Interview with Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo
April 23, 2004
Her Honor, The Honorable Iona Campagnolo, PC, CM, OBC, is the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of British Columbia. She is the province's Head of State, and performs countless ceremonial duties around BC. Prior to this, she was a prominent face in the Canadian Liberal Party for over a decade, serving as a Cabinet Minister as well as Party President.
Here she talks with the OP's J.J. McCullough about life, governance, and the future of the monarchy.
Though many Canadians overlook the fact, Canada is a monarchy. We have a Queen, one Elizabeth the Second, who is entrusted by our constitution with many sacred powers and legal prerogatives. Since unfortunate geographic reality prevents our monarch from maintaining a prominent face in Canada, her duties have been divided up among 14 Canadian vice-regal Crown representatives, including a Lieutenant Governor for each of Canada's ten provinces.
Iona Campagnolo was appointed Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia in 2001. Contemporary political reality often gives the LG a decidedly less-than-visible role in day to day governance, yet the office remains well-funded and extremely prestigious. I decided to pay Her Honor a visit, to see first-hand how BC's 27th vice-regal representative functions in the 21st century.
A short ferry trip to Victoria and I arrive at the Lieutenant Governor's house. It is located in a very posh area of Victoria's most elite community. In a neighborhood dominated by enormous mansions, Government House, as it is called, is by far the biggest. Trees and foliage of all sorts surround the massive house in a vast 14-acre garden. The gates are always wide open, "from dawn to dusk" the plaque says, and the grounds are full of curious tourists as well as seniors out for their morning stroll.
I walk down the winding path and climb the stairs to the mansion's massive front door. After being buzzed in by security, I am told to enter the main foyer and take a seat. The house is simply breathtaking from the inside. As could probably be expected, the manor is a testament to colonial British architecture, with high ceilings, chandeliers, and posh red carpets. Everything is engraved or touched up with gold paint. The guard tells me to take a seat, and I do, on a small cream sofa located under an enormous oil portrait of Prince Philip. The house is apparently in preparation for some sort of big event later tonight, and decidedly blue-collar workers can be seen running the vacuums and moving chairs from one room to another.
Finally, after much waiting, a cheerful aide approaches me, "I will go tell Her Honor you're here," she says, and walks off briskly. The woman sitting on the other sofa (apparently some sort of interior decorator) is impressed. "You're lucky," she says. "She's such a great woman." The Lieutenant Governor is somewhat of a local celebrity here in Victoria; everyone I meet has nothing but glowing praise for her, as well as numerous proud anecdotes of their personal encounters with Her Honor.
The aide returns and I am told that the Lieutenant Governor will see me now. We walk down a chandelier lit hallway, lined with gold-framed oil paintings of Ms. Campagnolo's predecessors. They are all elderly, white bearded gentlemen with mustaches, wearing gold-braided colonial uniforms decorated with dozens of medals. It seems strange that there will one day be a woman's portrait amongst them. The hall ends with a framed photograph of the Queen, the third I have seen in the house so far, I mentally tally. We enter a large, yet not overly conspicuous wooden door, and the aide, an obvious stickler for protocol, gives the formal introductions.
"Your Honor, may I present J.J. McCullough of Douglas College," she announces, making me feel like a foreign duke. Her Honor arises from her desk to shake my hand. I bow my head slightly.
The Lieutenant Governor is a short, elderly woman who nevertheless manages to carry herself with an elegance and sophistication that supercedes her small frame. Her short hair is silver, and modishly styled. She wears a bright yellow turtleneck with a black sports jacket emblazoned with her crest of office on the right pocket. Like much of her fashions, it has no doubt been personally tailored.
If the rest of her mansion has a somewhat dated feel, Campagnolo's office is the height of modernity. White, spacious, and meticulously neat, it looks as clean and professional as the office of any CEO. An enormous picture window on the back wall exposes a breathtaking view of Juan de fuca straight. I cannot help but smile at the fact that her large desk features a desktop computer running Windows XP. In Government House there seems to be a re-occurring theme of the old contrasting with the new.
As we sit down on two of her many decorative couches, I begin by asking her if anything about her office has surprised her during the past two and a half years of her five-year term. "What surprises you about it is the depth of the need for a position that is outside of traditional partisan politics," she says. Her voice is soft and calm, but very intense and focused. He chooses her words carefully. "As a Head of State of your area you get to see people of your community at their very best, all the time, day after day."
