Ep. 07: Interview with Her Honour Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario




July 29, 2021  25 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. I'm Erin and I'm here with Stephanie for a very special episode today. We're so lucky to be joined by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario for a very special interview.



Stephanie: As Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy, it has both an elected head of government and the Queen as sovereign and head of state. The Lieutenant Governor is the Queen's representative and exercises the powers of the Crown in the province. These powers are similar to those of the Governor General at the federal level and are exercised according to constitutional conventions. The Lieutenant Governor performs important functions, including summoning, proroguing, and dissolving the Legislature on the advice of the Premier, reading the Speech from the Throne at the beginning of a parliamentary session, granting Royal Assent to bills passed by the Legislative Assembly, ordering elections to the Legislative Assembly on the advice of Cabinet, approving government business by signing Orders-in-Councils on the advice of Cabinet, and holding regular meetings with the Premier during which she has the right to be consulted on government matters. The Lieutenant Governor remains strictly non-partisan in carrying out her constitutional duties, in doing so they ensure that the democratic will of Ontarians and their elected representatives is upheld and that the constitutional conventions of responsible government are respected. In addition to her constitutional duties, the Lieutenant Governor promotes reconciliation, supports a sense of identity among the people of Ontario, and encourages worthy causes. She also represents all Ontarians when interacting with important visitors from outside Ontario and abroad. The Lieutenant Governor is proud to recognize Ontarians through a variety of honours and awards.  These honours are a way to formally and publicly acknowledge the excellence, achievements, and contributions of Ontarians from all walks of life.



Erin: We're honoured to be joined by the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ontario's 29th Lieutenant Governor. She has served the public interest, both in government and in the private sector, including as Under Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program. Her diverse portfolios have ranged from being the Founding President and CEO of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, and she has also served on the boards of Canadian and international corporate and non-profit organizations. Since taking office in late 2014, Her Honour has challenged Ontarians to think deeply about their role, not just as residents of the province, but as global citizens. The focus of her mandate has been building resilience and sustainability through inclusive, economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social cohesion, in addition to safeguarding democracy. She has a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics and Teaching Certificate from the University of Saskatchewan and a Master of Science in Behavioral Sciences from Utah State University. She's an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Member of the Order of Ontario and the recipient of numerous distinctions and fellowships. Her Honour also holds 12 honorary doctorates. Thank you so much for joining us today, your Honour.



Her Honour Elizabeth Dowdeswell: It's my pleasure. It's a delight to have an informal opportunity to chat with you.



Erin: For sure. So, we'll dive right into the questions, and so our first question is you were born in Ireland and immigrated to Canada and have worked in many diverse sectors. What experiences from your background contributed to where you are today?



Her Honour: That's a in many ways a difficult question, just because I've had the wonderful opportunity to change careers every four or five years of my life. But I think to start at the beginning, I would say that mine, my story is typical of so many Canadian stories. It's an immigrant story. My parents came to Canada from Northern Ireland when I was quite young, so all of my schooling took place here. And I think they always were looking for what Canada had to offer them. So, it was always a very positive, it wasn't a yearning to go back home, it was really how wonderful this country is. And I think at the roots of what I've been able to do and the adventures that I've been on, many of them can be traced back to that curiosity. The movement, the ability to interact in all kinds of situations, with all kinds of people, and certainly in Saskatchewan, rural Saskatchewan, you learn something about resilience, you become a survivor and you learn something about social consciousness and small-town life. And that never goes away and it doesn't matter what part of Canada, I think that's always a part of how you work with people. My parents fortunately, believed very strongly in higher education. And so, there was never any doubt that that would be a part of what I did. It wasn't a question of what I did. It was that I would do something. And I had a mother who told me you can do anything you want to do as long as you work hard. As long as you're persistent and dedicated to that, and that has always stood me in very good stead.



Stephanie: Well, speaking of opportunities, you became Lieutenant Governor in 2014. When you became aware that there was a possibility that you might become the Lieutenant Governor, what were your expectations for the role?



Her Honour: Let me say, first of all, that becoming Lieutenant Governor was certainly not on my radar screen, I had no indication. A phone call, a very preliminary phone call, alerted me to the fact and I you know thanked the individual very much, was very humbled by the call. But I really didn't see myself as necessarily being in that top list as I looked at my predecessors, for example. But I embraced it wholeheartedly, I mean, it's just the most wonderful opportunity. I feel very privileged to be in this role, and so I've enjoyed every, every day of it. I learn something every day and what can be better than that? Um, it, um, surprises, uh, not so many, and I think that's partly because so much of my life has been consumed by being a public servant of one kind or another. And so, you understand how government works and you understand the relationship between the Vice Regal representatives, so that was not foreign to me. And, because I had worked internationally, I had at least, informally, the training of a diplomat to be able to do some of those kinds of activities. So, I don't think there were any surprises, expectations that caught me off guard.



