It’s one of the most important jobs in Ontario — but few people understand it

By Steve Paikin - Published on February 6, 2019
Elizabeth Dowdeswell and David Onley
Current lieutenant-governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell and former lieutenant-governor David C. Onley at Ryerson University on Tuesday. (Steve Paikin)

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Imagine living for more than five decades with everyone calling you by your first name — then, suddenly, everyone starts calling you “Your Honour” because you’ve just been appointed Ontario’s lieutenant-governor.

David C. Onley and Elizabeth Dowdeswell don’t have to imagine this scenario, because they’ve both lived it, as this province’s 28th and 29th lieutenant-governors.

And what’s it like to no longer be called “Your Honour” after having enjoyed the privilege for more than seven years, as Onley did?

“Oh, the family still does,” he quips.

The current and past representatives of Queen Elizabeth II participated in a special town hall at Ryerson University on Tuesday. The discussion, organized by Toronto Star politics columnist Martin Regg Cohn, was part of a look at what makes our democracy tick.

Onley and Dowdeswell both agreed that we have a significant problem in Ontario: few people seem to know what lieutenant-governors are allowed to do — and, perhaps more important, what they aren’t allowed to do.

By tradition and convention, lieutenant-governors are not supposed to divulge any details of the private conversations they’ve had with the premiers who’ve led governments on their watch. That can make it difficult for them to help more people understand their role in our democratic system.

But even though Onley and Dowdeswell were limited in what they were permitted to say on Tuesday, it was worth attending the event just to hear how they see the job.

“I think the lieutenant-governor is responsible for the hearts and minds and souls of the citizens through encouraging and inciting better behaviour,” Dowdeswell said. In fact, the mere presence of a lieutenant-governor, past or present, at any event does tend to ratchet up levels of civility. And some of us think that’s a good thing.

“One thing the lieutenant-governor can do is model dignity and civility,” Dowdeswell says. “She can remind people there are pillars of democracy that are important. The lieutenant-governor can do so much more than simply follow constitutional obligations.”

Dowdeswell added, without betraying any confidences, that the lieutenant-governor also has the “right to be informed, advise, and warn. But it’s all done in confidence — and you can be sure that it’s done.”

You can bet the audience wanted to know more about which premier Dowdeswell had issued warnings to and about what, but of course, none of that was forthcoming: she can keep a secret all too well.

Even Onley, who left the office in 2014, refused to crack.

“Can you tell us some of what you advised former premiers to do?” Regg Cohn asked.

“No,” came Onley’s quick and firm reply. And that was that.

A protocol scandal of sorts did take place on Onley’s watch. Funnily enough, it happened on The Agenda, during an interview that yours truly was doing with then-premier Dalton McGuinty.

“Everything was going fine until I turned on TVO,” Onley said, only partly in jest.

The incident in question took place in 2012, after McGuinty had asked Onley to prorogue the legislature. Essentially, that’s a fancy term for an “MPPs’ time-out.” The house rises and business is suspended — usually because the government of the day wants either to lower the temperature of discussion in the house or to reboot its legislative agenda.

During our interview, I asked McGuinty whether Onley had inquired as to why the premier wanted to prorogue the house. (It’s the obligation of the premier to ask the lieutenant-governor to prorogue the legislature, and not once since 1867 has a Queen’s representative declined to accede to the request.)

McGuinty answered, “No.”

“Not one question?” I followed up.

“No,” McGuinty repeated, apparently trying to give the impression that there had been nothing unusual or extraordinary about his request.

By answering my question, McGuinty had evidently violated the protocol that such conversations with the Crown are supposed to be kept secret.

“He should have said, ‘Those conversations are strictly confidential,’” Onley told the audience on Tuesday. “As a result, I got hundreds of emails and letters from people asking how I could let him get away with this.”

A typical complaint, Onley says, would have gone something like: “You call McGuinty up and tell him to get over to your office right now and explain himself!”

“People were attributing all sorts of powers to me that I simply didn’t have,” Onley explained. “If I’d have done what they asked, we wouldn’t have a democracy.”

