Elizabeth Dowdeswell never imagined she would serve as Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor for almost 10 years – the longest in the province’s history. In fact, she was so sure she’d be relieved of her duties that her office commissioned her official portrait four years ago. It has sat in storage since then.
But on Tuesday, Ms. Dowdeswell’s portrait will finally find its use, when educator and franco-Ontarian Edith Dumont is installed as the new Lieutenant-Governor in the legislature. For the 79-year-old Ms. Dowdeswell, who serves as the King’s representative in Ontario, it will always be too soon.
“I am in absolute denial that on Tuesday I’ll walk out of here for the last time,” Ms. Dowdeswell said recently during an interview in her two-storey suite at Queen’s Park.
“I’m grateful, obviously. But on the other hand, there’s so much that can be done.”
Ms. Dowdeswell, a former public servant who also served as under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of the United Nations Environment Program in Kenya, was appointed in 2014 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper.
In the nine years since, Ms. Dowdeswell has used her platform to – in her words – amplify the voices of Ontarians, including women and First Nations peoples. While she is known for granting royal assent to Ontario’s laws, she says that’s only a small part of the role, calling herself the province’s “chief storyteller.”
She’s travelled to every riding, held 100 official city meetings and relayed her observations in regular conversations with the province’s political leadership – first with then-premier Kathleen Wynne and, for the past five years, Premier Doug Ford.
The lieutenant-governor typically serves a five-year term, at the pleasure of the prime minister, though under the law the position is open-ended. Ms. Dowdeswell has served almost double that typical amount of time.
One factor in her longer-than-normal time in the job, she believes, was the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Dowdeswell saw her role in that period as one of stability, tradition and continuity. She attended her suite at Queen’s Park daily – almost always by herself – and made about 200 phone calls to municipal, hospital and non-profit leaders.
“I would just phone and say, ‘So, how are you doing?’ And nobody ever asks leaders how they’re doing. They assume they’re invincible,” she said. “We call this place a safe space for conversation for a reason. The stories don’t go anywhere.”
She also met regularly with Mr. Ford, at least once a month, often for more than an hour each time.
“I’m one of the few people who can tell a leader what they’re hearing around the province, and I don’t need to tell him what others think he needs to know,” she said.
She calls the Premier “very genuine” – even as she admits she isn’t afforded an opinion about the government.
“I laughingly used to say that I had two angels on my shoulder that always reminded me that my job was to protect the dignity and integrity of the Crown. I took that very seriously because my life has been in public policy. And so the lesson I needed to learn was to keep my mouth shut. Very hard. Some days I’d just come in and shut the door,” she said.
“People often say to me, but don’t you disagree with his policies, or you know your earlier work on such and such. And that’s not the point. The point is that he’s always treated this office and me in particular with the greatest respect. And that’s all one can ask for.”
Last December, before the legislature rose for winter break, Ms. Dowdeswell spoke out about the need to protect democracy. Her comments led some in the chamber to pontificate that the Lieutenant-Governor was commenting on the Ford government’s agenda, including the use of the notwithstanding clause and giving mayors stronger powers. But Ms. Dowdeswell said her remarks, which she said were “off the cuff” and unscripted, were about world events, and not the government.
“Certainly I would never cross the line,” she said. “My comments were not directed at anyone. I mean people can choose to make of that what they want.”
Ms. Dowdeswell – who has no plans to fully retire but hasn’t decided what’s next – said she views democracy as helping people to understand their role within it.
“It’s not just about voting. And it’s not just about an election. I like to call it setting the ground rules for how we’re going to live together,” she said.
She recalled how helpful Canadians were when they took in Syrian families a few years ago, and how proud she was of her province.
“That’s why I get angry when I see incivility and disrespect, and I think it’s a slippery slope. And if we don’t catch that now and call it out, as it goes along, we’re going to become something that we are not and don’t want to be.”