tenure as Administrator
On 8 June 1974, the Governor General, the Right Honourable Jules Léger suffered a stroke while attending an event at the Université de Sherbrooke. Pursuant to the Letters Patent, 1947, it fell upon Chief Justice Bora Laskin to act as Administrator during that time.
During his six-month role as Administrator, Chief Justice Laskin participated in events including:
- a six-day royal visit from the Queen Mother;
- the 30th federal general election;
- the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet;
- the opening of the 30th Parliament and the delivery of the Speech from the Throne;
- bearing witness to the appointment of the Speaker of the Senate;
- granting Royal Assent to a bill; and
- naming a deputy Administrator in accordance with the Letters Patent, 1947.
Administrators in Other Commonwealth Countries
Other Commonwealth countries have a similar constitutional structure to Canada’s, with a Governor General acting as the representative of the Crown. As in Canada, these countries have a process in place for the appointment of an Administrator if circumstances require it. The role and appointment process for administrators in other Commonwealth states is similar to that of the Government of Canada.
As in Canada, Letters Patent established the office of the Governor General of Australia and of New Zealand. These Letters Patent establish the authority of the Administrator in the absence of the Governor General.
Unlike in Canada, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the default Administrator, in Australia, convention dictates that the Administrator is usually the longest-serving state governor, a role comparable to the provincial Lieutenant Governors in Canada. In contrast, in New Zealand, similar to Canada, the Administrator is by default the Chief Justice of New Zealand, but can also be another senior judge.
Authors: Gabrielle de Billy Brown and Stephanie Feldman, Library of Parliament