Hnatyshyn Recalls His Tenure as GG

Roméo LeBlanc, a close political ally of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, moves into Rideau Hall this week as Canada's 25th Governor General, replacing Ramon Hnatyshyn.

Roméo LeBlanc, a close political ally of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, moves into Rideau Hall this week as Canada's 25th Governor General, replacing Ramon Hnatyshyn. For the Saskatchewan-born Hnatyshyn, 60, a former Conservative justice minister appointed by Brian Mulroney, LeBlanc's investiture marks the end of five years as the Queen's representative in Canada. Hnatyshyn spoke last week in his oak-panelled circular office at Rideau Hall to Maclean's Ottawa Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith and correspondent Warren Caragata. Excerpts:

Maclean's: How do you feel as the time comes for you to take your leave?

Hnatyshyn: It's been a very satisfying five years. Probably the appropriate word is bittersweet, the feelings you have, the memories. You do lose your privacy, you're always with security, you're always with staff. I am looking forward to having private time, but it's a small price to pay for the other advantages.

Maclean's: Is it hard on friendships, being in this office?

Hnatyshyn: It is hard. You just don't drop in anymore. You can't just slip back to Saskatoon. We drop in sometimes on our close friends but it's just as easy for them to come here.

Maclean's: What surprised you about the job?

Hnatyshyn: It was hard to appreciate that I would be more active than I was when I was in politics. This is a very demanding job. There are enormous calls on your time. The second thing was that I really was impressed with the genuine display of friendship across the country. The reason you go places as the Governor General is to celebrate excellence and pay tribute to accomplishment. Accordingly, these are happy occasions, by and large, although there have been some very moving occasions where we have grieved together - the Westray mine disaster, for example.

Maclean's: Were there any instances where you had to advise a prime minister that you thought a course of action was wrong?

Hnatyshyn: I will exercise my Governor General's prerogative to say that I have had occasion to meet with three prime ministers - and I have had terrific relationships with all three of them.

Maclean's: The post, though, is not just ceremonial?

Hnatyshyn: You do meet with the prime minister on a periodic basis. Prime ministers can come here, have discussions, know that it is not going past these walls. I think there's a sense that there is someone they can speak to in a way that they might be reluctant to with their own political colleagues. It gives them a chance to discuss some initiatives they might have in mind, to discuss personnel changes, and to hear someone who is, in the best sense of the word, disinterested, not involved.

Maclean's: What public role will you play now?

Hnatyshyn: I don't think it would be appropriate for a former governor general to involve himself or herself in partisan political causes. Even though you have left the office, you wouldn't be doing a service to it to jump back into the fray. People would then say this office is just a stepping stone to another agenda. So I think it is important to remain as far as possible out of the partisan political scene.

Maclean's: Has the office become an anachronism? Is it too expensive?

Hnatyshyn: If we didn't have this office, we would have to invent something similar. These expenses are, to a very large extent, going to be there regardless of what system we have. We have to have a system where the state is represented. We have to have facilities to receive visiting heads of state.

Maclean's: Do you see a time when the Governor General would be elected?

Hnatyshyn: Eventually, the people of Canada will have to decide. It will evolve. It is easy to tear down a barn; it's tough to build one. You have to look at what you are replacing this office with. We have gone a long way in this country with our system. When a person is elected, there might be an expectation that that person might exercise power and then we would have a competition between the prime minister and the Governor General. I don't have any feelings that a change in the office is really a great priority.

Maclean's: Have the problems with the Royal Family in Britain had an effect?

Hnatyshyn: I think Her Majesty the Queen retains enormous, overwhelming support and loyalty in Canada. The institution of the monarchy has faced challenges over the years and it has survived and sustained itself. So who is to say that it will not survive?

Maclean's: But have you noticed a change in attitude here because of the problems?

Hnatyshyn: I think in Canada we have done things that have made the office of the Governor General a more Canadian institution. I think that process is important.

Maclean's: What do you want to be remembered for?

Hnatyshyn: I would hope that we have brought an openness to the office. I would hope that people look back and say my wife and I have been successful in making Canadians feel better about themselves.

Maclean's: On the first morning you are not in office, what are you going to do: sleep in, not answer the phone, linger over the paper, wander around the house in your housecoat?

Hnatyshyn: All of those.

Maclean's February 13, 1995