Explainer: what to expect if a Canadian prime minister is too sick to do the job

OTTAWA — The day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's wife was revealed to have COVID-19, cabinet agreed that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland would be next in line if Trudeau could not perform his duties.

The move, usually a formality, has become more significant during the COVID-19 crisis, which is now threatening the life of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Next in line

The order of precedence approved March 13 designates Freeland as next in line to perform the prime minister's duties if Trudeau is "unable to perform the functions of his office."

All 36 ministers in the current cabinet are listed in case Freeland is also unable to fill the role, but those who come after her are named according to the date by which they were first sworn into a federal cabinet.

That puts Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, who first served in cabinet under former prime minister Jean Chretien, the next in line after Freeland to act as prime minister. Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, who became a cabinet minister last November, is last.

Such lists are regularly created and updated by federal governments.

They also include substitutes for all ministerial portfolios. Should Finance Minister Bill Morneau be incapacitated, for example, then Mona Fortier, the associate finance minister, would step in. Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos is tagged as a second alternative.

The Prime Minister's Office said the order of precedence needed to be updated following the October federal election and the process happened to conclude at the same time as Sophie Gregoire Trudeau tested positive for COVID-19.

The order of precedence does not say under what circumstances a prime minister is deemed "unable to perform the functions of his office."

Such a decision would likely rest with cabinet with advice from Canada's top civil servant, the clerk of the Privy Council, said Carleton University professor Philippe Lagasse, one of Canada's top experts on the Westminster model of government.

What happens if a prime minister, whose job includes naming members of cabinet, some senior civil servants and even recommending to the Queen who should serve as the governor general, is incapacitated for an extended period of time?

There is no easy answer, according to a briefing paper prepared by the Library of Parliament last October: "The incapacity of a prime minister would be more problematic; no precedents exist for this situation."

No vice-president

The order of precedence does not say what happens if the prime minister dies.

Eight presidents of the United States have died while in office, the most recent being John F. Kennedy in 1963. In every case, as laid out in the U.S. constitution, the vice-president automatically succeeded to the White House.

Unlike in the U.S., Canada does not have a clear line of succession. Canada has had two prime ministers die in office: Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891 and John Thompson in 1894. The two situations were handled differently, though with some similarities.

Macdonald, who died of a stroke, reportedly wanted Thompson to succeed him. After his death, governor general Frederick Stanley — of Stanley Cup fame — "called on Thompson to form a government," historian P.B. Waite wrote in 1990.

Thompson turned it down and John Abbott, a senator, was tapped as a compromise candidate. He lasted 17 months as prime minister before resigning, paving the way for Thompson to take over. Two years later, while on a trip to Britain, Thompson suffered a heart attack and died.

"Governor General Lord Aberdeen now had a difficult choice," Waite wrote.

Cabinet had been held together "by Thompson’s strength, suavity, and knowledge. It now fell back into constituent parts, each with members who displayed individual prejudices and jealousies. Thompson had left no intimations about a successor, and there was no clear choice."

Mackenzie Bowell got the job by virtue of being the most senior member of cabinet.

The Crown's prerogative, kind of

It is ultimately up to the Queen or her representative in Canada — Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, at the moment — to appoint a new prime minister, said Lagasse.

"But obviously the Crown is going to follow whatever they're being told by the other ministers. If the other ministers are like 'This is the person,' then that's the person. It does involve a certain degree of discretion on the part of the governor general, but not really."

Many Canadians would have naturally assumed that Freeland as deputy prime minister would succeed Trudeau if he were to die. Trudeau is also likely to have personally voiced that desire to Payette, Lagasse said.

"My guess is that the prime minister would have through some way, shape or form communicated who he would advise as his successor as prime minister should he no longer be able to hold the office."

But the order of precedence approved last month sends a clear signal to Payette that cabinet supports the position as well.

The real deal

So if Trudeau died, would Freeland be interim or acting prime minister until someone is selected to serve permanently? The short answer is no.

"It's not as if the governor general would name somebody kind of like in a caretaker capacity until the Liberals named a new leader or anything like that. That's not how it works," said Lagasse.

"The minute that the prime minister is no longer the prime minister, the governor general's first duty in any circumstance is to find another prime minister," he said.

"And that has to be a full-on prime minister."

That was why Abbott and Bowell were appointed. The former was seen as the least divisive of several choices. The latter was the most senior minister according to order of precedence. In neither case did the Conservatives have a chance to run a leadership race.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said that the order of precedence was updated because of Sophie Gregoire Trudeau's COVID-19 diagnosis.

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