Governor General

Canada is a constitutional monarchy. As such, the governor general acts as the Crown’s representative, carrying out the tasks of the monarch — currently Elizabeth II — on Canadian soil. The governor general has extensive ceremonial duties, but also fulfills an important role in upholding the traditions of Parliament and other democratic institutions.

Governor General David Johnston
David Johnston meets the Queen and Prime Minister Stephen Harper prior to his investiture as Governor General of Canada (courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office).


Without interruption since the beginning of European settlement in Canada, a governor or governor general has been at the head of the country as the resident representative of the Crown. Lord Monck, the country's first governor general at Confederation, was sworn in on 1 July 1867. Jeanne Sauvé, the 23rd governor general (post-Confederation), was the first woman to be appointed to the office, and Adrienne Clarkson, the 26th governor general (post-Confederation), was the first person without a military or political background and the first person of Asian heritage to be appointed to the vice-regal position. The office is currently held by Julie Payette.

Evolution of Role

The office has developed with Canada's evolution from colony to nation. At first, governors general represented imperial governments and were responsible to various colonial ministers. After Confederation they were empowered to govern according to the wishes of the Canadian prime minister in all internal issues, but until the First World War they were still obliged to acknowledge British policy in external relations. After the Statute of Westminster of 1931, they became the sovereign's personal representatives. Finally, on 1 October 1947, George VI formally delegated to the governor general all the sovereign's authority in Canada. In 1952, Vincent Massey became the first Canadian since Pierre de Vaudreuil to be appointed governor general. Afterwards, a tradition of alternating anglophone and francophone governors general emerged.

Massey, Vincent
Massey was Canada's first native-born governor general and chaired the influential royal commission on the arts (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/NFB/Lund PA-144172).
Vaudreuil, Pierre
Pierre-Francois de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil (1703-1779) (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C11243).

In Canada, as in many constitutional monarchies, there is a clear division between the head of state and the head of government. The head of government is the prime minister, an elected political leader. The head of state is the Canadian monarch, whose duties are carried out by the governor general. And like the sovereign, the governor general stands above politics. Appointed by the monarch on the prime minister's recommendation, the governor general usually holds office for at least five years. Whereas the prime minister speaks for the political majority, the governor general represents the whole country.

Official Residences

On taking office (at a ceremony usually held in the Senate chamber), a governor general is accorded the title "Right Honourable" for life and "His Excellency" or "Her Excellency" for the period in office. Two official residences are provided: Rideau Hall, which forms part of a 36-hectare estate on the Ottawa River, and the Governor's Wing at the Québec Citadel. The governor general's personal standard (flag) flies wherever he or she is in residence and takes precedence over all other flags in Canada except the monarch's. It is dark blue with, at the centre, the gold Canadian crest a crowned lion carrying a red, stylized maple leaf in its right paw.

Citadelle of Quebec
Dalhousie Gate of Citadelle of Quebec.
Rideau Hall
Residence of the Governor General (courtesy NCC).


Upon taking the vice-regal position, the governor general designs his or her own heraldic symbol (see Heraldry). This allows the governor general to make both a personal statement of values and a statement about what he or she wishes to accomplish as vice regal. For instance, the heraldic symbol of Michaelle Jean, governor general from 2005 to 2010, contains a shell and broken chains to symbolize her ancestors' escape from slavery. It is flanked by two Simbis (water spirits) from Haitian culture, feminine figures that symbolize the vital role women have played in advancing social justice. Its motto, "Breaking down solitudes" (Briser les solitudes), underlies the objectives Jean hoped to accomplish during her tenure.

Micha\u00eblle Jean
The Right Honourable Micha\u00eblle Jean, Governor General of Canada from 2005 to 2010 (photo by Sergeant \u00c9ric Jolin, courtesy Rideau Hall).

Heraldic authority is a significant honour bestowed on select Canadians by the governor general. Until heraldry was patriated to Canada in 1988, Canadians who wished to acquire heraldic symbols from the Crown were required to apply to the Queen's offices in the United Kingdom. On 4 June, Governor General Sauvé authorized the creation of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, a Canadian-based organization responsible for the creation of coats of arms, flags and badges for Canadian citizens and corporate bodies, and for maintaining an international standard when bestowing heraldic symbols. Canada was the first Commonwealth country to patriate heraldic authority.

Duties and Powers

Parliament has three elements in which the governor general plays a significant role: the Senate, the House of Commons and the Queen. As the Queen's representative, the governor general summons, prorogues and dissolves Parliament, authorizes treaties, receives and sends ambassadors, commissions officers in the armed forces and gives royal assent to bills that have passed both the House and the Senate, thereby giving them the force of law. By constitutional convention, the governor general exercises these prerogatives only in accordance with ministerial advice. But by the same conventions, he or she retains special personal authority in times of emergency or in exceptional circumstances; in such cases, he or she may appoint or dismiss a prime minister and may dissolve Parliament. On at least two occasions since Confederation (1891 and 1893) governors general (Lords Stanley and Aberdeen) had to designate a prime minister, but they have never had to dismiss one. At least once (1926) a governor general (Viscount Byng) refused a prime minister's advice to dissolve Parliament (see King-Byng Affair).

Stanley, Frederick Arthur
Stanley's sons' interest in sports prompted him to provide a trophy and medal for curling, and a cup for hockey, which was eventually called the Stanley Cup, the oldest trophy competed for by professional athletes in North America (courtesy National Archives of Canada/C-22832).
Julian Byng
Governor General Julian Byng, in 1921.

The governor general also holds the constitutional rights of the head of state: "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn." These are usually exercised by the receipt of Cabinet minutes and through regular visits from the prime minister and government officials. The governor general is the executive power of the governor-in-council, receiving advice from the Canadian Privy Council (the most important part of which is the Cabinet) and signing orders-in-council.

The governor general is also designated by law as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is charged with swearing in Cabinet ministers and commissioning high officials of state. He or she is chancellor of the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit, and is responsible for the administration of the whole Canadian system of honours. The governor general is official host to visiting heads of state and can represent Canada abroad.

Extensive hospitality and travel within Canada make the governor general more familiar with the country, the people and the issues than most others can be. The office of governor general is also charged with symbolizing national community and continuity. It is a subtle presence above divisions and differences, affirming acceptance of inherited loyalties and permanent ideals.

Hnatyshyn, Ramon
With Queen Elizabeth II (Corel Professional Photos).

Governors General of Canada since Confederation

Name Term
Viscount Monck 186768
Lord Lisgar 186972
Earl of Dufferin 187278
Marquess of Lorne 187883
Marquess of Lansdowne 188388
Baron Stanley of Preston 188893
Earl of Aberdeen 189398
Earl of Minto 18981904
Earl Grey 190411
Duke of Connaught 191116
Duke of Devonshire 191621
Lord Byng 192126
Viscount Willingdon 192631
Earl of Bessborough 193135
Lord Tweedsmuir 193540
Earl of Athlone 194046
Viscount Alexander of Tunis 194652
Vincent Massey 195259
Georges Vanier 195967
Roland Michener 196774
Jules Léger 197479
Edward Schreyer 197984
Jeanne Sauvé 198490
Ramon John Hnatyshyn 199095
Roméo A. LeBlanc 199599
Adrienne Louise Clarkson 19992005
Michaëlle Jean 200510

David Johnston

​Julie Payette

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Further Reading

  • Jacques Monet S.J., The Canadian Crown (1979).

External Links