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Look to Alberta for clues about the next GG

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is said to have decided there will be no second five-year term for Governor General Michaelle Jean.

So, one way or another, Canadians might look to Alberta for hints of what could happen next as the prime minister gets down to picking her replacement.

Now, public opinion polls indicate Jean is generally popular among Canadians, so on the face of it, asking her to serve a second term makes sense.

However, choosing a replacement will allow the prime minister to put his Conservative stamp on this important national office. The Governor General is, after all, Canada's head of state, notwithstanding the flimsy and increasingly frantic claims of the country's dwindling monarchist claque that only the Queen of England may be so described. As we have so recently seen, the GG enjoys real power on those rare occasions when the will of the Canadian electorate is not clear, or the will of Parliament is not the same as that of the prime minister.

In Harper's view, Jean may have done "the right thing" when the PM successfully sought to evade the democratic right of Parliament to vote no confidence in his ministry, but her future reliability cannot be guaranteed.

After all, she was appointed by prime minister Paul Martin, a Liberal. And who knows what she said to Harper at that fateful Dec. 4, 2008, meeting at Rideau Hall when she agreed to prorogue Parliament, thereby letting Canadians escape the fate of having a government that enjoyed the confidence of the House they had elected only weeks before.

If she told him -- as many of us suspect -- "just this once," she ended any possibility of reappointment right then.

So speculation about her replacement has been lively, centred on the notion Harper is looking for a man with a disability. This would nicely symbolize modern Canada's diversity without setting the teeth of the prime minister's un-reconstituted political base on edge.

The Toronto Star reported he offered the job to athlete Rick Hansen, who turned it down. The newspaper says he is now considering reliably Conservative former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, who like Mr. Hansen uses a wheelchair.

Could be. But reading the tealeaves from Alberta, where by coincidence a new Lieutenant Governor has just been named, suggests the prime minister may do something quite different. (In Canada, prime ministers are responsible for choosing the occupants of both vice-regal offices.)

In Alberta, to the bafflement of all, the PM turned to a man no one including the Wikipedia has ever heard of -- one Don Ethell, a former military officer from Calgary distinguished by having served on lots of peace keeping missions and, um, being "an occasional military commentator for the CBC."

Now, the Unknown Soldier is surely a fine man who will contribute enormously to the job. However, he faces the challenge of having not one, but two, tough acts to follow.

Most recent is Norman Kwong, the soft-spoken Calgary-born athlete, the first Chinese Canadian to play on a professional Canadian sports team and one of the very few people whose name is on both the Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup. Universally known as "Normie," Kwong was appointed by Mr. Martin.

Before Kwong was the down-to-earth Lois Hole -- gardener, author, outspoken supporter of public services and unabashed admirer of Tommy Douglas. Hole was Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien’s gift to Alberta. She died at 71 in 2005.

Albertans were enormously fond of both.

If Col. Ethell's unanticipated appointment is a portent, it may give credence to the suggestion Harper is looking at Gen. John de Chastelain, former chief of defence staff, another uninspiring choice with shiny boots, a chest full of medals and a proven ability to follow orders.

But here’s a bet: de Chastelain will remain Harper's second choice. The prime minister will seek inspiration from Wild Rose Country in another way -- by naming his former boss, Preston Manning.

From the PM's perspective, who could look better than the politically reliable, ideologically unimpeachable, evangelically Christian, earnestly market fundamentalist former Reform Party leader from Calgary?

As for the rest of us, well, about the only good news would be we'd get to dust off our hilarious Presto imitations.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaDiary.ca.

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