Book Review: Caribou Slippers & Seal Hunt Barbie

Governors general, let’s see: Ed Schreyer was “unskilled”; Roméo LeBlanc was “colourless”; Michaëlle Jean’s appointment was “bizarre”.

In a book livelier than its title, author D. Michael Jackson ridicules Canada’s version of a constitutional monarchy while making the case for retaining it. He was director of protocol for Saskatchewan for 25 years. His logic is succinct: of course there have been low-water marks, writes Jackson, but the crown is who we are.

“One should not assume that replacing a monarch and vice-regal representatives by a president, elected or not, will reduce costs or cut back on pomp and circumstance,” he explains. The result is the sub-Arctic aristocracy of Rideau Hall.

An example: Michaëlle Jean, the Québec TV personality who adopted the habit of calling herself our “head of state.” Jean’s one indelible moment came when she nibbled seal flesh on a northern tour, earning the newsroom nickname Seal Hunt Barbie. It was like a “personality cult,” sighs Jackson.

Provincial vice-regal appointees are also an odd collection of ex-alderman, football players and lobbyists. Jackson mines this resource for many rich anecdotes, like the story of John Bowen, the Baptist minister who as lieutenant governor of Alberta in 1938 refused to sign a Social Credit press gag bill. The Socreds retaliated by cutting off the power to Government House and taking away Bowen’s car and chauffeur.

Then there was the time Saskatchewan’s CCF government auctioned the furniture at Government House in Regina.  Premier Tommy Douglas cursed the “tremendous cost of maintaining a huge staff of footmen and butlers and gardeners and maids and cooks” in a palace on the plains. When Princess Elizabeth visited Regina in 1951, Douglas’ cabinet had to be cajoled into buying her a gift, and finally settled on caribou slippers.

Jackson argues convincingly that constitutional monarchy is as Canadian as the slippers, and in the end a comfortable fit.

“Many Canadians take this all for granted or consider it peripheral,” he writes. But we’ll live with it just the same.

By Holly Doan

The Crown and Canadian Federalism by D. Michael Jackson; Dundurn; 336 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-09881; $27.99

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