Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Romeo LeBlanc, 1927-2009. R.I.P.

Romeo LeBlanc, who served as Canada's Governor General between 1995 and 1999, died today of Alzheimer's Disease. He was 81.

The Governor General is the Queen's representative in Canada. It is largely a ceremonial position although the Governor General does give what is called royal assent to legislation passed in the House of Commons and the Senate.

LeBlanc, a native of New Brunswick, was the first person from Atlantic Canada to be appointed Governor General. He was also the first Acadian to hold the position.

What is an Acadian? They were people of French origin who settled in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in the 1600s and 1700s before it was taken over by the British. The Acadians would be gradually expelled from 1755 through 1763 when they refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Great Britain. Many returned to France while others went to the United States. Some of these Acadians would settle in Louisiana and became Cajuns.

When LeBlanc was appointed Governor General by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien in November 1994 there was tremendous controversy. I remember it because at the time I was working in the House of Commons as an intern for Nelson Riis, an NDP MP from British Columbia. The controversy was stirred up by Preston Manning, then the leader of Canada's Reform Party (which eventually merged with the Progressive Conservatives to become the Conservative Party.) Manning took the unprecedented step of opposing LeBlanc's appointment.

Calling the appointment "unwise and inappropriate", Manning mainly objected to LeBlanc's record as a Liberal partisan. Yes, LeBlanc was a creature of the Liberal Party. He was press secretary to both Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. He was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal MP and served as Trudeau's Minister of Fisheries for many years. Trudeau eventually appointed LeBlanc to the Senate where he would become Speaker. He also helped shaped Chretien's Liberal Party platform in the 1993 federal election. In fact, his son Dominic holds the seat that he held for many years and was briefly a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party last year after Stephane Dion's resignation. So the Liberal banner runs deep in the LeBlanc bloodlines.

But Manning's opposition to LeBlanc was so disingenuous. Had Manning been Prime Minister he would have surely appointed a conservative to be Governor General. In complaining about partisanship Manning could not have been any more partisan. Chretien was well within his rights to be incensed with Manning. Michael Barone is right when he says that all process arguments are insincere.

However, it is worth noting LeBlanc's successors, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, both appointed by Liberal Prime Ministers are considered non-partisan. So to some extent it could be said that Manning's objections played a role in the appointment of both Clarkson and Jean. Governor Generals normally serve for five years (LeBlanc actually retired early due to poor health.) In which case, a new Governor General will very likely be appointed in 2010.

If Stephen Harper is still Prime Minister at this time next year it will be interesting to see if he makes a non-partisan appointment or appoints someone from the Tory ranks. Given that he is in a minority government situation he is more likely to appoint someone who is non-partisan. But Harper is fully within his rights to appoint a Conservative as Governor General as Chretien was within his rights to appoint a Liberal like LeBlanc as Governor General.

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