Sometimes, when Janet Austin is stowing her ride at the Government House bicycle lock-up, she’ll be approached by strangers.
“Do you know who lives here?” they’ll ask. Or maybe: “Do you know if the lieutenant-governor is around?” “She’s closer than you think,” Austin will reply. Then she’ll identify herself as the holder of the job.
“I always fess up,” she says. It wouldn’t be right for B.C.’s vice-regal representative to mislead people.
That’s one of the changes she has had to get used to in the 15 months since becoming B.C.’s 30th lieutenant-governor: asking herself if her actions are appropriate to her position.
As we emerge from the B.C. Day weekend, pause for a moment to consider how strange it must be to be thrust into the role of the Queen’s representative in the province just celebrated.
One moment you’re going about your relatively unremarkable life, taking out the recycling and mowing the lawn, and the next you’re rattling around a Rockland mansion straight out of Harry Potter, being chauffeured in a car with a little flag flapping over the front fender.
When Austin walks her dog, MacDuff, in the morning, it’s on the same grounds in which the likes of Winston Churchill, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Kate and William, Indira Gandhi, King Hussein of Jordan, the king and queen of Siam and the future former Edward VIII - the one who ditched the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, “the woman I love” — have all gone for a wander.
The people who have populated the position are the subject of a new book, The Lieutenant Governors of British Columbia, by Jenny Clayton. It’s a great peek at the lives of those who have filled the role, and of the changing nature of the job itself.
The lieutenant-governors range from the first one, Joseph William Trutch, who paved the way for white settlement by marginalizing Indigenous people, to Austin, who has made reconciliation a personal priority.
Their role has gone from being relatively partisan to carefully non-political and largely ceremonial, though the constitutional responsibilities that come with the job were highlighted in 2017, when Judith Guichon had to decide who should form the provincial government.
Clayton’s history of lieutenant-governors is enlivened with detail.
Albert Norton Richards’s daughter painted the portrait of Oscar Wilde that inspired Wilde’s novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray. When Thomas Wilson Paterson dropped the puck for a match between the Victoria Aristocrats and New Westminster Royals in 1912, it marked the first professional hockey game west of Toronto.
Billy Woodward, of department store family fame, hosted comedian Jack Benny at Government House as part of a wartime Victory Bond drive. Charles Arthur Banks, tired of the hoi polloi gawking through the windows, had guards prevent taxis from entering the grounds.
The building itself burned down twice. It was also imperilled in 1915 when anti-German rioters inflamed by the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania first targeted Victoria’s Kaiserhof Hotel, then threatened to march on Government House, due to chatelaine Martha Barnard’s German heritage and supposedly pro-kaiser sympathies.
Recent lieutenant-governors have put their own brand on the job, pushing certain causes. David Lam was known for building bridges between cultures. Iona Campagnolo, the first woman in the post, brought a quiet, determined feminism and got young people pumped up about the province. Steven Point, the only Indigenous lieutenant-governor, championed literacy.
Austin has identified three areas: inclusion and diversity; democracy (“I’m quite concerned about erosion of trust in democratic conventions and the institutions that support them”); and reconciliation. To aid in the latter, she has even begun learning a bit of SENCOTEN, the language of the Saanich Peninsula.
She finds having MacDuff around helps break the ice and keep things informal, which is her preference. “It relaxes people.” The dog, a West Highland white terrier identified on the lieutenant-governor’s website as Vice-Regal Canine Consort MacDuff Austin-Chester, even has its own Instagram account, @viceregalmacduff, with almost 800 followers. “I think he’s more popular on social media than I am.”
Austin’s schedule is busy. “All the days blur together. There’s no such thing as a weekend.”
Preparing speeches — she estimates she has made 300 so far — takes a lot of time. “You want to say something that’s meaningful to the audience,” says Austin. It’s part of what Clayton calls being a cheerleader for the province.
It has been rewarding, and her aides are all wonderful, she says, but being driven around to events takes getting used to, as does having a house with staff.
“That’s not to say I can’t go off to the grocery store or the hairdresser on my own. I do that all the time.”
Still, it’s a long way from her life as an executive in the non-profit world.
“It has been a big shift, let me tell you.”