Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

From Britain’s shore/ Wolfe the dauntless hero came: He also planted firm Britannia’s Crown and sceptre
From Britain’s shore/ Wolfe the dauntless hero came: He also planted firm Britannia’s Crown and sceptre

William Johnson

In Quebec, the Queen is still Wolfe in sheep's clothing Add to ...

The difference is arresting. David Johnston's appointment as Governor-General was greeted across Canada by an effusion of congratulatory editorials, columns and blogs. But not in Quebec.

All major English-language dailies ran several news stories, columns and at least one editorial last week discussing Mr. Johnston, his qualifications, his remarkable family and the process undertaken by a search committee that led to his selection. Major French-language dailies each carried a single news story, usually on an inside page. But not a single editorial commented on the appointment, and not one columnist devoted a full column to exploring its significance.

On Sunday, Le Journal de Montréal's Richard Martineau did raise the subject in the top third of his column. But it was to contrast Mr. Johnston, a consistent federalist, with the couple now ending their tenure at Rideau Hall. Mr. Martineau, an avowed separatist, attacked Jean-Daniel Lafond and Michaëlle Jean twice in a week for having supposedly spoken favourably in the past about Quebec independence, then turning around and denouncing separatism. But Mr. Johnston himself was of little interest to Mr. Martineau and the tribe of political commentators.

This different treatment in Canada's two official languages was not incidental. It reveals one of Canada's fault lines.

In English Canada, the role of governor-general, despite its ambiguities, has assumed increasing significance over the decades. In constitutional theory, the governor-general is merely a stand-in for the absent Queen. In reality, though, under the tenure of Adrienne Clarkson and Ms. Jean, the governor-general has increasingly been perceived as personalizing the country. When Ms. Jean met a rapturous reception in Haiti or Africa, all Canadians felt proud; but the enthusiasm she elicited was not intended for the official "Queen of Canada" but for this vibrant and gracious woman seen as the embodiment of Canada.

Not in Quebec, however. A different sensibility still perceives the governor-general as the lieutenant of the monarch, and the British monarchy as the continuing legacy of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

English-speaking Canadians can sing with pride, "In days of yore,/ From Britain's shore/ Wolfe the dauntless hero came/ And planted firm Britannia's flag/ On Canada's fair domain." In Quebec's sensibility, Britannia's flag wasn't just planted firm, it was planted bloody, by relentless bombardment and a country set afire. Je me souviens.

Wolfe also planted firm Britannia's Crown and sceptre. Elizabeth II is, in reality, Wolfe in sheep's clothing, diadem and all. And Britannia's Crown is with us still, a vestige of colonialism.

In Asia and Africa, all former colonies of the British Empire repudiated the British Crown. Only the majority white former British colonies retained the reflected glimmer of a borrowed absentee Crown. Canada conferred a purely nominal Canadian citizenship on Britannia's Crown. After experiencing colonialism soft, we cling to the foreign Queen's transoceanic train.

In Quebec, you find no such sentimentality for a relic of empire. The governor-general, as stand-in for the Queen, is an embarrassment. Nothing can be done about it, so silence is the appropriate comment.

For federalists, though, Mr. Johnston could be called on to play a significant constitutional role. Recent federal leaders such as Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion each implied that Quebec might be allowed to secede even if it contravened the Constitution. Their groundless reassurances aimed to placate the multitude in Quebec who consider unilateral secession a right.

But the 1982 Constitution Act makes clear that no prime minister, or even Parliament, can legally assent to secession except under the conditions laid down by the Supreme Court in its reply to the reference on Quebec's secession. Every single citizen of Canada has recourse against illegal secession, as Section 24 of the Charter of Rights makes clear: "Anyone whose rights or freedoms, as guaranteed by this Charter, have been infringed or denied may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances."

David Johnston, or some future governor-general, could some day overrule a prime minister complicit in illegal secession by refusing to put his or her signature to an unconstitutional document of surrender.

William Johnson is an author and a former president of Alliance Quebec.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular