Home > Law and Public Policy > The Canadian Line of Succession: A Crisis Waiting to Happen?

The Canadian Line of Succession: A Crisis Waiting to Happen?

05-Jul-10 11:36 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

magine this scenario.  During a major international conference in Toronto in the year 2018, North Korea’s young, new yet dangerously paranoid leader Kim Jong-un achieves what to date has been even more unthinkable than the 9/11 tragedy.  Fearing an international force led by the United States and supported by other nations whose leaders attend the meeting are days away from launching an attack on North Korea, Jong-un has DPRK operatives detonate a low-yield fission nuclear charge in downtown Toronto, killing tens of thousands.  Among the dead are the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Canada and Canada’s de jure head-of-state, the Governor-General.  The world and North America in particular are immediately plunged into a crisis of historic proportions; and shortly after the event and the discovery of enriched uranium originating from North Korea at ground-zero, there is widespread support for war in both the US and Canada.  But there’s a stark difference between the two principle nations involved in the emerging crisis….in the United States, the Vice-President is immediately sworn into office as the new President.  But what about Canada?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper presided over the G20 summit in Toronto during the final week of June 2010.  The Governor General was also in attendance, which isn’t unusual.  Could this be a recipe for disaster?

I was reading an article this evening that posed this question (absent the dramatic preamble).  And it seems that since Canada’s constitution recognizes only the Governor-General as having the power to form the government with the Prime Minister (by convention) appointing the Governor-General via an order-in-council.  But it isn’t clear what happens if both are incapacitated or lost at the same time.  Indeed, even the loss of the Prime Minister requires the Governor-General to perform a political function quite apart from his/her usual role.

I wasn’t aware of this flaw in the Canadian system, really. Any one of a number of scenarios would likely play out so that Canada wouldn’t be leaderless long. In the scenario I described, it seems likely the Deputy Prime Minister would likely appoint a new Governor-General fairly quickly who, jointly with the Deputy PM, would agree on some kind of interim government.  But apart from some general practices and procedures concerning ministerial succession in government, there’s nothing to really guide the House of Commons in a situation like that described.

And there should be.

The last thing you need in a national emergency is political in-fighting to screw things up even more.  And while one hopes we never have a day like the one I described, it would be pretty important for the country to be able to pull together and respond quickly.  And the only way to do that well is to provide for solid leadership at the top.

I’d encourage everyone giving this subject a read to e-mail their MP and ask about succession in the government and what has been done, what is being done, and what remains to be done on this file.  History teaches us there’s little chance our politicians will get together to do the job themselves without some urging from the electorate.

  1. mike
    18-Oct-13 05:40 pm EDT at 05:40 pm EDT

    The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada is automatically the Deputy Governor General. If something untoward happened to both the PM and the GG then Madam Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin would become the GG and she would appoint a new PM.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 09-Sep-14 05:06 am EDT at 05:06 am EDT

      @mike: Thanks for that! Interestingly, the United States has 2 separate succession lists – one for the judiciary (to confirm constitutionality and legal standing of the implementation of the line of succession in the executive), and the other for the executive. Perhaps for this reason, they do not include their chief justice in the line of succession otherwise. And I suspect in Canada, the Cheif Justice of the Supreme Court would have great difficulty executing the function of either de facto or de jure head-of-state for very long….even in a crisis. The function cited would likely be interpreted as strictly applying to the appointment of a new GG who could, at least temporarily, execute the functions of the senior government authority. Ultimately, it goes without saying perhaps, we’d find a new PM appointed as quickly as was practical though the time of crisis may well need to pass before that detail needed to be addressed I’d guess.

      Still, plenty of reason to query our MPs for more clarification on the point, IMHO.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. DASH
    22-Jul-13 09:14 am EDT at 09:14 am EDT

    If the Governor General was killed then the Queen would resume her powers to appoint a new Prime Minister and Governor-General so there would be little crisis


  3. DASH
    22-Jul-13 09:09 am EDT at 09:09 am EDT

    “Among the dead are the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Canada and Canada’s de jure head-of-state, the Governor-General”

    The Governor General isn’t the de jure head of state, just the de facto as legally the Queen is head of state


    • 26-Dec-13 08:10 pm EDT at 08:10 pm EDT

      Sorry, DASH…but I think you’ve got the terms “de jure” and “de facto” confused. The former means ‘by right of, in law’; whereas the latter means ‘existing fact, whether in law or not’. Source: online dictionaries, Wikipedia, etc.


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