The most consequential lieutenant-governor in Ontario’s history

If you want to understand who she is, just ask.

Ask people in every corner of this province, parliamentarians of every stripe, leaders of every description. From Thunder Bay to the Eastern Townships, just ask. And they all will tell you this: Elizabeth Dowdeswell is not only the very personification of public service but that, by the force and endurance of that service, she has made Ontario a better place.

Long before Elizabeth Dowdeswell was lieutenant-governor of this province, she was, at her very essence, a public servant. She started her career as a teacher. Served in the Saskatchewan and federal public services. Was the under-secretary-general of the UN and executive director of the UN Environment Programme. Appointed CEO of numerous domestic and international organizations of importance. Worked in Stockholm and Swift Current, New York and Nairobi.

And so, when she was appointed to this new role, those who knew her knew she would bring a truly sui generis tool box with her. What we could not have imagined was just what she would build with it: an unparalleled legacy of leadership.

Legacies like hers don’t merely reinforce and uphold institutions. At their most powerful, they convince even the skeptics of the institution’s value.

When it comes to the Crown in this country, I have, over years, become skeptical. This past April, I wrote that the time had come for Canada to cast off the monarchy. But there’s an old saying: the greater the doubt, the greater the awakening. And, in this case, my doubts about the institution have only intensified my admiration for the woman who represented it for nearly a decade. Who understood her role was not about pomp or ceremony, but rather about people. About honouring our everyday heroes whose selfless and quiet work reinforce our social fabric. About giving a platform for those who feel voiceless, who feel that no one is listening. About the acts of empathy and kindness that not only transcend the trappings of an antique institution but, more significantly, of politics itself.

From all that Elizabeth Dowdeswell has achieved for the people of Ontario, from all that she has built, I’m left with this thought: if the monarchy is to be anything in this next era of Canadian life, it will be about the kind of things that are the exact opposite of the assumptions it attracts: elitist, ineffectual, ancient history.

If it is to survive it will be about the humility and service our late Queen exemplified.

It will be about how each one of us can achieve extraordinary things for our community.

It will be about the days ahead and how we can make those days better for all those who will come after us.

If it is to survive, it will be embodied by people like Elizabeth Dowdeswell. It will be about the ideals she encouraged us never to give up on.

Emerson said that, in life, our chief want is for someone who will make us do what we can. The observation is true in the individual sense, but it’s even more true, even more powerful, in the communal. To believe these words is to believe in the potential we collectively hold. Through all her efforts, Dowdeswell demonstrated that belief. That we can see past our differences, support one another and solve our greatest challenges.

On Tuesday, the guns will sound across Queen’s Park and her tenure will officially draw to a close. “The longest-serving lieutenant-governor in Ontario’s history.” That’s what most headlines will say. But those headlines will miss the real story: that Elizabeth Dowdeswell was Ontario’s most consequentiallieutenant-governor.

Just ask.

This article first appeared in The Toronto Star on November 12, 2023.

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