McGuinty’s call for prorogation angered and surprised many people. It had the makings of an attempt to avoid the noose — better known as a vote of non-confidence. In 2008, then-prime minister Stephen Harper tried the same thing: he asked Michaëlle Jean, the governor-general at the time, to prorogue Parliament. Jean made Harper cool his heels for a few hours while she considered the request, which gave the impression that she might not not grant it.

Onley said he and his advisers had already done the homework necessary to be ready for such a request from McGuinty, meaning they were able to accede to it immediately.

“I’m sure Mme. Jean wishes she’d done that before meeting with Stephen Harper,” Onley said.

The bigger shock came the day after the prorogation request, Onley says, when the premier announced that he was leaving politics altogether.

“You could have knocked us over with a feather after hearing that,” he confessed.

Both lieutenant-governors acknowledged that the public lacks an understanding of their powers and responsibilities — a problem that’s compounded by the fact that they’re not allowed to say much about what they do.

For example, the first throne speech by Doug Ford’s government contained no traditional acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples’ stewardship of the land, no sentences in French, and no mention of climate change — three things that had been important to Dowdeswell during her previous career (which included a stint as the UN under-secretary-general for the environment). But you won’t hear a peep of any criticism from her about those omissions. It’s just not permitted. Dowdeswell would only say, “That’s why it says on our website that the lieutenant-governor reads the government’s Speech from the Throne.” By clarifying her role, Dowdeswell seemed to be saying a lot without actually saying a lot.

Onley said that part of the job never disturbed him too much.

“I was a newsreader for eight years at City TV,” he reminded the audience. “I said lots of words in that job that other people put in my mouth.” (You can probably tell that former lieutenant-governors have more latitude to crack jokes.)

While Dowdeswell may not have the freedom to speak her mind in the way that other Ontarians do, she does enjoy what she calls “the power to convene” — meaning that, when she travels the province, she has the authority to bring people together to share their hopes and concerns with her.

“The lieutenant-governor can be apolitical and non-partisan,” she says. “But I can also ask questions. It’s hard for me because I’m a policy wonk, and I’m not allowed to have views. But I can get people to the table. I just can’t offer an opinion on what they should do.”

Onley and Dowdeswell both said that they wished they could get politicians to conduct their business with a bit more civility. Onley even invited the three major party leaders of his time — Kathleen Wynne, Tim Hudak, and Andrea Horwath — to dinner. Only Wynne showed up, and the effort was all for naught.

Onley confessed to having one major regret about his time as the Queen’s representative, a job that he took on just days before McGuinty called the 2007 election. He urged the leaders to stick to policy and avoid name-calling during the campaign. His advice was ignored.

“Apparently, [former prime minister] Kim Campbell was right,” Onley says. “Politicians don’t like talking policy during election campaigns.”

Ontario has had 29 lieutenant-governors, but Dowdeswell is just the third woman to hold the job. On Tuesday, however, she said that that’s something she rarely thinks about.

“It’s been drummed into me that I’m a position, not a person,” Dowdeswell explained. “If you don’t know what I mean, get Netflix and watch The Crown. It’s all there.”

Former Liberal MPP Sean Conway, who was in attendance at the town hall, pointed out that “75 per cent of the players in this game don’t know the rules” — referring to academics, the media, and even members of the legislature.

Conway also shared a story: at some point in the late 1970s, when Ontario’s first female lieutenant-governor, Pauline McGibbon, was away on business, she left (as protocol dictates) Chief Justice of Ontario Willard Estey to assume the role in her absence. When an inebriated Liberal backbencher saw Estey enter the chamber, Conway said, the MPP “struggled to his feet, looked at the chief justice and said, ‘Hippety-hop, hippety- hop — where’s the boss?’”

As fate would have it, and unbeknownst to Conway, that MPP’s grandson happened to be in the audience at Ryerson.

It was a perfectly odd exclamation point to an event that offered some wonderful insights into an important job — one that we all need to understand better.

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