Wandering the corridors of Rideau Hall, it's hard not to imagine how one might redecorate if named Governor General.
The Honourable Siri Agrell, for example, would have the Tent Room revert back to an indoor tennis court and move her bedroom into the Ballroom. The salmon-coloured walls would be painted over and the rugs in the Reception Room would be rolled up and replaced with one of those giant piano-key floors that Tom Hanks played on in the movie Big.
But the 167-year-old building, decorated over the years by the country's finest nerds and social climbers, is not the only thing in desperate need of an overhaul. Adrienne Clarkson's term comes to a close at the end of this month, and the controversy surrounding Michaëlle Jean, her replacement, suggests it's time to establish a new system of choosing Rideau Hall's royalesque resident.
Some have argued that Jean's supposed separatist sympathies demonstrate the need for increased vetting before a GG is named. I suggest a move in the opposite direction: a jury-pool-style selection process that would pluck regular Canadians from the nation's phone books and install them in Ottawa for strict one-year terms, regardless of who they raise their glasses to in toast or how often they themselves are toasted.
The current system of partisan political appointments with vague terms and seemingly limitless expense accounts can no longer be defended. Divinely ordained leaders are acceptable only when they live in foreign countries, hold very little actual power and have attractive sons whose dating habits and Nazi costumes we can examine with paparazzi-like zeal.
Royal figures are acceptable in a quaint, “Are those guys still around?” kind of a way, but figureheads chosen by elected leaders from the CBC masthead can hardly command prolonged interest these days, FLQ acquaintances aside. Instead, imagine the potential of a specially designed software program that would choose a name from a database of Canadian citizens over the age of thirty.
Those younger than thirty should be kept out of the running so they can concentrate on their schooling, their backpacking in faraway places, establishing their careers, and because—let's face it—we don't want to turn Rideau Hall into a frat house. Anyone currently incarcerated in a correctional or mental-health facility would be ineligible, but ex-cons could be selected, unless they have dangerous-offender status.
For a flat salary of $100,000, tax-free as it is now, the job would offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to some and be a fun little romp with a salary cut for others.
Far from impugning the dignity of the institution—which has descended into little more than a politically correct casting call with constitutional responsibilities—an open appointment process would allow for the selection of Governor Generals who actually represent “the story of Canada,” as Jean herself put it.
Her own story, one of academic achievement, professional acclaim and killer hair, actually has little to do with the reality of most Canadian citizens, who are, on average, much less impressive. How do you relate to someone who speaks five languages and appears to be attracted to men purely on the basis of their intellect? Canadians need Governor Generals who represent who they are, not who their parents wanted them to be.
Yes, there will be the odd goofball who will dissolve Parliament just because he or she was bored of hearing the words “Mister Speaker” and the one who may decide to hot-box the Greenhouse. He or she will be vilified in the press and returned to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, forever to be referred to as “The. Worst. Governor General. Ever.”
The jury-rigged GG system would revive public interest in the position by placing it within the reach of every ordinary Joe and Jane, who could now feel they have a practical avenue through which to impose social change. Canada’s narcoleptic media would be introduced to a new era of tabloid celebrity, as citizens sell their stories of the current GG's past indiscretions.
In lieu of the shots of Michaëlle Jean raising a glass of red to independence, we would have badly framed, old snapshots of the Queen’s royal representatives doing a keg stand or passed out at a house party with a Magic Marker arrow on their future GG stomach that declares, “Steve was here.”
There would be ex-boyfriend GGs to bitch about: single-mother GGs to give us glorious rags-to-riches-to-rags stories, translated into shoddily directed CTV miniseries; of course, there would also be people who rise above the post, using the job to introduce the country to some beautiful new idea, ritual or rite; boring GGs; the one who’ll overdose on Rideau Hall grounds, shocking the country and allowing pundits to wax outraged about the pitfalls of undeserved power.
The term should last no more than one year and begin on January 1. This way, GGs could start work with a hangover and be whisked from their morning eggs Benedict to the winding driveway of Rideau Hall. Inside, they would find last year’s GG passed out in the Pauline Vanier Room, his or her university buddies and the kitchen staff groggily drinking coffee out of china gifted by the Spanish ambassador. Naturally, the last official act of the outgoing Governor General would involve returning the empties and putting a call in to Molly Maid.
Past Governor Generals have been intellectual and cultural snobs, although their pretension was admittedly well-deserved in most cases. With the jury-pool system of GG selection, we would have a constant influx of varied interests and ideals. GGs would be given an annual budget to work with—a fraction of Clarkson’s legendary spending —and their projects could be vetted by the Chancellery of Honours, which currently looks after the Order of Canada nods.
My friend Mark, a doctor's son and dedicated rugby player, would most likely focus on issues of health and fitness. Chloe, a friend who sells beautiful shoes and eats men alive, might focus on building self-confidence among the country's young women. My sister Kirsty, a labour lawyer, would bring attention to unfair employment practices and most likely unionize the chauffeurs. My high-school boyfriend would attempt to make ultimate frisbee the national pastime. Mike Myers could be Governor General. So could Christie Blatchford or that guy from the Canadian Tire commercials.
There would be conservative GGs (even if the party never manages to get into power) and lefty GGs who would finally have a public forum in which to voice their beliefs. Someone from the West could at long last occupy the throne, as could people who speak only one language and have not hosted their own television show. Because the GG's responsibilities are largely ceremonial, training and education would not be an issue.
The Governor General is mandated to promote national identity and unity, as well as Canada's cultural richness and diversity. What better way to do this than have the position filled by men and women who embody vastly different manifestations of the national experience?
Meetings with world leaders and ambassadors would be infused with a fresh energy, as the common GG would be genuinely star-struck in the presence of such dignitaries; the annual garden party would be enlivened by a GG who would actually deign to participate in a three-legged race.
Of course, certain aspects of the gig would have to be tweaked or abolished. The GG would no longer be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces; that responsibility would be transferred to the prime minister. And while Paul Martin does not necessarily come off as a flight-suit-wearing, “mission accomplished” kind of a guy, this change would be no more unwelcome, really, than the thought of past GGs like Adrienne Clarkson having their hand on the button.
Yes, there could be GGs who are wonks or weirdos, homosexuals or home-schoolers, debutantes or deadbeats, but those are the people that make up our country. Canada's second Governor General, Lord Lisgar, married a fourteen-year-old, and we're still naming things after him.
As the country's highest appointed position, the Governor-Generalship should not be filled by the unchecked romantic crushes of a minority-government leader. Rather, it should come to personify this nation in all its weird, wonderful and, at times, painfully boring and unqualified glory. At the very least, Rideau Hall would finally lose those terrible rugs.