David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Which One is the Head of State Again?

Brandon Sun, October 26, 2020 – David McConkey

Who is Canada’s head of state? Who is our head of government? What is the difference again? What about the U.S.? In the minds of us citizens, these concepts are often confused or ignored as being irrelevant. But right now – by sheer coincidence – both Canadians and Americans are pondering questions in this area of constitution and governance.

Let’s go back to the basics. (And I am trying not to make this as boring as it sounds!) Canada’s head of state is the hereditary monarch. The monarch, in the words of the government’s guide for new citizens, “is the focus of citizenship and allegiance . . . a symbol of Canadian sovereignty, a guardian of constitutional freedoms, and a reflection of our history.” The monarch is represented in Canada by the governor general, who serves in effect as our head of state on a day-to-day basis.

(And in this time of recalling whom landmarks are named after, do you remember that a school in Brandon is named after a governor general? I hope that its students know about the life of their school’s namesake: Vincent Massey.)

Our head of government is the prime minister. The prime minister “reports” to the governor general. We voters, of course, do not directly elect the prime minister. We elect members to parliament; the leader of the party with the most members becomes the prime minister.

But what if there are problems? Like a minority parliament? Or, in an imagined, extreme scenario, a rogue prime minister dumped by his own party but refusing to leave office? Not to worry! The governor general can figure out a way to resolve such problems, including calling a new election.

What about the U.S.? The U.S. combines the roles of both head of state and head of government into one position: the president. The manner in which the president is elected and their term of office is set out in the U.S. constitution. The constitution has been amended over time; the result today is some awkwardness such as their Electoral College.

Today, people in both Canada and the U.S. happen to be considering questions about the head of state and government.

In Canada, the position of governor general has been in the spotlight because of concerns about the way Gov. Gen. Julie Payette is running her office. This controversy could be a spark to rethink not only procedures like how an individual is chosen to be governor general, but also the position itself.

In his new book, The Canadian Manifesto, Conrad Black includes some ideas for modernizing our head of state. The governor general, Black says, “is a colonial title and an absurd anachronism.” Instead, he proposes that Canada have an elected president as a joint head of state with the monarch. The position would be more than ceremonial and involve actual governing – like the president of France. (Black’s book is at the Brandon Public Library.)

Thank you, sir, for adding to this discussion. We have been fortunate in having had the Queen as our head of state since 1952. But a monarchy does not reflect our modern democratic values. So I suggest Canada phase out the monarchy and create a new position of president in its place. I suggest that the Canadian president be isolated from politics and be appointed by a special council of wise people. (How would these wise people be selected? Hey, I can’t think of everything!) But, whatever, let’s talk about it.

Again, what about the U.S.? As the demands on the presidency have exploded over the years, sometimes there have been suggestions that the country have a separate head of state. This new position would take on the ceremonial duties, relieving pressure from the president, who would concentrate on governing.

And, right now, there could be a new urgency for the idea of such a position. President Donald Trump is threatening to challenge the results of the Nov. 3 election. So, Americans may soon face a crisis. Because it was first raised by comedian Bill Maher, it can sound like a joke: “What if Trump is defeated in the election, but won’t leave?” But if that happens, it would not be funny! At that point, Americans might wish they had another person as head of state who could sort out the resulting Trump-sized mess.

Whether in Canada or in the U.S., we are reminded of the importance of the constitution and tradition, our trust in institutions, the competence and goodwill of our leaders, and the involvement of us citizens.

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See also: 

Reflections on the Diamond Jubilee

Reflecting on Big Questions

Manitoba Day Musings

Reflections on the War on Drugs

Election Puts Race, Religion in Spotlight

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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