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A State Visit to Glendon by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

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The Honourable David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario visited Glendon on January 11th .  The Lieutenant Governor was invited by Glendon professor of political science Radha Persaud, in order to provide a full account of his vice-regal role and his responsibilities to Persaud’s class in Canadian government.

The Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Ontario is The Queen’s representative in the province, much like the Governor General for the entire country. As the visit’s hosts soon learned, the position brings with it a great deal of pomp and circumstance, starting with the required formal address to His Honour, and attended to by a uniformed aide-de camp and several plainclothed OPP officers. But that is where the formalities ended, because the Lieutenant Governor  made it clear from the very beginning that he wanted to talk to the students directly and explain what he sees as his role and his personal opportunity to make a difference.

Depending on how you count it up, Lieutenant Governor Onley is either the 42nd or the 28th to fill this role, as there had been 14 vice-regal representatives before Confederation and 28 afterwards, including himself. But His Honour, who took office in 2007, is the first LG with a physical disability, having suffered from polio at the age of three and living since with the effects of the post-polio syndrome. Throughout his 22-year career as a distinguished broadcaster for CityTV  -  the first senior newscaster with a visible disability - he has adopted ‘accessibility’ as his pivotal mandate and has served as an outstanding role model for success in overcoming his physical limitations.

Left: His Honour David Onley

“David Onley has defined accessibility as that which enables people to achieve their full potential”, said Glendon principal Kenneth McRoberts in his welcoming address. “True accessibility means that disabled people can fully participate in the social, cultural and economic life of Ontario. Because accessibility includes opportunities for education, His Honour is also continuing and expanding the Aboriginal Youth Literacy Programs implemented by his predecessor.”

Quoting Santayana, that “[…] we can not know where we are going, unless we know where we are”, the Lieutenant Governor approached the description of his role from three perspectives. First, in a sweeping overview of the history of this position, he outlined the contributions of the earliest LGs, starting with Major-General John Graves Simcoe.

The early representatives of the monarch were military governors and often acted as spies for the mother country as well. Simcoe instituted policies of governance for the settlers, had roads built and helped encourage further settlement. He established courts of law based on the British system and worked towards abolishing slavery. “While the vested interests of the day stopped him from achieving an immediate outright ban, Simcoe’s landmark legislation was a fatal blow to this evil institution. I think we can all be proud of the fact that the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire was established here in Ontario.”

Right: (L-r) Professor Radha Persaud, His Honour the Lieutenant Governor, the Lieutenant Governor's aide-de-camp, and Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts

His Honour’s second topic was a review of the vice-regal office’s key constitutional responsibilities after Confederation. He pointed out that Canada’s Queen is represented for the entire country by the Governor General, and for every province by a Lieutenant Governor. These representatives are apolitical and speak directly to the citizens from a non-partisan perspective.

“The Lieutenant Governor is the constitutional head of each province and has the authority to encourage and warn government on matters of the day”, explained the Lieutenant Governor. “The LG signs bills into law, authorizes cabinet appointments, authorizes all provincial appointments to boards and commissions, prorogues the legislature and 'draws up the writ' to authorize an election.”

He added that, in fact, today’s Lieutenant Governors do not have real political power; this is actually in the hands of the Prime Minister and the elected politicians. LGs have the highest constitutional standing in their province, second only to the monarch, and have precedence in formal events even to Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

“However, the ultimate responsibility of the Lieutenant Governor - and one which I take very seriously - is that of guardian of the democratic process. While that may sound a somewhat exalted term, I believe it to be an accurate description and one of the fundamental reasons our system of government is better than others.”


Students are eager to chat with the Lieutenant Governor

After a discussion of some of the recent political events, His Honour turned to his third and final topic: the notion of a theme or mandate of the vice-regal representative and the future of the position.

His Honour quoted a 2007article in the National Post by Akaash Maharaj, who wrote: “It is easy . . . to see the lieutenant governorship as a relic of history and to dismiss its incumbents as unelected props of pageantry.” However, Maharaj went on to say that the role has great democratic potential, because the Lieutenant Governor “[…] can speak truth to power on behalf of those whose voices are drowned out in society.”

Lieutenant Governor Onley expressed his agreement with this assessment and stated that “[…] as the first Lieutenant Governor of Ontario with a physical disability, that cause [for me] is accessibility, which I have taken as the overarching theme of my term of office. By accessibility I do not just mean curb cuts, wider doorways, and wheelchair-friendly public transport, although these are important. By accessibility, I mean that which allows Ontarians with disabilities to realize their full potential.”

Left: A member of the class in conversation with the Lieutenant Governor

He then confirmed that his position is unique in its ability to focus on a single important theme. It also has the special ability to change and evolve, moving with the times in ways that only non-elected, non-partisan positions can achieve.

There were many enthusiastic questions from the students who were clearly moved by the Lieutenant Governor’s dedication and passion, and his no-nonsense reaching out to his audience.

"Since Canada is a constitutional monarchy, and since issues concerning the integrity of the institutions of governance arise from time to time in the Canadian system of governance, the role and discretionary powers of The Crown need to be understood by both students of Canadian government and Canadians in general”, said professor Persaud - winner of the 2005 Principal’s Teaching Award at Glendon - in assessing the significance of the Lieutenant Governor’s visit.

“In this instance, the students in my Glendon Canadian government class gained a fuller appreciation of the responsibilities of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and an illumination of the history of the vice-regal role in Ontario’s governmental system. My students and I are very grateful for the time that His Honour has devoted to this highly informative event, which was unanimously considered the highlight of this year's course."

More about The Honourable David C Onley

Lieutenant Governor David Onley has championed disability issues for many years. He served as Chair of the Government of Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council and was an accessibility council member for the Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre.

His Honour was born in Midland, Ontario and grew up in Scarborough.  He was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame and the Scarborough Walk of Fame.  He is also the recipient of the Rick Hansen Award of Excellence, the Courage to Come Back Award, and holds seven honorary degrees.

Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny


Published on January 21, 2010