Governor-General Michaëlle Jean does the symbolic part of a job that is heavily about symbolism quite well. Unfortunately, she has not yet been able to master the other part of the job: her duties as "constitutional fire extinguisher."
Ms. Jean was not an obvious choice to become governor-general and commander-in-chief of Canada. She was on no one's list of likely candidates for the job. A minor CBC personality, she was little known outside Quebec, and knew little of the country outside Quebec. She was chosen on a whim, after an aide suggested her name to prime minister Paul Martin, who seized upon the idea, thinking she would project a new face for Canada at home and in the world, and probably hoping the appointment would reflect well on him. In other words, her appointment was a marketing gambit.
Mr. Martin apparently saw the office only for its important symbolic value, which after all is most of what a governor-general does. But it is not all about ceremony. The governor-general also plays a vital role in Canada's system of government, a role scholar Frank MacKinnon termed "constitutional fire extinguisher." As the Queen's representative, ultimate constitutional authority is vested in her, and if the Constitution is violated, she has residual powers to act. Consequently, like the monarch, she must remain aloof from politics. She cannot be seen to be partisan. She must not invite controversy or sow division.
In many respects, Ms. Jean has been a real success story. She exudes star power, is highly empathetic and has a remarkable personal narrative, which she openly and frequently shares. After some initial skepticism largely concerned with Mr. Martin's motives, and concerns about her time spent in separatist salons in Quebec, Canadians have correctly embraced her. But Ms. Jean has not yet fully embraced her job, and therefore them.
Her tenure has been dogged by a series of minor controversies, clarifications and retractions, from her claim that Quebeckers "are sometimes very disconnected from the rest of Canada," which caused an uproar in that province and was hurriedly retracted, to her unusual state dinner for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, where she left the impression that she had some differences with the federal government over Afghanistan. Then there was her speech declaring "it is now more than ever that we must answer the cries of vulnerable groups seeking full access to justice" -- the same day the NDP renewed attacks on the government for its decision to withdraw funding for the court challenges program.
There are also the more run-of-the-mill controversies, such as her inexplicable absence from the swearing-in of new cabinet ministers, and the bizarre decision to permit a Rideau Hall decorator to give an interview in which she offended our head of state and our heritage.
None of these is a fatal mistake, but they cause cumulative damage, and every one could have been avoided with a competent staff and a Governor-General determined to learn her role. Where are today's Esmond Butlers or Frederick Perieras, the legendary Rideau Hall courtiers, who could help guide Ms. Jean? Unfortunately, they are not employed at Rideau Hall. Were it otherwise, it would be easy for the radiant Ms. Jean. The Conservative government is more supportive of the institution she represents than any has been for many years. It is her responsibility, and that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government, to make the necessary changes.