Like most contemporary Lieutenant Governors, Campagnolo's job is almost entirely ceremonial. She travels across the province, visiting schools, businesses, churches, clubs, and organizations in cities and communities of all sizes, from the smallest elementary school in the rural north to grand banquets in downtown Vancouver. Along the way she recognizes the excellence of her fellow British Columbians. "I'm so fortunate to be able to acknowledge and honor and give medals to British Columbians who spend their lives working to the betterment of society, rather than their own benefit," Her Honor says with great pride. "It's a reassuring and hopeful thing to see, and that part of the job is the highlight for me."
Despite this, Campagnolo's office carries with it a specific constitutional job, namely to represent the Queen to the province of British Columbia. She is quick to point out that the job description should not be taken too literally, however. "When you say we represent the Queen, it is more or less in a legal sense," she clarifies. "We represent the Crown. The Crown represents the rule of law that we live under together as citizens of a country." In a contemporary context she thus sees her job as one of symbolism. "As far as possible I try to symbolize the Province of British Columbia, the state of British Columbia, the people of British Columbia and try to make this beautiful house, this 14.6 hectares of land open to everybody," she says gesturing to our lavish surroundings. She goes on to explain how her keen awareness of symbolism even led her to rename the mansion. Previously known by the rather uninspired title of "Official Residence of the Lieutenant Governor," upon assuming office Campagnolo re-christened it with a more populist title, calling it the "ceremonial home of all British Columbians."
Campagnolo has not held elected office since 1984, when she lost her bid for re-election as a BC Member of Parliament. Since then, she had been continually mentioned as a possible candidate for the post of BC's Lieutenant Governor. "Every time there was a new choice to be made my name would be run along in the newspaper, so I had put it out of my mind as something not likely to occur," she says reflectively. "I was quite surprised when Prime Minister Chretien called me." Offering a rare insight into the appointment process, Campagnolo mentions how her nomination had to be approved by Premier Campbell as well as the Federal Prime Minister, before going to the Queen for ratification. Constitutional law only lists the latter as legally necessary, but like so much else with this office, the appointment process is changing to accommodate the political winds of the day.
Aside from Newfoundland (which is still waiting), British Columbia was the last province in Canada to get a female Lieutenant Governor, a fact which Campagnolo is quick to observe. "I was active in the feminist movement throughout most of my adult life and worked hard in certain areas to see that women were accepted as equals in society, and that the laws were changed to accommodate our access into every part of public life and otherwise," she says. "It was significant to me that of the 27 Lieutenant Governors, it was almost 140 years before a woman received this post here in British Columbia. And of course I'm always conscious that if I do the job badly it will reflect on my gender and that other women will suffer, as I did it badly. So I have to attempt to do as good a job as is humanly possible under the circumstances." No small task to be sure, but Campagnolo seems up to the task. Already she has implemented several feminine touches to the office, even creating her own stylish feminine "uniform" to replace the antiquated (and decidedly masculine) colonial outfit of gold-braid and black tails.
I wonder what Her Honor makes of the recent controversies swirling around her fellow vice-regal, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. "I think that Adrienne Clarkson is probably the best Governor General we've had to this point, because he is probably one of the most intellectual and articulate leaders of thought that I have seen in the post," she says slowly. "She is using the post extremely well to embrace the whole panorama of what we are as Canadians. She has almost single-handedly, I think, brought about a new appreciation for Canada's military in the context of our society. She has been there when the great tragedies have occurred and she has focused so well." Though she admits there are always "costs attached to these offices," Campagnolo nevertheless sees a strong benefit in preserving the GG's position. "By having a Head of State who has no political power it sets you apart to be a person who is representing all parts of the society, not just a certain part that you happen to ideologically connect with."
As a long-serving former politician does she find it hard to occupy what is supposed to be a strictly non-partisan office? "It's a difficult process because there are areas of principle in which you are engaged," she says. "But the constitution is very clear, I could not enter, for example into discussion with the premier about his policy directions." While she acknowledges her speeches carry an "admittedly centrist perspective" she is quick to point out her personal politics never interfere with her most important state duties. " "People have said to me 'why do you still do the Speech from the Throne and proroguing the house or doing royal assent?'" she says, referring to her mandated constitutional jobs. "It's very important that we do these things even though they seem a bit archaic, because it is a way of reminding the system- I, as you noted have been as much a partisan as anyone else- it is a way to remind us that we have to be responsible to the whole system."
