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Governor-General Michaëlle Jean speaks to Domincan civil society groups in Santo Domingo on March 10, 2010. (Reuters)
Governor-General Michaëlle Jean speaks to Domincan civil society groups in Santo Domingo on March 10, 2010. (Reuters)

Globe Editorial

There is life after Rideau Hall Add to ...

With the confirmation by Michaëlle Jean, the Governor-General, that she has not been offered an extension and will be leaving Rideau Hall this year, it is time for the federal government to reconsider the habit of bestowing millions of dollars on "legacy" gifts for departing viceroys and their spouses. It is a conceit that has been applied unevenly, and which, regardless, cannot be justified as Ottawa seeks to reduce spending.

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There is no set term for governors-general, but it is usual for them to serve five years, and then sometimes to be offered an extension for a year or so. The decision not to extend Ms. Jean has excited parlour talk in Ottawa but is of little practical concern for Canadians, so long as there is a fitting replacement. The more immediate question is what - if any - continuing responsibility the government has for Ms. Jean and her husband once they vacate Rideau Hall, beyond her pension.

Ms. Jean, who is currently on an official visit to several African countries, was asked by a reporter in Senegal yesterday whether she might enter politics when she leaves office. Ms. Jean burst out laughing. It is not nearly as funny as it might seem. Another former governor-general, Edward Schreyer, did just that, but was fortunately defeated as an NDP candidate for Parliament.

There is always a concern that former governors-general will make mischief once they leave office, by writing tell-all memoirs, or using the public profile and goodwill they accrued while serving in a role meant to be above politics for controversial causes or political purposes. This is especially an issue for younger former governors-general; at 52, Ms. Jean will be the youngest since Mr. Schreyer (who was 49 when he left).

In the case of Mr. Schreyer, the federal government arranged a soft (and quiet) landing by immediately announcing his appointment as the country's high commissioner to Australia, which at least allowed for an interlude before he slowly began to resume his political involvement (Mr. Schreyer had previously been an NDP premier of Manitoba before his installation as governor-general). The more usual practice, however, is the curious gesture of making the gift of millions of dollars to establish a foundation under their direction, thereby ensuring, to quote a news release issued by the office of former prime minister Paul Martin, that "they may continue to contribute to Canadian society in relation to the themes they pursued while in office."

The Jeanne Sauvé Youth Foundation was established in part with a federal gift of $5-million. Ramon Hnatyshyn was treated less generously, his Hnatyshyn Foundation for the Arts was given $2.5-million in matching funds. Adrienne Clarkson's legacy organization, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, was started with an initial grant of $3-million, with a promise of matching funds up to $7-million over a 10-year period. It would be unfair to call any of them entirely a vanity project, but they are hardly indispensable.

Such grants represent the ultimate public-sector send-off, and it's time to end the practice. The legacy of Michaëlle Jean would be best served by the Schreyer model. Throughout her term, the federal government has made extensive use of Ms. Jean as a goodwill ambassador abroad, and could find some ongoing role for her, perhaps using its influence with an international humanitarian agency such as UNESCO. Barring that, there is always another option: a return to work as a broadcast journalist.

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