Just as things are settling down in the United States, they seem to be spinning out of control here in Canada.

Days after incoming President Joe Biden announced he would cancel the presidential permit for Keystone XL, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney whipped himself into a spiral of anger and recrimination that had him calling for the federal government to start a trade war with the U.S. Then came a damning report about Governor General Julie Payette and her treatment of staff. That forced Payette, the 29th Governor General of Canada, to resign from her office on Jan. 21, making her the first Governor General to resign in scandal and the first since the 19th century not to serve out her term.

The decision by the Trudeau government to bypass the system that its predecessor set up for selecting governors general and lieutenant governors and instead pick Payette, a celebrated astronaut with a seemingly endless array of skills and accomplishments, looks bad in retrospect. It’s of a piece with the Trudeau government’s apparent willingness to prioritize optics over operations, one that has already tripped it up any number of times.

And while it’s unlikely this issue will actually register with many Canadians, since the role of the Governor General is about as well and widely understood as the role of our own gall bladders, Trudeau needs to think about more than finding someone new who won’t embarrass us.

Instead, he should focus on doing something about the growing rift between the west and the rest of the country, one that Kenney is actively trying to exploit and expand. How? By appointing someone from the west to fill the role.

There are any number of intriguing possibilities here, from former chief justice Beverley McLachlin (Pincher Creek, Alta.) to musician k.d. lang (Consort, Alta.) or Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde (Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask.), who has announced he won't seek re-election to his post this summer. Even Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Liberal and now Independent member of Parliament for Vancouver-Granville, would be an interesting choice for the role.

But one name stands out above the rest: the Right Honourable Joe Clark, Canada’s 16th prime minister.

For one thing, Clark is already intimately familiar with the machinations and inner workings of Ottawa, not to mention the impact that a Trudeau government in Ottawa can have on people in Alberta and Saskatchewan. And now that Donald Trump is riding off into the Florida sunset, Canada’s biggest challenges will almost certainly come from within — especially if Kenney continues to inflame anti-Ottawa sentiment. While Clark is 81 years old, he may have one last political fight left in him — especially if it’s for the long-term integrity of the country. That he would end up as both the youngest prime minister in Canadian history and one of the older governors general has a certain symmetry to it.

The Trudeau government has delivered some policies that have benefited Alberta, whether it’s buying the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline, supporting LNG Canada, or investing nearly $2 billion in the reclamation of old oil and gas wells. But it has failed to match those decisions with a dialogue that hears out the frustrations Albertans feel about Confederation. That’s been particularly true since the 2019 election, when all of the party’s Alberta MPs were defeated.

On the other hand, the volume of rhetoric coming from Edmonton has only been going up, as Kenney and his various lieutenants attack the federal government for everything from equalization to climate change. And the more Kenney fails, whether it’s his $1.5-billion investment in Keystone XL or the billion-dollar job-creation tax cut that hasn’t created any net new jobs, the more he’s going to blame Ottawa.

While Kenney is wrong to weaponize the anger many Albertans feel right now, it comes from a place that’s worth acknowledging. For years, they paid far more in federal taxes — well over $200 billion more over the last decade — than they received in federal programs and services. This wasn’t deliberate or intentional, of course, and they weren’t earning more than people in the rest of the country because they wanted to pay more in federal taxes. But Alberta’s prosperity helped support the budgets of provinces like Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia while directly employing thousands of their people.

Canada's next #governorgeneral must be from the west to help staunch Western alienation. @maxfawcett makes a case for former PM Joe Clark for @NatObserver

Now, as the global economy has shifted towards lower-carbon sources of energy, Alberta finds itself on its heels — and feeling inadequately supported by the country that it helped backstop for years. Pouring gasoline on that sense of alienation for political purposes is a reckless and dangerous thing. But so, too, is ignoring it or discounting its relevance.

Clark, as Canada’s next Governor General, might be able to bridge this divide between west and east, and stop the country from splitting wide open. He understands, better than anyone from the east, the relationship between Alberta and Ottawa. Clark was around when Peter Lougheed fought back against policies enacted by the first Trudeau government. And he can surely empathize with those bristling under the ones implemented by the second Trudeau. More than anything else, Clark knows how to listen. In the end, that might be more important to Albertans than kind words from Ottawa about a pipeline project.

