A serious man for what once was a serious job

The last governor general I remember who seemed an appropriate choice for the position, and fully qualified in a reasonable sense, was Roland Michener. He served (1967-1974) in the shadow of Georges P. Vanier—who was truly a magnificent viceroy, in every sense, and a thrill to think back upon.

Michener, in office, was another thing. He was a bit of an innovator; he eliminated some of the fustian pomp that must necessarily attach to the office—the bowing and curtsying and dress formalities—though at least he continued to wear the “full Windsor” uniform of his office for state occasions.

He played at representing the Queen “in right of Canada” abroad: but no, the Queen is the Queen, in right of Canada. He indulged his hobbies with too visible enthusiasm, and bestowed awards for unworthy things, such as tuna-fishing, and journalism.

Nevertheless, he had the viceregal bearing, and the knowledge of Canada’s Parliament, history, and social institutions, that prepares a man for what can be in moments a sticky constitutional role.

His successor, Jules Léger, was the first “suit” in that office, if my reader can understand my insinuation; we needn’t review the whole history. Let the forgettable be forgotten.

And without being so invidious as to name names, I would say that each of the subsequent appointments—made by Her Majesty, but on the advice of her Canadian prime minister—was in some respect a little worse than his or her predecessor. That each had merits, I would not deny; but it is possible for a person to have merits without being installed at Rideau Hall.

On the question of the formalities mentioned above, I know perfectly well that many readers will mock them, often in an almost Pavlovian way. The question for them is: Who taught you to mock these civilized things?

Good manners, and at the apex of the state even grand manners, are unquestionably an expression of “homo ludens,” of man at play. But as those who have thought with some patience about the human condition have observed, the rules of such “games” are very important. They are the outward expression of a nation of laws not men; of men who serve offices and not vice versa. To behave informally, where formality is required, is to exhibit narcissism.

It should also be said that the office of the Canadian viceroy is an exemplary one. The uniform of the governor general was not only an outward symbol of monarchy (and therefore a reminder of our whole inheritance of British freedom). It was, too, the key to an order in which even the butcher wore a tie, under his apron, as the mark of his respect, including self-respect; in which the bus driver wore his cap and blazer; in which the housewife and mother dressed in vivid awareness of the tone she was setting for her own children, and for all children.

That Canada has passed away, not because it did not work but because it was methodically done in; and the trend since has been conspicuously towards barbarism.

On learning, this last week, that David Johnston is to be our next governor general, my first instinct was to congratulate Stephen Harper. The search committee he established under Kevin MacLeod (the Queen’s Canadian Secretary, and the Senate’s Usher of the Black Rod) worked from admirable criteria. According to reports, they were under instructions to avoid sports and entertainment stars, and the field was not restricted to visible minorities. Instead, the qualifications were to include authoritative knowledge of constitutional law, proven managerial abilities, a capacity for disinterested reasoning, and a cool, level head.

Those who know anything of the current president of the University of Waterloo, and former principal of McGill, have applauded the choice. Though I have never met him personally, I was aware of his accomplishments at Waterloo: in maintaining and even raising the academic standards of that institution at a time when they have been sinking almost everywhere else; in standing quietly but firmly against the tide of political correctness and student admission quotas based on race and sex.

That he is also a jogger, was once the captain of the Harvard hockey team, and the dorm mate of the sentimental novelist Erich Segal, we will let pass. No human being can be perfect. In compensation, I note he is old enough that all his degrees—from Harvard, Cambridge, and Queen’s alike—were obtained in the age before Western Civ descended into hippie squalor.

He is indeed a product of the old, and in the finest sense, “boring” Canada, which appreciated merit and did not appreciate rank outward display; and in which the notion of “public service” was easily distinguishable from “self-service.”

His task will be one of restoration. If he succeeds, his own successor will in turn be chosen among candidates truly qualified, and we may begin to forget the extended period of party bagmen and TV stars who have occupied our viceregal office. For all trends are reversible, and there was no reason to continue down that road.