Thoughts On The Monarchy

Lately the monarchy has been a rather hot topic throughout my life. Queen Elizabeth II just visited Canada and spent a couple of days in Halifax for the International Fleet Review in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Navy, a new Governor-General to replace Michaëlle Jean has been announced, and some complete and utter moron on Twitter, @jeanniemcbride posted a few tweets about Canada & Great Britain that seem to prove that a little knowledge is dangerous.

Whenever anything involving the monarchy in Canada happens there inevitably begins a debate about whether we need it, if it is some expensive throwback to a bygone era, how much does it all cost, and so on. Opinion polls seem to suggest that while Canadians have a favourable opinion of Queen Elizabeth II there is a bit of ambivalence toward the monarchy.

I’m something of a fence sitter I guess. While I feel no particularly strong affinity for the system I don’t feel any urge to chuck it out either. It to me is a symbol of our heritage, though in a way I wonder how strong those feelings will be in a generation’s time as Canada’s cultural mosaic changes.

First, for the edification of readers who may not know much about it, I’ll try to concisely explain the monarchy in Canada and where it came from. This will be very much a Coles Notes condensed history, because I’m not going to claim expertise, nor is a detailed essay on Lord Durham, the Family Compact, and all those other facets of Canadian history I barely remember from Grade 7 necessary. Then I’ll try to put it into modern context. Then consider alternatives. Finally at the end of this little exercise I may have an opinion on the matter.

Canada, of course, began its existence as a British colony. Well, technically, no. It began with a French colony at Annapolis Royal, about three hours’ drive from the house in which I’m hammering this out on an iPhone. Anyhow, there was a war, the French lost, the British deported most of them (the Acadians) to Louisiana, etc etc. Things were alright.

When the United States of America revolted and declared independence in 1776, Canada didn’t join them. In fact, many Loyalists moved to Canada and settled here. Where I used to live in Ontario many families trace their routes to these United Empire Loyalists, and their flag can often be seen in eastern Ontario.

Canadians by contrast worked toward independence from Britain more slowly and less acrimoniously, pushing for Responsible Government which might well be described as akin to taxation with representation. We did have two rebellions, in 1837, but they were relatively small – the Upper Canada Rebellion in York (Toronto) is sometimes satirically described as a bar fight – it started and basically ended at Montgomery’s Tavern, at what if I recall correctly is now Yonge & Sheppard in Toronto, where stands the Recruiting Centre where I joined the Canadian Forces.

In the interim, the War of 1812 happened, an American effort to invade and assimilate what is now Canada was repulsed, and Britain wanted to see Canada defend itself and so on. Over time, as responsible government proved a workable experiment, a push for unification of the various provinces grew, culminating in the Charlottetown Conference where Canada’s Confederation was hammered out in 1864. On July 1, 1867, the British government passed the British North America Act establishing Canada as an independent, self-governing dominion of four provinces – Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

So the nascent Canada came into being. We call it Confederation although Canada isn’t really set up as one – that term implies strong decentralization (think Switzerland as a model confederal system), whereas Canada is a pretty strongly federal system according to divisions of powers.

Canada’s government was created as a parliamentary democracy with a fused executive and legislative function. From the beginning we were a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain, with the reigning monarch being Head of State and the Prime Minister being head of government serving on the invitation of the monarch. In Canada the power of Head of State is vested with the King/Queen’s appointed representative, the Governor-General. The G-G gives the final approval of all legislation passed by the House of Commons and Senate, Royal Assent. The power has since 1867 been ceremonial in nature only, as in Britain proper the monarch has really no power. The Governor-General is customarily appointed by the monarch on recommendation of the Prime Minister, serving a term of 3-5 years and ideally alternative between an anglophone and a francophone.

Until 1931, the British Parliament had the ability to pass laws that could have effect throughout the Empire including the Dominions. In that year, however, the Statute of Westminster ended that power, meaning Canada was no longer subject to the whims of Britain, though I know of no example of such a thing happening between 1867-1931 – save perhaps that the British declaration of war on Germany automatically put Canada at war, but we likely would have done so anyhow. The Statute simply further formalized the matter.

The last piece of the puzzle lay in the fact that Canada did not have a formal constitution, and so after much negotiation amongst the provinces on the composition of such a document, the Canada Act was past in the British Parliament and received Royal Assent, ending the last real tie to Britain.

The thing is that it was not that event that made Canada an independent self-governed country anyhow, not in the eyes of Canadians or any reasonable observer, and the fact that the Queen is the official Head of State similarly did not make us less independent. She is, after all, the head of state of several nations including Australia and New Zealand.

So, that’s the basic history this twit yesterday didn’t get.