Justin Trudeau may balk at the idea of appointing a former Conservative leader to the job at Rideau Hall, and Clark may not want to help this particular Trudeau after being defeated by his father in 1980. But if public service is still Clark’s calling, as it clearly was for so many years, then he may not be able to say no. His province, and his country, clearly need him right now — maybe more than ever. And if a Trudeau and a Clark can work together on behalf of both Alberta and Canada, that could set an example the rest of us can follow.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
January 26, 2021, 02:28 pm

This article has been updated to clarify that Pierre Elliott Trudeau defeated Joe Clark in the 1980 election, not 1979.

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Shouldn’t the most important qualification for the next GG be who is most qualified to fill the role - not where they hail from? Or perhaps all this current discussion just confirms how truly meaningless the role is!

The person selected for the next Governor General most certainly be the best qualified. Applicants should be considered from all parts of the country. If by chance the committee is fortunate to have qualified people from different parts of the country, then the choice needs to come down to which one will be the best interest of Canada and it may well be a choice of having a GG from the west. The last three as an example came from Quebec and Ontario. I do not recall anyone from the West being the GG.

Ed Schreyer (#22), Ray Hnatyshyn (#24) come to mind.

Along with the already-noted Ed Schreyer (Manitoba) and Ray Hnatyshyn (Saskatchewan), Roland Michener (#20) was born and raised in Alberta.

Your idea is very good, but if you listen to most Canadians the best choice is none. Very few see a use in this position.
In any event that will not happen and we need the return of the commission like harper setup, but this time with requirements that the recommendations be used.
If you are looking for another western name you may also want to consider Ralph Goodall..
It still doesn't sit well with many that the Queen is the legal head of our country.

I dunno. Outside of maybe Quebec, the Queen is actually pretty popular.
More to the point, whether Canadians SEE a use for the position or not has little to do with whether the position is useful. It is possible something else might be better than the GG position at doing what the (GG + Queen) do, or that the GG position would work better if it were not appointed by the prime minister, but it does have an important function which is surprisingly fundamental to the nature of our system of government.

To me, the fundamental point of the Governor General, and the Queen, is that they enable the concept of the Loyal Opposition. The Queen and Governor General are the head of state, which means the Prime Minister is not. As symbolic, but not functional, heads of state, they sort of symbolize the country as a whole--the government, including the prime minister, is loyal to the Queen, and through her to Canada. But the important point is, the opposition is also loyal to the Queen, and through her to Canada.
Because there is a head of state "above" the government of the day, loyalty to the COUNTRY cannot be equated to loyalty to the GOVERNMENT. So the opposition can oppose the prime minister but still be loyal to Canada. In the United States it is much easier to characterize disloyalty to the President as disloyalty to the country, because he is the executive AND the head of state. There was a lot of that during the Bush era.

So I think we should take care before deciding to dump either the monarchy or the Governor General; if we were not careful, we could seriously erode our democracy.

(There is also a secondary, and I think also important, symbolic role for the GG and Queen: Simply making us less like the United States)

Chuck will shortly be the next head, nobody wants Chuck

I am very disappointed that Mr Fawcett, in what otherwise is a reasonable article, does not seem to have done his research on the equalization payments.

Here’s the thing Canada, get out your atlas, the west is British Columbia Not Alberta. In fact BC has a higher population now and is where everyone wants to retire. Most people from the wes, the real west do not fall in with the whining of provinces in MID CANADA who have given away their resources to other countries, ruined their environment and now continue to hang onto a dying industry. The real west has a coastline which is under threat from the spectacularly ridiculous plan to store diluted bitumen from a pipeline in tanks placed in a residential neighborhood near a university, until it can be shipped under a bridge, through the largest city in BC, under another bridge, to a windy, stormy, rocky coastline, where there is NO real infrastructure to handle accidents. And to get shipped to?? Where?? China doesn’t want it and the USA has its own, the ships are only half full but they will take it off our hands if it’s CHEAP. Rebuilding this 60 yr. old pipe to the west coast has its own problems, including the unlawful taking over of those unceeded territories we now want. The WEST? get out your dam maps and DO NOT include us with the wishes of mid Canada, Ottawa or the east. Grrrr, cheerio from Salt Spring island

As an Albertan for the last 17 years, I agree with you.