Erin: I know from previous experience here, some of your staff have told me, you get invited to many, many engagements and things like that across the province. Was the travel a surprise at all? Or were you expecting that?



Her Honour: No, I was expecting it because if my job is to represent the people of Ontario. How do I get to know the people of Ontario if I don't see them where they live and where they work, where they play? And so, for me, it was always very important to try and be everywhere. That's difficult, it would be very easy just to stick into my knitting here in downtown Toronto, because there's so much going on here, but really very important and a wonderful opportunity to really try and understand who Ontarians were by traveling. Again, I had known the extent both of travel and of time, but if you were to ask me the question "What do I regret or what have I found difficult?" certainly there's never enough time. We do almost, well this year I think it's almost 800 events in a year. Now some of those are just bilateral events and some of them are extensive phone calls of course, under COVID. But it is a very busy place and it's 24/7, you are on call. But that's wonderful, that's all part of the job.



Erin: Any particular memorable moments or your favorite memories, I guess? There's probably too many, but...



Her Honour: Yes, so many, you know, I'm as I look back, I can't even remember some of the things that I've done over the time. But I'm really very fortunate because my first memory, if you like was the weekend before I was Invested and it was a fly in visit to one of the Indigenous Nations and with the Countess of Sussex with me as well, as well as a number of other women, that I took on this visit. And so that really in many ways was a wonderful start to understanding the relationship of the Crown to Indigenous Nations based on the making of treaties, for example. So that was a very important first step. I remember Canada 150, what a wonderful year, 2017! We saw so many places. We really started to hear the aspirations of people, what they were proud about and how they celebrated that and so there are memories after memory of that.



Stephanie: You've mentioned that time is always a challenge, you never have enough time. Are there any other specific challenges that you've experienced in this role? That maybe you weren't expecting, or you were expecting, but were particularly problematic?



Her Honour: Well, I'm not sure it's problematic, but it's always there, the sense that your job is about protecting the dignity and integrity of the Crown, and being totally apolitical and nonprescriptive. And if you're a person who spent her life in public policy, it's really hard to keep quiet, and so not being able to say things and finding ways to actually engage people in conversation without being seen to be prescriptive at all is very challenging. There are, there, there is so much that I can't talk about and so much that I can't say, and yet it's so important to protect that because that is the essence of what keeps the continuity of democracy going on.



Erin: Well, we recently had another podcast episode about the difference and similarities between Parliament and Government, which was, I think probably an eye-opening episode for many people, because that distinction is often difficult for people to understand. But how would you say that your role as Lieutenant Governor interacts with both of those: with the Government versus Parliament?



Her Honour: I think there are some obvious symbolic ways where for example, when I give Royal Assent, I often will go into the Chamber and do it in front of Parliament for example. Whereas, where weekly, when I'm signing Cabinet documents it's done, during the pandemic, it's done here in this room very often. So, there are very much, very different ways, but maybe a better way of describing it is that I have one role that is in essence, protecting the well functioning of government, of our democracy and that's much more than government, democracy is about people. And so, the second part of my job, which is the representation of people of the province, to themselves and to others is a very important part of my job and where I spend a lot of my time. And so, in that sense, I see all Members of Parliament because I'm in their constituencies on a regular basis. So, I don't make the distinction between who's a Member of Parliament and, or who's a member of Government, who's a Member, more broadly, of Parliament because my role is the people of Ontario.



Stephanie: You explored it a little bit earlier about the importance of your role, would you be able to explain a little bit more how the constitutional role of the Lieutenant Governor is so important to our parliamentary system? Maybe for some people who aren't as familiar with how it works, maybe they didn't listen to the Parliament vs Government episode!



 Her Honour: Well and I think in the introduction and what you can see on paper gives you the legalistic description. The fact is that Bills don't get passed until they have my signature on them, Cabinet documents, passing of regulations, passing of Executive Orders, don't get done. The final step in all of that is the signature of the Lieutenant Governor. And over time, of course the, uh, by convention the Lieutenant Governor does not cause a constitutional crisis by getting engaged in the day-to-day discussion. But I take a great interest and often ask questions as I see things evolving in the House, to inform myself so that I'm well aware, and I'm curious about certain things. I'm often curious about the nature of consultation that went into the creation of some of this. And so, I have the opportunity to actually see what is happening to follow that, and again, it's always from the perspective of a, the people of the province, and then secondly, the continuity. Our constitution has allowed us to evolve rather than end up in revolution, and so we have changed over the years very much so, and there will continue to be conversations about whether this is the nature of the democracy that the people of Canada want. But my job is, as I say, to protect the integrity of that system and to make sure that there's always a fully functioning Executive Council, and Premier in place, that things are done in a way that withstands that and protects the constitution.



Erin: Sort of in that same vein of evolution over time. At the beginning, we said that you're the 29th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and the third woman to hold the position as well.  How do you think the role of Lieutenant Governor has changed over time since, maybe, the beginning to the 29th that you are now?



