By MPP Toby Barrett
Under our constitution, Her Majesty is the Queen of Canada. Incidentally, Elizabeth II is also queen of 15 other countries. At the federal level, her representative is the governor general – provincially the lieutenant-governor.
Every piece of legislation that passes needs Royal Assent – under the signature of the lieutenant-governor – to become law. The lieutenant-governor also has a role to play in the case of non-confidence votes in minority governments and makes the decision of whether the opposition will form government or if the people will head to the polls – a decision we just saw enacted in British Columbia.
At one time, the lieutenant-governor’s appointment was from the British aristocracy. That morphed into a system with the governor general making the appointments on the recommendation of the prime minister and his cabinet. That system was modified when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper mandated consulting committees to recommend candidates. The committee created a short list of candidates for the prime minister’s consideration. Present Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell was the first chosen with this system.
Over the past 225 years, Ontario has had a variety of notable people occupy its vice-regal office.
As the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, and the namesake for Norfolk‘s largest town, John Graves Simcoe receives a lot of recognition. His appointment in 1791 was the first after the division of the colonies into Lower and Upper Canada.
Following Simcoe, Peter Russell, Peter Hunter, Alexander Grant and Francis Gore occupied the office under various titles.
Sir Isaac Brock took the office as acting administrator in 1811 when Lieutenant-Governor Gore left for England. Essentially, this meant Brock was in charge of both military and civilian affairs in what was then Upper Canada, now Ontario. He died repelling as the Americans invaded along the Niagara gorge in the War of 1812. After his death at Queenston, Brock’s successor General Roger Sheaffe took over. He was unpopular and there were a succession of acting lieutenant-governors was at the helm of Upper Canada until 1815.
During John A. MacDonald’s tenure – as both premier of the Province of Canada and the Prime Minister of Canada – Her Majesty Queen Victoria was represented by a lieutenant-governor in the province.
When the Hon. Pauline McGibbon became lieutenant-governor in 1974, she was not only the first woman in the position in Ontario, she was the first female vice-regal representative anywhere in the Commonwealth.
The Hon. Lincoln M. Alexander (1985-1991) became the first member of a visible minority to hold the office of Ontario lieutenant-governor.
During my time in the Legislature, the Hon. James Bartleman was the first Aboriginal Canadian to be lieutenant-governor and the Hon. David Onley was the first with a physical disability. Onley was also the second longest serving lieutenant governor, serving seven years and 18 days from Sept. 5, 2007 to Sept. 23, 2014. Onley’s wife was from Simcoe and he has visited the riding during his time in office. Several years ago, I was part of a ceremony with the Hon. Hilary Weston when Turkey Point’s Tom Millar received the Order of Ontario – a program overseen by the lieutenant governor.
Then, as now, Ontario and the other provinces are constitutionally autonomous and the lieutenant-governor possesses all the prerogative powers of the Crown for purposes of government.