When I ask her opinion on the Canadian republican movement that would seek to permanently abolish our ties to the Queen, Her Honor is remarkably frank in acknowledging some of the contemporary problems the monarchy can present. " While we have a monarch, we don't really have a royal family," she says. "When Her Majesty travels abroad in the world she doesn't travel as the 'Queen of Canada' she travels as the Queen of Great Britain." One again she tries to extol the benefits of our country's division of powers, but I press her on the republican issue. A republic can take many forms. There is no reason that abolishing our ties to the monarchy would alter Canada's political status quo beyond recognition. Could we not continue all of this without paying allegiance to a foreign Queen?
"Yes, well that's an ongoing debate in Canada," she says, perhaps with a hint of exasperation. "All I can tell you is that in the days when it used to go before Mr. Trudeau, when I was in cabinet, he would say 'the system's not broken, it works very well, I suggest we leave it that way.' 'Unless you have an alternative," he used to say, 'please, lets move on to some of the real issues of the day.'"
I ask her if she has much contact with her royal boss in London. "No, not frequently," she laughs. "Her Majesty, first of all, let's remember is sovereign of 16 sovereign nations, she is head of a 53-member Commonwealth. So if all of us inundated her every day, she'd have no time for anything else." Nevertheless, Her Honor is quick to point out that she and Queen have repeatedly crossed paths over the lengthy course of their respective careers. Together they celebrated BC's centennial in 1971, presided over the 1978 Montreal Olympics, and opened the University of Northern British Columbia in 1994, back when Her Honor was serving as University chancellor.
Campagnolo repeatedly expresses her high regard for the Queen. Even in casual conversation she always refers to the monarch as "Her Majesty." "I have enormous respect for her," she says. "She's very intelligent and she's been 52 years in her role, so she knows all the leaders of all the countries. She has this great political sense and is quite free in how she speaks personally, though she gives the impression of being distant. She took her vows in 1952 that to her death she would do her duty, and in my view she has. And that's really remarkable discipline, and I greatly admire discipline."
As to the long-term survival of the monarchy, she admits it may be too early to predict. "It depends what Canadians want," she says. "Is it going to be a primary issue of concern or are there other concerns that are going to take precedence?" Unlike many monarchists, one does not get the impression that Her Honor has a blind faith in the monarchy. She accepts the reality of an evolving political climate, though where that will lead is unclear. "I'm not sure how we will evolve," she admits. "We've done our bit in my time, and we will in yours."
As her aide returns to indicate that my audience is up, Campagnolo eagerly insists that before I go she must show me some of her pictures. She proudly takes me to the back wall of her office, which is lined with large framed photographs chronicling her lengthy political career. It takes me a few seconds to realize that the pretty brown-haired young woman in these pictures is the same elderly vice-regal who is now standing beside me.
There are pictures of Iona on Parliament Hill with Trudeau, in Havana with Fidel Castro, in Ottawa with the Pope, and of course, her numerous audiences with the Queen. Looking at them, it is hard not to be impressed. "I've had a wonderful life," she acknowledges happily.
Inspired by my show of interest, she then turns to some of the other artifacts that adorn her room. Native art is a clear theme. She points to ceremonial feathers given to her by various BC tribes, and proudly recites her two granted aboriginal names, Noltz whe Neha or "Mother of the Big Fin" from the T'Simpsean Nation, and Saan Ag X'swa or " Person who Sits High" from the Haida. Though she admits she has troubles with the pronunciations, her immense pride in being acknowledged by these historic nations is obvious. She shows me other treasured objects, including paintings, carvings, boxes and blankets. She carefully unveils the red, white, and black Nisga'a flag and reflectively recounts her long history of fighting for the Nisga'a cause. From her days as a broadcaster, to her days in cabinet, she never relented in her support of the BC tribe's quest for self-governance. "One day I'm going to fly this flag from the pole," she says, referring to the enormous flagpole that sits outside her mansion, flying her royal colors. Certainly no one could accuse Her Honor of harboring a colonialist mentality.
As our visit comes to a close, the Lieutenant Governor can't help but give me a preview of what's yet to come. "After I finish this, my next cause will be the arctic sovereignty," she says proudly.
I laugh. "You're just getting started!"
"Well, it's like I say, If God wills," she replies, smiling.