Chairman's Desk

Beverley McLachlin is a proven — and safe — choice for governor general

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 21, 2021.

By the time you are reading this, it will have been 31 days since Julie Payette’s unprecedented resignation as governor general. And although Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner is acting as Administrator of the Government of Canada, the office remains vacant.

There was good reason for Payette’s resignation. She stood accused of fostering a hostile work environment with reported incidents ranging from the strange (accosting staff in the hallways to demand they name the planets of the solar system) to the frightening (allegations of physical shoves). Hardly viceregal conduct. And, it seems, that was just the start. There was also her refusal to do many of the basics of the job; a job which, contrary to the popular imagination, sits at the foundation of our constitution traditions.

And those constitutional traditions are not simply theoretical ones. With a minority Parliament which could fall at any time, the duties could very quickly become very real.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario akin to 2008, when then governor general Michaëlle Jean faced thorny requests from former prime minister Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament.

Imagine if Prime Minister Trudeau asks for an election, not because he has lost the confidence of the House, but because he wagers he could do well at the polls once vaccinations are back on track this spring.

Such a request would put Wagner in a difficult position — not only is he merely a caretaker, he also sits as head of a different branch of government altogether.

But, of course, choosing a successor is tricky business. Because the governor general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of her prime minister, the next governor general cannot be seen to simply be doing Trudeau’s bidding.

What’s more, even though time is of the essence, the failure to properly vet a candidate, as was spectacularly the case with Payette, cannot be repeated.

In short, we need a proven set of safe hands and we need those hands pronto.

Enter Beverley McLachlin. The former chief justice of the Supreme Court broke barriers and sat for a historic, 17-year term until she retired in 2017. She is a constitutional expert who also, in her time, served as administrator of Canada (the same position her successor, Wagner, holds now) when Adrienne Clarkson was hospitalized in 2005.

For a government obsessed with image, McLachlin also ticks many boxes. She is a highly accomplished woman, a Westerner (born in Pincher Creek, Alberta), fluently bilingual and a part-time novelist to boot.

In short, she is the very personification of safe hands.

The only real question is whether she wants to do the job — and I mean really do the job, not merely hold the office, as Payette barely even deigned to do.

I suspect she does. I believe McLachlin intuitively understands that she occupies a unique place in history. That she is, as the lawyers she knows so well would say, sui generis.

She is devoted to Canada. She has spent her life in its service. Her court always sought to give voice to average Canadians. She spoke frequently on matters such as access to justice, for example.

I’m betting that in addition to the constitutional duties, she would quickly warm to the role of the Queen’s representative in Canada and the chance to meet those Canadians whose lives she has spent a lifetime thinking — and caring — about.

Now some critics will point to her refusal to resign from a postretirement appointment to the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal when Hong Kong’s fabled independent judiciary (along with much else) was threatened by Beijing’s new security law, imposed despite well-publicized and widespread protests.

Some would say not resigning was a missed opportunity to make a statement. But then again, she may have shown judgment as befits a governor general in choosing instead to quietly serve out her term, which ends later this year.

As Queen Mary tells Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown,” sometimes “to do nothing is the hardest job of all.” The job of the governor general is not nothing. It requires a very viceregal sensibility that Payette totally lacked, and McLachlin possesses in spades.

And explains why there should be a short list of one.