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C.E.S. Franks

Jules Léger, Governor General of Canada, 1974-1979: A Selection of His Writings on Canada by Jacques Monet s.j. (ed.), Montreal, Les Éditions La Presse, 1982, 237 p

Of all the parts of our constitution, the Crown is the least written about and the least well-understood. The Crown exists in two worlds: the metaphysical world of constitutional law where it as sovereign summons and dissolves Parliaments, chooses Prime Ministers, issues orders and regulations, assents to legislation, whose servants cabinet ministers are in theory the most powerful post in the country and the real world of the Governor General, sequestered in Rideau Hall, doing the government's bidding, and performing a narrow, dignified, ceremonial role as head of state.

Jules Léger, Governor General from 1974 to 1979, was the fourth Canadian appointed to the post. This book includes excerpts from his speeches and an extended essay he wrote after leaving the post reflecting on the position. and his experiences as incumbent. As he is the only recent Governor General to have written extensively about the position, the book is a unique and valuable addition to knowledge about Canadian government.

The introductory essay by Jacques Monet gives a succinct description of the position, and of Jules Léger's background and distinguished career in the public service and diplomatic corps. Like many outstanding Canadians his background was modest his father was a shopkeeper in rural Quebec but he rose to the highest position in the country. Here, perhaps, is an answer to one of the paradoxes of Canadian politics: our parliamentary system is derived from a British original based on an established monarchy and nobility in a stratified and deferential society, but Canadian politics and society place little significance on rank or title. Jules Léger was immensely able. He had inner resources of dignity and humanity, and he knew and loved the variety, strengths and quiddities of Canada. He was a natural, not a hereditary, aristocrat, whose abilities were recognized even in a country whose egalitarianism often extends to the point of willfully denying greatness in living citizens. This book is testimony to the qualities he brought to the office of head of state in Canada.

Many of the excerpts from Jules Léger's speeches in this book are written in the exalted, hortatory, style of secular proselytizing appropriate to the office of Governor General: they express a vision of national unity, progress, diversity. and quality. They reflect what he believed and stood for. and offer a sense of the excellence possible that is often lacking in our politics. They are splendid examples of this kind of stately writing in both French and English and could be quoted with profit on public occasions. One speech, on "The Decisive Influence of the Press. is written in a less lofty style. I found it an interesting and perceptive discussion of an important and not well understood aspect of modern politics.

The third section, Jules Léger s reflections on the position and his tenure. is useful: we learn that he deliberated before dissolving Parliament in 1974.. we learn a little about his meetings as Governor General on a regular basis with the Prime Minister and less frequently with other politicians including the Leader of the Opposition: and we learn some of the details of his duties and the limits of his autonomy. He proposes a longer term, eight years. for a Governor General, and makes a good case for the value of state visits abroad by the Governor General, as opposed to visits by politicians. He also suggests that the Governor General might become chairman of a revamped Senate, and might preside over meetings of the Privy Council when Orders-in-Council are actually signed. Neither of these changes is likely to happen. The Governor General is part of the dignified, not the efficient. side of our constitution structure, and whatever his private role is. his public role will be ceremonial.

Jules Léger's reflections are extremely discreet. I wish they had more flesh and blood. One can hope that someday a Governor General will be as indiscreet a diarist as Mackenzie King was as Prime Minister. In the meantime. this is as close to an insider's portrait of the position as we are likely to get.

The stroke that Governor General Léger suffered early in his term obviously limited what he could make of the position. The speeches in this book came largely from his first few months in office. the reflections from after its conclusion. They are the best writing we have from. and about. the position. The French and English texts are of comparable quality except for his reflections on the office, where I found the French version preferable.

C.E.S. Franks, Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, Queen s University,Kingston

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Vol 6 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-09-14