Her Honour: Well, any student of history would, uh, would be, the first thing they would say is that context matters. And so, this is a role that persists, but has to adapt to the context around them and the location. And certainly, we see that every day, even across Canada, because each of the Lieutenant Governors chooses to implement their role in differing ways. There are certain things that are common: you always give Royal Assent, you always sign documents, all of those constitutional things, but how you choose to implement the connection with citizens differs very much. Much of it is an educational role, much of it is an honouring role, and every one of us does that in, in one way or another. The other thing I would say is that, you know, because you have to be so carefully nonpartisan and non-political, uh, I was told very early on that most Lieutenant Governors are quite scripted when you're, especially because your words can be used at any point in time. And I remember very early on just setting aside the script at one public meeting and saying, you know, one of the things I really regret is that we don't tell our stories. We don't tell them often enough, we don't tell them well enough, we don't share. And so, I'm just going to appoint myself the province's chief storyteller. And that is something that has really resonated with people, and it is the most wonderful part of my job. So, I can be going to one town on the 401 and driving to another and saying, by the way, you know, I heard the most amazing story about community X and they were able to find a way of dealing with this particular challenge. And so just being able to shine a light on what people are doing and sharing it with others is just one of the most wonderful things about the job.



Stephanie: Well, this is a good transition kind of to our next question, because you've talked a lot about fostering the sense of identity with the people of Ontario. How important is it for you to support so many different initiatives? We know it takes up a lot of time, but it's a big part of the province.



Her Honour: This is a huge province. And there are different kinds of events that are meaningful to different constituencies. So, for some, it's really important to maintain the tradition of a reception here in Queen's Park, where they have a chance to see the small offices that we have. But the continuity is important - year after year, having your photo taken as you're presented with an honour on the grand staircase, for example, is really important to some people. So there there's that kind of event. We have the good fortune to be able to use the space, for example, to have art exhibits. And again, for some people coming here to be able to see, whether it's the exhibit that's up right now on Speaking of Democracy or whether it was one we did very early on, on identity, and that was all about the Great Lakes and wonderful artwork, so there are so many ways of doing that. We can host concerts and events that support particular organizations, we can bring together, even in a salon having a Friday night dinner, for example, with a group of people who maybe, have never met each other, but are prepared to come and talk about a particular issue to learn about a particular issue. Then there of course is simply being present and showing up at community events. In some cases, those may be academic situations where you're actually invited to bring opening remarks or even deliver a lecture on some particular topic. That's a different kind of way of impacting, particularly young people, which is so important to us particularly on matters of democracy. And then there are just fun events by the hundreds. You know, I love going out to the local markets, for example, and having a chance to talk to some of the farmers. We've done a lot of that. We've done concerts and events, just all over the province. But also, important to go as we have, to places like Collingwood, for example, where the leadership there is trying to get the community together to talk about: how do we create a sustainable community? And so being able to go and interact to something that they have organized is meaningful to them. So, there's no shortage of ways to do things, and we try and experiment with them all.



Erin: I mean, you've talked a lot about all the different facets of your role and sort of how every day is different, but is there maybe not one thing, maybe more than one thing, that you wish that everyone knew about the role of the Lieutenant Governor or the Office of the Lieutenant Governor?



Her Honour:  I would, of course talk to them about the importance of the institution as being such a fundamental part of our democracy and really a safeguard in many respects. So that's one part, but the other part that I would want them to know is, is about our accessibility. That I'm forever telling people why don't you come for a cup of coffee? But the, you know, the ceremony and the tradition is very important. Absolutely, and I wouldn't downplay that at all, but people also need to know that they can reach out, that being a part of an event here is available to them. Being invited, I mean, I always tell people, well just invite me and we may not be able to fit everything in, absolutely. But being able to demonstrate to people, that you don't just interact with the Office of the Lieutenant Governor on informal ways and on formal occasions, there is that, but there's real opportunity to really see and understand and feel the work of the office as it impacts on you as an individual citizen.



Erin: Thank you so much for joining us today, your Honour. It was a real pleasure to have this interview with you.



Her Honour: Well, and thank you very much for giving me the opportunity, in a very informal way to try and give people a peek behind the curtain to say what I do every day. And also, to convey how very fortunate I feel to be able to be in this position and to represent the people of this province.



Erin: I think that really comes across, your passion for Ontario and for all of the people definitely comes across. So, thank you again.



Her Honour: You're very welcome. Be safe and well,



Erin: Thank you. You as well.



Stephanie: Tune in next time to hear more ON Parliament.



Erin: Got to go, I think I hear the bells.



Stephanie: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Stephanie: Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing.



Stephanie: For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter (external link) and Instagram (external link): @onparleducation. Et en français sur Twitter (external link): @parloneducation.



Erin: Thanks again, and see you next time.


*Editor's Note: Her Honour references a trip she took with the Countess of Sussex. However, Her Honour later confirmed to ON Parliament that the trip was with the Countess of Wessex.