Maxims for Michaëlle

It is not immediately obvious that Michaëlle Jean is a poor choice for governor general. But there are certainly pitfalls she will have to avoid to confound the cynics. Let me first confess that I was a little dismayed the last time our new governor general was a child refugee CBC broadcaster woman of colour of left-wing elitist leanings. It seemed a divisive rather than unifying choice. Instead, Adrienne Clarkson proved an excellent governor general, which surely obliges me to exercise charity here. Also, while I am no Abraham Lincoln, he once wrote in a letter "I shall do nothing of malice, what I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing." Which cannot safely be said of journalism but can, and I think should, be said about our Constitution.

Hence my first point on how Ms. Jean can conduct herself with the dignity owed to her office and Canadians is to avoid anything smacking of malice. Which may be harder than it sounds if you have tended to move in intellectual circles that mistake narrowness for elevation of thought. She must especially avoid any hint of contempt for English Canadians, Canada's traditions, or Americans.

She must be a governor general of all the people, or else, in the end, she will be a governor general of none of them. Here I advise her to seek the counsel of Adrienne Clarkson, who not only struck the right tone on significant occasions (most notably at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) but conspicuously avoided abrasively progressive pronouncements.

Another related thing Ms. Jean must do is love the Canadian Constitution. By which I emphatically do not mean the Charter of Rights. Her new job, for the most part, is ceremonial, and I see no reason to suppose she will not be gracious, charming, and dignified through endless hours of tedious functions. But in the event of a constitutional crisis, the incumbent acquires real power and must really understand, and cherish, the underlying mechanisms of self-government in this country of which she is the guardian.

My ideal governor general would harbour some doubts about the impact of the Charter on those mechanisms. But in any event, if Ms. Jean has not read A.V. Dicey, it is imperative that she read and absorb him now. For in a crisis, she will be handicapped if she has to rely on the views of her advisers and crippled if she has to rely on the views of those who put her in office (other than the Queen, who profoundly understands both duty and her duties). To act in a partisan manner in a constitutional crisis would entangle both governor general and prime minister in malicious dealing.

In this regard, I am not encouraged by her invocation of Samuel de Champlain or the suggestion by this newspaper on Wednesday that, by virtue of having French as well as Canadian citizenship, she is the first French governor of this part of North America since 1763. It was appalling tribalism for Jean Chrétien to wish he'd been there to wake up Montcalm, as if a preference for constitutional monarchy, civil rights and representative institutions over French absolutist tyranny were some grotesque Anglo propensity like boiling vegetables into pasty grey submission. If Ms. Jean regards the conquest of New France as other than fortunate for all Canadians, she must avoid saying so. Governor general is too big a job for malice, or for political, intellectual or ethnic partisanship.

Here she will need particular tact, because one of her major challenges is to reach out to the West. She must avoid thinking of the importance of reaching out in her job in traditional left-wing terms: children, women, minorities and so on down the PC list. The point is to reach out to everybody, especially those who aren't like you. As in western, male, conservative, white and unilingual. There. I said it.

Silencing the spouse will be less of an issue. It's odd that two successive governors general should haul into Rideau Hall trendy leftist philosopher husbands disinclined to tactful silence or to neckties. But John Ralston Saul's enduring penchant for daft remarks on globalization proved far more absurd than consequential. I am more concerned about Ms. Jean's own self-aggrandizing pronouncement that "Having a person like me as governor general will mean a lot not only to Canadians. I think it will mean a lot for humanity."

It's not about you, Ma'am. It's about Canada. Safeguarding its dignity and Constitution ought to be enough to occupy even an exceptional person fully over the next five years.

If Michaëlle Jean does that, she will make a fine governor general. And I see no reason to assume she won't.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson