Connect with us

MacDonald Laurier Institute

The Governor General deserves better, but we deserve impartiality


9 minute read

From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Philippe Lagassé

Mary Simon’s impartiality was undermined by hosting a symposium tied to controversial government legislation.

Mary Simon has been a guarded Governor General. She’s adopted a low profile since her appointment, performing her vice-regal responsibilities without much notice. When she has been in the news, it’s usually because of her efforts to learn French and costly diplomatic trips, not on account of an initiative she’s launched or a stance she’s taken. Aside from routine public statements and some championing of Indigenous reconciliation, Simon hasn’t tried to make a mark. Until last week, that is.

On April 11, Her Excellency hosted a symposium on online abuse and creating safe digital spaces. Simon has been the target of vitriol on social media, a reality she shares with many public figures, particularly women. She wants to address this problem, stressing that “we deserve better.” As far as causes go, this is a laudable one. Online abuse is a serious issue, one that can excuse and encourage physical violence and attacks. To highlight the severity of the challenge, the Governor General’s symposium featured well-known Canadians who’ve also suffered from online abuse and are determined to fight it.

Unfortunately, the Governor General’s symposium took place while a government bill on online harms is making its way through Parliament. Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act, has been the source of significant controversy, notably around its impact on free expression and the potential life sentences it imposes on certain types of hateful speech. C-63 has been criticized by law professors, civil liberties advocates, and the Conservative Party. While there may be a general consensus that online abuse is a scourge, the solution is contentious, and Bill C-63 has been the subject of serious debate.

As well-intentioned as the Governor General’s symposium was, she should never have hosted it in this context, a conclusion that’s reinforced by the Minister of Justice publicly tying the event to bill C-63. As soon as the government tabled the bill, Her Excellency should have understood that the symposium was no longer appropriate and would present a risk to her office’s impartiality.

The Governor General is the second highest office of the Canadian state, right under the King. As the King’s vice-regal representative, the Governor General performs core constitutional functions. These demand that the Governor General not only act impartially but be perceived to be impartial. This isn’t just good form, it’s a fundamental part of the job.

As part of their constitutional role, Governors General exercise the Crown’s reserve powers. These include the granting of royal assent to legislation on the advice of the houses of Parliament, proroguing and dissolving Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister, and inviting a party leader to form a new government when the serving Prime Minister resigns. Impartiality helps shield the Governor General from partisan attacks when exercising these powers and maintains public trust in the office.

Now, to be clear, the Governor General has very limited discretion in exercising these reserve powers. As long as the Prime Minister’s party holds the confidence of the House of Commons, the Governor General must almost always accept their advice. Yet, there have been and will be cases where vice-regal representatives exercise their discretion to decide the fates of governments or guard against unconstitutional abuses of power. When these occur, we need the Governor General to be respected as a non-partisan, politically neutral office. Doubts about a Governor General’s impartiality undermine her or his constitutional functions and can weaken trust in the office when it’s most needed.

Turning back to the symposium, it’s important to clarify why it undermined her impartiality, or at least perceptions of it. Defenders of the symposium have argued that the event didn’t feature any members of the government as speakers, hence it wasn’t partisan or meant to endorse the Online Harms Act. Suffice to say, had ministers spoken at the event, we would be dealing with an outright constitutional debacle, not just concerns about vice-regal impartiality. A full-on violation of constitutional norms isn’t the standard here. Instead, we should be asking why the Minister of Justice was even there, and why the Governor General decided to host the symposium, considering how contentious Bill C-63 has been already. Hosting the event allowed Her Excellency to get pulled into the partisan fray, a predictable outcome that she shouldn’t have risked.

Those who participated in the symposium will counter that it was the Minister of Justice who made the connection with Bill C-63, not the Governor General. Her Excellency’s motives, and the importance of the cause addressed by the symposium, shouldn’t be impugned by a careless, partisan tweet. Alas, partisans are going to partisan and politicians are going to politick. This is precisely why vice-regal representatives should avoid wading into politically charged topics. Expecting politicians to show restraint and respect the neutrality of the office of the Governor General is more than a tad naive. Vice-regal representatives should have the wherewithal to avoid situations where their office can be leveraged for partisan purposes.

Defenders of the symposium offer another argument: as the sovereign’s representative, the Governor General should address important social problems that affect Canadians. The vice-regal role shouldn’t be confined to constitutional functions, ceremonies, and commemorations. Not allowing vice-regal representatives to advocate for the public good would be a lost opportunity. This is a fair point, though Governors General need to be careful about what causes they take up. When it comes to vice-regal advocacy, banal benevolence is the way to go. Anything that’s the subject of notable partisan and parliamentary debate, is ideologically fraught, or might be fought over during an election should raise red flags.

Thankfully for the Governor General, the controversy surrounding her symposium hasn’t extended beyond the Ottawa bubble yet. She should keep it that way by abandoning her “We Deserve Better” campaign while partisans battle it out over Bill C-63 and the courts review the Online Harms Act if it becomes law.

This isn’t because the Governor General doesn’t deserve better; she does, as do all those who suffer online abuse. It’s because Canadians deserve impartiality from the Governor General, both real and perceived.

Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor at Carleton University. He’s the co-editor of Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy (2014) and The Crown and Parliament(2015).

Todayville is a digital media and technology company. We profile unique stories and events in our community. Register and promote your community event for free.

Follow Author


The China – Russia “Grain Entente” – what is at stake for Canada and its allies?

Published on

From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Serghey Sukhankin

Moscow – with China’s help, approval, and likely, guidance – intends to challenge the West by changing the rules of trade in foods critical to global buyers.

Throughout its entire history the Soviet Union faced one existential peril that was never solved until its collapse in 1991 – the prospect of food shortage and mass starvation. Its cumbersome, utterly ineffective, and artificially subsidized agricultural sector was a living testament to the erroneous nature of a planned command-administrative economic model.

The situation with food and staples became so dire that starting from 1963 the Soviet Bloc (the USSR, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia) started importing wheat from the United States, Canada, and Australia. This practice continued until the demise of the Soviet Empire. Everything changed after the collapse of the USSR and introduction of market-oriented reforms in Russia in the 1990s, along with the growth of commodity prices and Russia’s inclusion in the global economic architecture.

By 2000, Russia had already doubled the amount of grain it produced, making it one of the world’s top producers of this strategic commodity. By the late 2010s to early 2020s, Russia emerged as a one of the world’s largest exporters of grain and agricultural products.

However, Russia quickly realized that commodities – especially food along with hydrocarbons – could become a very useful tool of coercion in geopolitical confrontations with its rivals. This became abundantly clear after the outbreak of Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022, when both Russia’s top-tier politicians (such as Deputy Chairman of the Security Council and former President Dmitry Medvedev) and chief propagandists (such as Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT) claimed “hunger” to be Russia’s natural ally, and threaten to cut supplies of food staples to “unfriendly countries.”

At the same time, Russia tried to spark a confrontation between Ukraine and Poland, Hungary, Slovakia over commodities and staples supplies. Ironically, rather than hurting the West, Russia’s actions had a worse impact on so-called “friendly countries” – especially those in the Global South, where access to inexpensive and available foodstuffs is a matter of life and death.

Russia’s strategy of intimidation was also ineffective due to its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Its so-called “special military operation” was supposed to be quick and decisive. Two years later, the war has imposed massive pressure on the Russian budget, requiring a constant cash flow that mainly comes from exporting raw materials and commodities.

Forced to evolve its strategy, Russia seems to be abandoning its plan of threatening to starve its adversaries. Instead, Moscow – with China’s help, approval, and likely, guidance – intends to challenge the West by changing the rules of trade in foods critical to global buyers. This strategy is being implemented via pursuit of two interrelated initiatives: formation of a “Grain Entente” between Beijing and Moscow, and the use of the BRICS trading bloc (consisting of nine nations led by founding countries Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) as a critical vehicle of change.

The first major step in this direction was made in October 2023, when the Russian Food Export Trade LLC company and China Chengtong International Limited concluded the “grain deal of the century” – the largest contract of this type ever signed between the two countries – according to which the Russian side pledges to deliver 70 million tons of various types of grain (produced in the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East) over the next twelve years for US$26.5 billion. As a result, already in the first quarter of 2024, Russia broke a historical record by supplying China with large volumes of oats (.7 times more than the previous year) and buckwheat (3.3 more than the previous year) receiving a staggering US$127 million. Yet, mounting grain sales is only the tip of the iceberg. The most critical development is China’s gradual overtaking of Russia’s logistical infrastructure, which could pave the way for China’s growing control over Eurasian logistics and trade routes.

In September 2023, officials from Russia and China met at the 8th Eastern Economic Summit in Vladivostok, where officials from Russia and China agreed to create a logistical hub – the “Grain Terminal Nizhneleninskoye–Tongjiang” in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The goal is to create the Russia’s first “land-based grain fleet.” Consisting of 22,000 containers transporting grain, it will be capable of moving up to 600,000 tons of grain with a maximum storage capacity of up to 8 million per year. The strategic significance of this move is clear. On one hand, it allows Russia to “safeguard” itself against sanctions pressure, which will likely make Russia’s behaviour in Europe (and elsewhere) even more aggressive and unpredictable. On the other hand, China – which will acquire de facto control over Russia’s grain – will see Beijing become the world’s largest grain hub, giving it enormous power to influence and set global food prices.

Russia’s next major move was to push for the creation of a BRICS grain exchange. Fully supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the proposed grain exchange would bring together some of the world’s biggest grain buyers and exporters, cumulatively accounting for more than 42 per cent of global grain production (at nearly 1.2 million ) and 40 per cent of global consumption. International observers and subject experts have already warned that Russia- and China- adverse exporters of grain and agricultural products such as the United States, Canada, and Australia “might face challenges in maintaining their market share and negotiating for favourable trade terms, while facing competition from cheaper Russian .” In effect, this may have “significant implications for global agricultural dynamics, ranging from geopolitical and geoeconomic realignments to increased competition in agricultural trade. For traditional exporters such as Australia and the US, it is a call to reassess their national policies and strategies to navigate the evolving landscape of international trade to maintain competitiveness.”

The emergence of the BRICS grain exchange – which will undoubtedly increase Russia’s (and most likely China’s) geoeconomic role – is only a part of a much bigger strategic challenge. If the BRICS grain exchange is successful, it will have a spillover effect on another critical product – the fertilizers required by both developed and developing nations. Russia already has a competitive advantage in fertilizer production, and post-2022, has tried to use its fertilizers as geopolitical tools pressuring international organizations (such as the United Nations) to lobby for the end of sanctions imposed on Russia after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

– If the Russia-China grain alliance proliferates and BRICS becomes a major player in the global flow of grains and other foodstuffs, it could prompt even greater changes to the established world market. Analysis of Russian-language sources and publications indicates that the next step would be the creation of an alternative to the “West-dominated” financial architecture, and ultimately, the transformation of global trade.

Russia’s plans (undoubtedly supported by China) pose a very serious challenge to Canada, its allies, and other liberal democracies.

They will likely suffer economic losses of grain exports due to the cheapness of Russian grain, and that country’s current occupation of a large part of Ukraine’s most fertile black-earth areas. If unchecked, Russia could assume control of more than 30 percent of global grain supplies.

Currently, the Indo-Pacific region is Canada’s largest export destination, with agriculture and food exports totaling $9.4 billion in 2022. If China gains unfettered access to Russian grain, it could seriously undercut Canada’s trade.

Making matters worse for Canada, its relationship with New Delhi is arguably at an all-time low, making it challenging to pivot sales of its agricultural products toward India or other countries without significant economic losses.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are a host of other potential threats to the global foods market, from the ongoing war in Ukraine to droughts and adverse climate conditions in the US, Argentina, and Australia. Amid growing uncertainty and upheaval, it’s possible that the global foods market will be carved up and dominated by Russia and other undemocratic, aggressive nations. Given Russia’s strategic goal of weakening the European Union, and ultimately causing its disintegration, it will continue to use artificially created food shortages in Africa and the Greater Middle East as a geopolitical weapon against the EU. The Kremlin hopes to replicate the crisis that occurred in 2015, when hundreds of thousands (now, potentially millions) of illegal migrants and asylum seekers poured into the EU – wreaking havoc, fostering intra-EU conflict, and assisting the rise of far-right (and left) populists.

The first step in Russia’s grand strategy is the de facto establishment of the Russo-Chinese “Grain Entente.” The next move will be the creation of a BRICS grain exchange and inclusion of other strategic commodities under the umbrella of BRICS operations. This is clearly a wakeup call for the West. We need to heed it, or else risk more dire, far-reaching consequences.

Dr. Sergey Sukhankin is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation (Washington, DC) and a Fellow at the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network (NAADSN). His project discussing the activities of Russian PMCs, “War by Other Means,” informed the United Nations General Assembly report entitled “Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination.”

This article was published with support from Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Canada.


Continue Reading

MacDonald Laurier Institute

Toronto’s “Sankofa Square” – The terrible folly and historic injustice of erasing the legacy of abolitionist Henry Dundas

Published on

From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Lynn McDonald

Canadians’ keenness to repent for the misdeeds of the past has its merits, but has also led to gross errors of judgment.

Mayor Olivia Chow and Toronto City Council went even more over-the-top in their choice of “Sankofa Square” for Yonge-Dundas Square. Other renamings in the city have either substituted a banal name, like substituting Toronto Metropolitan University for Ryerson University, or, more frequently, selected an Indigenous name as a substitute for “colonizer” monikers. The Ghanaian word “Sankofa,” however, was selected for its meaning: “learning from the past.” But what can we learn about slavery in Ghana?

Slavery was rife both throughout Africa and much of the world in centuries past. Under its previous name, the Gold Coast, Ghana was a prime place for the sale of slaves to European slave traders. As well, its version of slavery included the horrible practice of executing the slaves of a chieftain who died, so that they could serve him in the afterlife.

In 1847, a Methodist missionary, the Rev. George Chapman, sent an account of this practice from his mission post in Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana. In an article in the Toronto Christian Guardian titled “Horrid Treatment of Infants in Ashanti,” Chapman explained that both men and women slaves, of all ages, were executed. When a woman slave with a nursing infant was beheaded, her baby fell to the ground “with her headless body.” Such an infant was regarded as an “abomination.” It gets worse:

“The body of the mother may remain in the street all day exposed to the gaze of every passer-by, and by her side may remain her helpless, living infant exposed to, not only the heedless foot of the multitude, but suffering intensely from the direct rays of a tropical sun. Seldom does any eye pity; no one would ever think of taking away that child and thus saving its life—it remains in the street until evening, and then, as the individual whose business is to drag away the bodies of these victims, takes away the mother; he may at the same time take away the child, not to pity and save it, but to cast both mother and child into the cell where these wretched victims are thrown, and they both remain to putrify [sic] or to be devoured by swine or carnivorous birds.”

In the same article, Chapman described being alerted to the beheading of a female slave in a nearby village. The dead mother’s baby, still alive, was left by her side. Starving, it had crawled up to his mother’s body to lick the blood from her bleeding neck. The missionary hastened to the execution site to try to save it, but he was too late: a bystander saw Chapman coming and prevented rescue by standing on the infant’s neck to kill it.

Ghana abolished slavery only in 1874, roughly 100 years after it was abolished, through court cases, in 1772 in England, and in 1778 in Scotland. For Scotland, it was Henry Dundas, as a lawyer, who won over the Scottish law lords on the appeal case he headed of an escaped enslaved man, Joseph Knight. They not only freed him, by a solid 8-4 majority, but ruled that there could be no slavery in Scotland, and thus freed all other slaves in the country.

This was Henry Dundas’s first achievement as an abolitionist.

Ontario, thanks to John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor, has the merit of being the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to abolish slavery, albeit gradually, in 1793, about 80 years before Ghana got around to it. Simcoe, it should be noted, was an appointee of Henry Dundas, a fellow abolitionist.

Yet Mayor Chow called the renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square “beautiful,” and even claimed that she could not “think of a better a name for a gathering place at the heart of our city” than Sankofa Square. To Chow, Henry Dundas’s actions were no less than “horrific.”

Dundas and Ryerson: the Christian Guardian connection

Rev. Chapman sent his story to the Christian Guardian, a weekly Methodist magazine based in Toronto, for which Egerton Ryerson was the founding editor. He was no longer the editor when this story appeared, but he had himself written on abolition in the British Empire and the United States. Ryerson, notably, was a visitor in the British House of Commons on May 14, 1833, for the last debate and adoption of the law to abolish slavery in the British Empire. He gave a superb report on it in the Christian Guardian titled “House of Commons: Colonial Slavery.”

Ryerson also happened to be in Boston, en route to England in 1850, when the United States Congress passed the draconian Fugitive Slave Act. This required the return of slaves caught in free states, where they previously would have been safe. That law meant that escaped slaves from the American South would have to make it to Ontario to be safe, which sparked the development of the “Underground Railroad.” In a report written for the Christian Guardian, Ryerson condemned the law as an attempt to “trample under foot” the “rights of man,” adding that it was “incredible to me” that slavery was being championed in Boston, “the cradle of liberty.”

The abolition of slavery in Africa

The British law of 1833 that abolished slavery in the “British colonies” effectively meant in the West Indies; it also included Canada, which by comparison, had very few slaves. It would take decades more for slavery in Africa itself to be abolished, as well as the slave trade on the continent’s east coast. Recall journalist Henry Stanley’s “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” on finding missionary doctor David Livingstone alive, but ill, on the coast of Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Livingstone had himself witnessed the beheading of 400 local slaves by slave traders from Zanzibar.

Given Ghana’s significant role in the transatlantic slave trade, and Dundas’s clear opposition to slavery, it makes little sense to strike Dundas’s name off of Toronto’s most famous public square. But so far, Chow is sticking by her assertion that Dundas’s legacy with regards to slavery is “horrific.”

The inconvenient truths about slavery and its abolition

Canadians, and especially Torontonians, are keen to repent of the misdeeds of the past, both against Indigenous people and enslaved Africans. This new humility has its merits, but has also led to gross errors of judgment, especially false accusations against supposed “colonizers” or “colonialists.” Ryerson himself was accused of responsibility for the “colonialist” past, although he himself was born in Ontario, on a farm north of Lake Erie. Neglected is the documented fact that Indigenous societies themselves were slave societies. The losers of wars between Indigenous societies could be killed, mutilated, and/or enslaved, and even sold as slaves. Those more fortunate were adopted by the conquering group, in other words, assimilated – another no-no in today’s world.

No Indigenous society is known to have actually abolished slavery. Indeed, Indigenous slaves were among those freed by the abolition laws of Britain and Upper Canada.

Nor did any African state ever abolish slavery or the slave trade of its own accord. It took decades of pressure from Great Britain, and sometimes bribes from it, to achieve its abolition. Again, Dundas had some understanding of the key role of African leaders in slavery and the slave trade. As he stated in 1792 in the House of Commons when defending his amendment to William Wilberforce’s motion for abolition of the slave trade, to make it “gradual”:

“If once a Prince of an enlightened character should rise up in that hemisphere, his first act would be to make the means of carrying off all slaves from thence impracticable. What reason had they to suppose that the light of Heaven would never descend upon the continent of Africa? From that moment there must be an end of African trade. The first system of improvement, the first idea of happiness that would arise in that continent, would bring with it the downfall of the African trade, and that in a more effectual way than is done by regulations of this country.”

Dundas had a much better understanding of the complications of abolishing slavery and the slave trade than other abolitionists, certainly more than Wilberforce, the Parliamentary abolition leader. But even Dundas had no idea that it would take nearly a century to get rid of it everywhere, and that until it was abolished everywhere, with thorough enforcement measures as well as the adoption of laws, it would remain in force, and many would be its miserable victims.

A better name than “Sankofa Square”

There is good reason not to go back to “Yonge-Dundas” Square, for Sir George Yonge, when governor of Cape Colony, South Africa, made money on the slave trade. Yet neither Mayor Chow, nor Toronto’s previous mayor, John Tory, ever condemned him. This is not to suggest renaming Yonge Street, for too much Ontario history has passed along it. The Rebels of 1837 marched down Yonge Street from Eglinton Street, only to be stopped at Maitland Street. Egerton Ryerson, in his first post as a Methodist minister, had his start as an itinerant preacher riding the “Yonge Street Circuit.”

Reasonable titles would be “Dundas Square,” or, better, “Slavery Abolition Square.” “Ryerson Square” would suit, but only when the anti-Ryerson people come to realize that they fell for false accusations. The square is close to where he developed such great educational reforms as free schools for all, teacher training, and free public libraries, initially for Ontario, in time adopted throughout the country.

Lynn McDonald, CM, Ph.D., is a former Member of Parliament, a professor emerita of University of Guelph, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Continue Reading