I can go along with Joe Clark as GG. But he is as toxic to Alberta conservatives as Jeff Flake is to US Republicans!

Sorry, this Canadian doesn't know anything about Mr Flake. Do you have an analogy closer to hone?

Sorry, this Canadian doesn't know anything about Mr Flake. Do you have an analogy closer to home?


I agree with Susan from Salt Spring. Mr. Fawcett overlooks the fact that Alberta is responsible for its own misfortune. The last leader that dared to tell the truth (Jim Prentice) was quickly fired. Appointing Joe Clark, as excellent an individual as he is, would be like waving a red flag at Albertans.

Your hyperbolic characterisation of things spinning out of control in Canada over the GG issue and the expected pipeline cancellation stokes unnecessary division and distrust in Canada. The PM has done an excellent job managing the pandemic response contrary to the hype from the Fascist Conservatives.

How about Murray Sinclair, or Sheila Watt-Cloutier?

I just started a subscription and am reconsidering my decision after realizing some/all? authors in this publication repeatedly use the term ‘the west’ to describe Alberta.

Please, in this time of heightened friction, don’t give more weight to anger. Words are important.


Rather than having a politician in this role, could we be bolder and invite David Suzuki? In paying homage to the man best known for inspiring so many about the wonder of nature, of our very environment, Prime Minister Trudeau would find more support for innovative green sector training, for development, and major investment in industries that benefit all provinces. Providing education and jobs in new fields offers balance to increasingly unpopular toxic industries and this would surely resonate with President Biden, who already is reversing anti-environmental legislation.
Suzuki and his Japanese-Canadian family suffered our internment camps during World War II, so clearly he has experienced racism, but he overcame that, and became a great role model for all, including First Nations communities across the country. As G.G., he would generate optimism about our shared future by sparking awareness that each one of us has something to contribute, no matter our circumstances, no matter our background. He can help our youth transition out of this bleak covid-dominated year into one where their renewed energy and passion, constructively directed, can become the groundwork for discovery.
With Suzuki as Governor General, the role would regain the value it can impart, that it should impart - encouragement of service and diplomacy.

Having seen a recent edition of The Nature of Things, where Suzuki examines his mortality (while building a tree house for a grandson), I doubt he would agree to exchange his current living conditions with a long term in cold Ottawa. Besides, he is such a free spirit that it would be a shame to see it constrained by the exigencies of office.

Your comment is about whether or not Mr. Suzuki would accept the invitation; it is his to turn down for whatever reason. He might appreciate the chance to reach many people in such a symbolic role.

Honestly, get out your Atlas. The West is British Columbia, not Alberta which is part of the middle of the country.
You know, the Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the West.
Stop lumping BC into Alberta when you say “the West”. You may have noticed that our politics alone set us a great deal apart.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
Albert Einstein

I harbour no contempt or dislike for the monarchy but I no longer see a role for the GG which is mostly ceremonial. We cant as a nation afford it and if optics drove the decision making process consider the Canadians being told to repay their their CERB when they applied in good faith weighed against Payette getting a $143K + 100K per year which violated any measure of decency and accountability entrusted to her post. Running a country on optics and platitudes eventually reveals a government without substance.

Repeats a hoary cliche about Alberta - Ontario makes transfers to the federal treasury yearly that are greater than the four provinces to the west of it, combined. So while Alberta is important, let's not over inflate what it does. We all need to pivot our belief of who gives what.