So on now to the modern context – what’s the monarchy mean in Canada now?  Well, in terms of actual power or influence, really nothing, as it hasn’t even in Great Britain for many years.  The monarchy’s main purpose in Canada as in the UK seems to be the preservation of history and heritage, and a semblance of permanence whilst the actual government is more transient.  Throughout tumultuous history, the Royal Family has been able, at times, to show a sort of national resolve that I think has had a significant impact.  During the Second World War, for example, there was a suggestion that the young princesses, Elizabeth (now Queen), and Margaret to be evacuated from Britain to the relative safety of Canada until peace prevailed.  Their mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, stated something to the effect of “They will not go without me.  I will not go without the King.  And the King will not leave.”  The entire family stayed, enduring the Blitz and the bombing of even their home at Buckingham Palace (the Princesses were living away from there, I think at Balmoral), but faced the adversity with a steely resolve that showed the common Britons that they could carry on.  This, I think, encapsulates why to many the monarchy is somewhat sacred.

Fortunately, no national tumult has existed in my lifetime that has made this sort of force actually necessary – at least not in Canada.  There are stories of the role of the Queen Mother in the UK in the 1960s when there was talk of a putsch to save Britain from socialism, stories my father tells without sources, but he tends to be fairly sharp on these things, and the lack of sources is more from my lack of asking.  It’s fairly clear that Trudeau, whose efforts brought about the patriation of the constitution in Canada, was no monarchist and yet he made no effort to dispose of the vestige of Britishness that still exists here.

When I ask my father why he still believes in the value of the monarchy, he gives me a simple answer – with what would we replace it?  In the case of the UK itself, the monarchy and its trappings is a massive tourism draw, a sort of living history that seems to captivate people (including, I note with a sense of irony, many Americans…)  The pomp of it all seems to have some sort of value to people.  I note with amusement that affinity of some Americans, particularly for the young princes… because they seem to take more interest in the whole thing than Canadians do, when it has more of a role in our actual governance, and it was Americans who fought a war to rid themselves of the yoke of tyranny that the monarchy represented!

Ultimately, in many other industrialized nations, there’s a sort of similar role – all except the USA anyhow, I think.  France and Germany strike me as the clearest example, mainly because I’m familiar enough to know them – Russia as well.  In these nations, there is a head of government – a Prime Minister in France and Russia, a Chancellor in Germany, who is the head of the actual legislative body, and then there is a President who has a sort of final executive function.  Which of the two roles has precendence varies – in Germany, for example, I think if I remember right, the role of the Bundespraesident is mainly ceremonial rather like the G-G here.  In France and Russia less so – though Russia is a curious case given that the man who really seems to pull the strings, Vladimir Putin, is now Prime Minister because he could no longer serve as President, but one gets the sense that Dmitri Medvedev is really just a figurehead for the former President.

If Canada was to declare itself a republic and dispose of the vestiges of colonialism, what would we replace it with.  According to the current set up, the role of the G-G in providing Royal Assent, even if basically a rubber stamp, is required – so we’d either need to overhaul our legislative process entirely, or replace the role with a new one ostensibly the same.  If the argument for doing so is doing away with the expensive trappings of a viceregal system, then it seems we’d be set up to fail there.    That said, given that Governors-General have so very seldom actually taken a role in domestic politics in any tangible way, there can be an argument that they really don’t serve any purpose and we could scrap the whole office and adapt our system to function without it.  Again, this fails on the fact that in theory in the formation of government there must be some arbiter of last resort and the Crown fulfills that role.  Canadians, after all, do not elect the Prime Minister.  We elect our local Member of Parliament only.  The party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons is then by custom invited to form a government with its leader becoming Prime Minister.  It’s the Crown that makes that invitation – or entertains ideas for alternatives in the case where no clear majority exists.  That is, arguably, a valid and necessary role.

That is what it comes down to for me.  There’s some sort of permanence to the whole thing that I don’t see being easily replaced.  There’s something more sacred to it than the idea of some commoner having the role fulfilled by a monarch than some commoner.  I don’t know why, but for example, my commission as an officer seems to resonate more coming from the Royal We than from some “President”.  (humourous aside: though I have been a commissioned officer for some five years now, I don’t actually have my commissioning scroll, because of bad staff work – but if I did have it – it sounds more impressive that way).  I can’t explain why exactly that is save to perhaps assert that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  I don’t see that we’d really have much to gain by ending the connection, so why bother?  That said, most of the arguments I’ve seen monarchists make are rather spurious.  My personal favourite involves something along the lines of “why leave the Commonwealth?”  This is a fallacious argument, given that the Commonwealth isn’t particularly valuable for one thing I don’t think… includes countries with no historical connection to Britain anyhow now (Rwanda joined, I seem to think?), and becoming a republic and ending the role of the monarchy doesn’t mean leaving the Commonwealth, anyhow!

What will be interesting, though, is to see what attitudes toward the monarchy will be in 10 or 20 years, as Canada becomes more “multicultural” and home to more and more people who have no sort of connection to the British Isles or the Commonwealth.  There may become less sense of connection among a broader group of Canadians, notwithstanding the fact that naturalized Canadians swear an oath of loyalty to the Crown.  Maybe in 20 years things will be different, but Australians thought that in their last referendum on becoming a republic, and were stunned that there was no appetite for it.

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2 comments so far

  1. Radical Centrist on

    Small correction – the Princesses were only briefly at Balmoral – they spent the bulk of the war (1940-45) at Windsor Castle, and Elizabeth served in the military where she trained as a driver, mechanic and drove a military truck.


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