VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – From “constitutional fire extinguisher” to “promoter-in-chief,” the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia is not just a ceremonial position. A new book looks at the evolution of the role over the years.
In The Lieutenant Governors of British Columbia, Victoria-based historian Jenny Clayton profiles each of the 29 people who have served in the role between 1871 and 2018.
The 30th is the Honourable Janet Austin, who admits her appointment took her completely by surprise.
“I received a call from the Prime Minister’s Office quite unexpectedly and they asked, would I be willing to have my name go forward for a security clearance check for a possible appointment as Lieutenant Governor and that’s the first that I’d heard of it,” she recalls.
In her foreword to the book, she says one of the priorities of her term is promoting democratic literacy by engaging the next generation of voters. “It provides me with the opportunity and a platform to bring profile and awareness to issues that I believe are important in contemporary society,” Austin says. These issues include Indigenous reconciliation, inclusion, diversity and gender equality, and building support for our democratic institutions.
She calls her job the best one any proud British Columbian could hope to have.
NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann reached Austin by phone at Government House.
So most people think the role of lieutenant governor is ceremonial: you read the Throne Speech, you attend important events like Remembrance Day, but, of course, it is much more important than that, especially given recent history.
“The role of lieutenant governor has a number of key facets to it. There is a constitutional role to which you’re referring and, of course, we saw the importance of that role manifest in the way that my predecessor, the Honourable Judith Guichon, managed the transition in our last provincial government. That’s an example that has caused people to reflect a bit more deeply about what the role actually means and what our constitutional monarchy actually brings to Canada, in terms of governance of our nation and of our province.”
And speaking of Judith Guichon, she was probably tested in ways few lieutenant governors in B.C. are. Did she have any parting advice for you, especially since you’re also presiding over a minority government?
“She and I didn’t actually speak directly about that, about the experience that she had, but what I would say is: I think it’s unlikely that I would be confronted with a similar situation. Those situations are very rare, but should that occur, I know I would have access to really excellent advice, legal advice, from a variety of different sources, and I would seek that advice. Obviously, [I would] take it to heart very seriously and exercise judgment as one does in life.”
When you took on the role, did anything in particular surprise you about the scope of what it was you were taking on?
“I was fairly well prepared in terms of my understanding of what would be required of me and I did put some thought into that clearly before we moved forward with the appointment. There’s been nothing that’s been a real surprise to me. I will say, however, that there’s still no such thing as a weekend in the role, it’s pretty much full-on all the time. It’s an enormous privilege really to do the work, but I will honestly say there’s a fair bit of it!”
Would you say there are aspects of the job that would surprise regular British Columbians?
“I think that the role could probably be better understood by many British Columbians, the different elements to it. Really, I think of it as being three. The first, of course, is the constitutional role that we’ve already discussed. The second is the ceremonial role, where I have the enormous privilege of honouring the accomplishments of British Columbians in many different walks of life. And the third is the opportunity that I have to identify certain themes and to champion those themes that relate to contemporary issues that are of importance to me. That is something I’m putting a fair bit of time and thought into and hopefully will make a meaningful difference with the work that we’re doing here through Government House.”
Now that you’ve been in the role for some time, any advice for those who would follow you?
“I’ve been in the role for a year and it’s really been a marvelous year. I would say that for people who will follow me, it’s always useful to learn about the experience of your predecessors, to reach out to those around you and seek advice broadly, and to be conscious of the evolving transitions in society, the issues that are of importance both to Canada and to British Columbia, and to take those things to heart in the decisions and the choices that you make in the role.”
The Lieutenant Governors of British Columbia is available from Harbour Publishing.