I agree with comments here that the article leaves something to be desired. If they reflect the Canadian norm, then more’s the pity: the office of Governor General seems misunderstood by many, typically that it’s only symbolic or ceremonial and, therefore, unnecessary. The author might have cleared up those common misconceptions (while the office certainly is symbolic and ceremonial, it is also much more), but that omission is relatively minor compared to the commission of conceptual errors that risk demonstrating the old maxim that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’

The suggestions that appointment criteria could or should be based on the candidate’s partisan credentials —supposed, here, to somehow align former ProgCon PM Joe Clark with SoCon premier of Alberta Jason Kenney who, presumably, speak the same conservative language—is one of those things. Basing an appointment on personality traits—presumably affable Joe could or should be some kind of diplomatic foil to bad boy Kenney is another. Never mind the Bromantics. The position simply doesn’t entail diplomacy or politics, except temporarily in the most unlikely circumstances.

That’s not to say Joe wouldn’t make a good GG: he certainly knows how government works (Stephen Harper and Donald Trump illustrate what goes wrong when the constitutional integration of government is ignored or abused). Joe’s abreast with current political and diplomatic issues (in contrast to, say, former loyal opposition leader Stockwell Day or, again, Donald Trump) which are essential in one of the office’s most important tasks. Joe has also earned statesman stature and respect, not least because he has consistently eschewed partisan chauvinism or political grudges, and has defended high principle over rote partisanship. He even put principle over getting and keeping power, often at his own professional and personal expense including the loss of his minority government’s parliamentary confidence, then his party leadership even though, with two-thirds approval in review, he needn’t have put it to the test: in the end, he lost to Brian Mulroney. He also condemned Harper’s new conservative alliance while leading, for the second time, the ProgCon rump humbled by the Mulroney government’s almost complete drubbing at the poles—and again when Peter MacKay betrayed the old party and joined it to the HarperCon (coincidentally warning Canadians the new party was not really conservative). Perhaps most telling, cabinet minister Clark helped temper the impulsive political novice who’d mercilessly criticized him when he was party leader—often with stinging ridicule— up to and including the convention that crowned Mulroney instead. Finally, Clark gets the utmost respect from the current PM who, as a boy, was introduced to him as someone who deserved such, and by none other than Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s most revered PM, a father teaching his son a lesson that rote partisanship is always trumped by respect for a colleague in the common cause of patriotism. So what’s not to like?

Nothing, so far as Joe’s personality and professionalism are concerned: those aren’t really in question, but neither are they the questions needed to be asked relevant to the job or the broader understanding of the citizenry—which would probably be salutary for some elected politicians, too: recall PM Mulroney once referred to himself as the Head of State when, in fact, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, is our Head of State. No biggie, of course, but a pity that the gaff provoked yet another round of self-reinforcing misconceptions (that we have a “foreign” HoS, or that she and her eleven representatives in the Canadian federation are only symbolic, ceremonial, unnecessary, undemocratic, &c, &c.); instead, this particular opportunity to better educate citizens about their own county’s system of governance wasn’t taken, pretty much as usual.

The most important thing to know is governors’ offices are, like the Sovereign they represent, ideally nonpartisan and non-political and, in practice, the ideal is almost always realized. It’s a consistency that’s, compared with partisan politics, superficially perceived by critics as unnecessary pomp and an expensive bore— like the GG and Consort racking up huge airline bills looking high and higher over this vast nation for something. And waving the flag. Armchair constitutionalists tend to lump this typical complaint in with a jumble other gripes better classified as mangled notions of partisan politics. Actually, the office of our HoS is virtually never political (nor is the judiciary which curmudgeons also confuse with partisan politics, grumbling about “activist judges”—probably from watching too much American TV where appointing judges is a partisan blood-sport).

The primary task of the Sovereign (in practice, representative governors) is to ensure we have governments that can act at all times. Who makes laws and administers government is a matter of political partisanship properly left to popular elections. The governor recognizes government from among voters’ choices which, in a majority result, is easily done with no political bias. Who selects the Sovereign? We avail the rules of succession of the British Royal Family which has tried and true protocols for every possible circumstance—death, abdication, infertility, calamity, &c. —such that succession is instantaneous and fail-proof—and, for us, an assiduously non-political process that only rhymes with ‘elections.’

