The Governor General is currently appointed by the Crown on the advice of the prime minister. The selection and appointment process has evolved considerably since Confederation.
Early in Canada’s history, the Canadian executive had little influence on the appointment. As Canada asserted its independence, it gained more influence over the process. In recent years, some prime ministers have relied on advisory groups for advice.
This HillNote discusses the evolution of the selection and appointment process for Canadian governors general and compares the various advisory groups that have been struck over the years.
The Selection and Appointment Process Since Confederation
Early in Canada’s history, the appointment of the Governor General was made by the Crown on the advice of the British colonial secretary, with the approval of the British prime minister.
According to media sources, in 1890, an arrangement was made whereby the Canadian Cabinet would be consulted as part of the process. However, this consultation process was not always followed.
Governors general were British, and included members of the British royal family, nobility and retired senior military officers. The incoming Governor General received a shipside welcome upon arrival to Canada, and the installation ceremony was held at the port of disembarkation rather than in Ottawa.
Shortly after the King-Byng Affair, the 1926 Imperial Conference took place in London. The prime ministers of British dominions met to clarify their countries’ relationship with Great Britain.
The Balfour Report, which came out of the Committee on Inter-Imperial Relations at the Imperial Conference, declared that Canada was equal in status to Britain and other Commonwealth dominions. It also recognized that the Governor General was no longer a representative or agent of the British government, but rather of the Crown.
The procedure for the appointment of the Governor General was clarified at the 1930 Imperial Conference. According to the Summary of Proceedings, it was decided that the Commonwealth ministers would “[…]tender their formal advice after informal consultation with His Majesty.” Thus, the current procedure where the Crown appoints the Governor General on the advice of Cabinet was settled.
Although the prime minister became responsible for advising the Crown, the prime minister sometimes consulted other party leaders before making their recommendation. For example, in 1935, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett consulted Opposition Leader William Lyon Mackenzie King before recommending the appointment of Lord Tweedsmuir.
Source: Library and Archives Canada
Description: Newly elected Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King reading an address in the Senate of the Legislative Assembly of Québec at the installation ceremony of Lord Tweedsmuir as Governor General.
First Canadian-born Governor General
In 1952, Vincent Massey became the first Canadian-born Governor General. The appointment, made on the advice of Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent, marked an incremental step towards independence from the United Kingdom. Since Massey’s appointment, all subsequent governors general have been Canadian citizens.
In a letter released to the media after the announcement of the appointment, St-Laurent stated, “[i]t seems to me no one of the King’s subjects, wherever he resides, should be considered unworthy to represent the King provided he has the personal qualifications and a position in the community which are consonant with the dignity and responsibility of that office.” He also mentioned that at the time, Canada was the only Commonwealth nation other than Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in which the King had never been represented by a local subject.
While media sources speculated that a Canadian was chosen because no members of the royal family were available, Massey had served as Canada’s first High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and the choice was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Source: National Film Board of Canada / Library and Archives Canada
Description: Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent reading an address in the Senate of Canada at the installation ceremony of the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey as Governor General.
Governor General Consultation Committee
For most of Canadian history, no advisory groups were struck to assist the prime minister in the selection of an individual for the position of Governor General.
However, in 2010, with Michaëlle Jean approaching the end of her tenure as Governor General, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed an ad hoc Governor General Consultation Committee to advise on the appointment of the next Governor General.
The Committee was asked to consider one key question in providing their suggestions: “Will the next Governor General be able to serve without partisanship and according to the Constitutional role he/she will be given?”
The Committee was composed of six members:
- Sheila-Marie Cook, Secretary and Deputy to the Governor General (chair)
- Rainer Knopff, Professor of Political Science, University of Calgary
- Kevin MacLeod, Usher of the Black Rod, Senate of Canada
- Christopher Manfredi, Dean of Arts, McGill University
- Christopher McCreery, Private Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia
- Jacques Monet, Director, Canadian Institute of Jesuit Studies
The selection process resulted in the appointment of the Rt. Hon. David Johnston on 8 July 2010.
Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments
In 2012, with several years remaining in Johnston’s mandate, Prime Minister Harper established the Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments.
The mandate of this Committee was broader than the 2010 Committee. The Committee would provide non-binding recommendations to the prime minister on not only Governor General appointments, but also Lieutenant Governor and territorial commissioner appointments.
The Committee was composed of five members, some of whom had served on the 2010 Committee:
- Kevin MacLeod, Usher of the Black Rod and Canadian Secretary to the Queen, a new position created at the same time as the announcement of the Committee (ex officio chair)
- two permanent federal members
- Robert Watt, citizenship judge and former Chief Herald of Canada
- Jacques Monet, Director of the Canadian Institute of Jesuit Studies
- two temporary regional members each time a lieutenant governor or territorial commissioner needed to be replaced
Following the 42nd general election, the Committee became dormant.
Advisory Group on the Selection of the Next Governor General
On 12 March 2021, following the resignation of the Rt. Hon. Julie Payette, the government announced the creation of the Advisory Group on the Selection of the Next Governor General.
Like the 2010 Committee, the Group was an ad hoc body intended to identify candidates to fill a specific vacancy.
While the membership of the 2010 Consultation Committee and the 2012 Advisory Committee primarily included individuals with links to or an interest in the office of the Governor General, the 2021 Advisory Group identified members “selected for the diverse perspectives they bring to the work.”
The Group consisted of six members:
- Hon. Dominic LeBlanc, President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs (co-chair)
- Janice Charette, Interim Clerk of the Privy Council (co-chair)
- Daniel Jutras, rector, Université de Montréal
- Judith LaRocque, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of Nature and former Secretary to the Governor General
- Natan Obed, President, Inuit Tapariit Kanatami
- Suromitra Sanatani, Interim Chair, Board of Directors of Canada Post
The 2021 Advisory Group also marked the first time that a representative from Cabinet, Minister LeBlanc, was included in the membership of an advisory group.
There is not yet enough evidence to conclude that the use of advisory groups contributes to more diverse appointments. There have been four female governors general in Canadian history and two women of colour. Those appointments were all the result of selection processes that did not use any formal advisory groups.
Author: Stephanie Feldman, Library of Parliament
Categories: Government, Parliament and politics