Popular elections don’t always yield a result from which a governing group of parliamentarians is easily discerned: with several parties elected, it’s sometimes, in a pluralistic or minority result, very difficult to decide which is best able to get bills passed (to “act...”) in a timely way (“...at all times”). Sometimes the governor must know something about the political environment in order to decide (is the nation in a state of war or dealing with a catastrophe?) yet remain as unpolitical as possible.

Parliamentary confidence is the handy tool relieving governors from making a potentially biased recognition of a government: if a “money-bill” fails to pass by a majority of parliamentary votes, the government falls; another group of MPs in the existing parliament may try to convince the governor it is committed to passing bills—something again requiring a certain amount of political discernment and currency on the governor’s part; failing that, the governor refers the matter back to voters. Fair enough, but even if political intervention is avoided in this way, most would acknowledge that understanding of the current political environment is an essential criterion for the job: Governors are plainly not rubber stamps or merely symbolic figureheads, they just look that way most of the time.

The emergency contingency is rarely, if ever, used. If a government can’t act and, for some reason, an alternative group of committed MPs can’t either (say, they were all kidnapped by aliens or some such thing), the Sovereign (or representatives) may appoint a cabinet in their stead and give Royal Ascent to needed action, even by fiat, until citizens are able to elect a new parliament—or the aliens bring the old ones back. It’s a temporary measure to guarantee we have a government that can act at all times (Royal Ascent is required in all case anyway and, as mentioned, it’s impossible the office can ever be empty, not even for an second). This exceptionally rare circumstance is tolerable in our democracy because it is a) constitutionally allowed, b) temporary for reasons all citizens can see and understand, and c)—germane to the question here—the Governor is suitable to the task. We hope such contingency never happens but, if it does, we’re constitutionally covered.

What’s the nub? What made Payette unsuitable is one question, the bigger one is: what went wrong with the appointing process that an unsuitable person was appointed? An answer acceptably reasonable to citizens has already been offered: PM Trudeau did not follow standard protocols which have stood the test of time—under these rules, it’s exceedingly rare a GG doesn’t finish his or her term. Details make Payette’s resignation a precedent the PM probably wishes was never set.

I can’t think of any reason to disqualify Joe Clark, but the question isn’t for me or any of you, my compatriots, because that would be a popular consensus —and that’s not what we want, remember?

But I do take exception to using political criteria for appointing to an ideally non-political, nonpartisan position. It’s not the governor’s job to negotiate national unity: that’s up to the Constitution and relevant governments approved by their respective electorates because such negotiations or activism is expressly political. The office of the governor is intentionally made to be as non-political as possible.

That’s different than appointing, say, a “visible minority” person because those kinds of appointments are, by necessity, unanimously approved as an application of Charter or Constitutional rights, that those rights be seen to be done by way of the person appointed: that any citizen can be appointed, irrespective of anything else but minimum age and an unblemished criminal record. It does not mean His Excellency Perry Bellegarde, hypothetically, rolls up his GG sleeves and gets to work negotiating reconciliatory matters between Canadian governments and Aboriginal nations; as GG he would appropriately defer to political and judicial processes, maybe tacitly approve they’re done constitutionally, but not more. A job that’s 99.9% ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ punctuated by exceptionally rare events can only be done with total impartiality if the governor is so him- or herself.

Finally: get rid of the governors? Seriously? I would recommend a quick review of rules governing Constitutional Amendment. And then get back to me. Meanwhile, we don’t have to worry about our HoS leading an attack on the Parliament to get her re-elected. The Capitol Riot in DC should remind us never to make our HoS an elected office.

Joe is of the 1970s a Red Tory, there is no such thing in Alberta anymore, dead as the dinosaurs, a fossil from a bygone era

Joe Clark's government in 1980 privatized Connaught Laboratories, famous for the discovery of insulin and for isolating the polio virus so that the polio vaccine could be developed. Connaught Laboratories could have developed Canada's Covid19 vaccine. I was angry when the sellout occurred and I am still angry.

How very ironic; thank you for bringing that to my/our attention.