The Head of State Debate and the Future of the Monarchy in Canada

12 10 2009
Governor General Michaëlle Jean

Governor General Michaëlle Jean

Canadian newspapers have carried a host of stories in the past few days about the Governor-General’s recent and very controversial description of herself as Canada’s “head of state” . See here, here, here, here, here, and here. For a francophone perspective on this terminological question, see here. In my opinion, the debate about whether the Governor-General should be described as “Canada’s de facto head of state” or merely as “the representative of Canada’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth” misses the point: a majority of Canadians believe that that position Queen of Canada should be abolished. (For polling data regarding support for the republican option in Canada, see here).

The monarchy is the elephant in the room that nobody in the political class wants to discuss. Canadian politicians are very hesitant to raise the question of the monarchy’s future because that would mean re-opening the constitution and obtaining the support of all of the provincial governments. Obtaining their support for the abolition of the monarchy would likely involve changing other parts of the constitution (e.g., an unelected upper house, Proportional Representation, possible special status for the nation of Quebec). The lesson most people in Ottawa drew from the two rounds of attempted constitutional reform under Brian Mulroney was that constitutional change should be avoided at all costs. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien astutely avoided the “c-word” when in office between 1993 and 2003.

The downside of this unwillingness to touch the constitution, the third rail of Canadian politics, is that the two most objectionable features of Canada’s constitution, the monarchy and the unelected Senate are condemned to persist in limbo, neither respected by the majority of Canadians nor abolished.

A few years ago, I wrote the following piece for a Canadian magazine. It was originally slated for publication in its May issue (May is when the Queen’s birthday is celebrated in Canada). The magazine decided not to print it after all. Anyway, I have decided to post it here.

Creating a Post-Colonial Canada: Complete English Canada’s Quiet Revolution by Abolishing the Monarchy

by Andrew Smith

As Victoria Day, the Queen of Canada’s “official” birthday, rapidly approaches, it is an opportune time to reflect on the monarchy’s future in Canada.

Queen Victoria, 1845

Queen Victoria, 1845

Many Canadians wrongly regard the monarchy as a pleasingly quaint institution with no practical importance. In reality, this vestige of a failed empire matters a great deal. Abolishing the monarchy would send an important message, namely, that Canadians wish to repudiate all forms of imperialism, both the past imperialism of the British Empire and the ongoing imperialism of the United States. Our foreign head of state contravenes both the spirit of multiculturalism and the principle of national independence, two values that are, in the Canadian context, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

The broad lesson to draw from Canada’s history in the twentieth century is that the gradual growth of Canadian nationalism and the emergence of a more tolerant society have gone hand in hand. In the early twentieth century, Canada was a Dominion of the British Empire rather than a fully sovereign country. In Canadian society, British Protestants enjoyed a privileged position, non-whites were marginalized, and French Canadians enjoyed a highly qualified tolerance.

South African War Memorial, Toronto

South African War Memorial, Toronto

When the Empire went to war in 1899 and 1914, Canadians of British ancestry enthusiastically responded to the call to arms by the land of their ancestors. Most French Canadians said that they would be willing to fight for Canada, but not for the British Empire. The First World War split Canada’s body politic because politicians of Anglo-Saxon descent were determined to apply all of Canada’s resources to Britain’s struggle. By the time of the Second World War, Canada had acquired a stronger separate identity and a Prime Minister eager to accommodate Quebec. Sadly, Mackenzie King’s tolerance did not extend to Jews or Japanese-Canadians, but he was better than his Tory alternatives.

After 1945, the British Empire morphed into the amiable if vacuous Commonwealth. In 1947, the year

Canadian Red Ensign

Canadian Red Ensign

of India’s independence, Canadian citizenship was created: we were no longer simply British subjects. The climate of opinion in English-speaking Canada changed dramatically in the subsequent generation. As the historian José Igartua has shown, English-speaking Canadians ceased to see the British connection as an integral part of Canada’s identity in the two decades after 1945.

By the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis, Canada was ready to stand up for peace and to denounce British imperialism in Egypt. The Suez Crisis led to the Nobel Peace Prize for Lester Pearson and Tory charges that the governing Liberals had betrayed the mother country, to which, the Conservatives claimed, Canada owed fealty. Many Canadians, however, agreed with the Liberals and were proud of Pearson. The shift in Canadian attitudes to Britain, which Igartua calls English Canada’s own Quiet Revolution, paved the way for the adoption of the current flag in 1965. Within a few years, even the Conservatives had been reconciled to the new flag and the change of attitudes it represented.

The end of Empire witnessed a human rights revolution within Canada. Until the 1960s, Canada’s immigration system gave preferential treatment to British people and was blatantly racist. Canada then moved to a colour-blind points system. Human rights commissions were established in every province. English-speaking Canadian began to display greater sensitivity to Quebec and First Nations. In 1971, multiculturalism became official policy.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto

Today’s Canada is unquestionably a very different country than the old Dominion of Canada. Many of my students are shocked to learn that Canadians soldiers helped the British to conquer parts of South Africa, the land of Nelson Mandela, at the turn of the twentieth century. Their reactions are a measure of how far we have come as a society. However, English Canada’s Quiet Revolution is, alas, not yet complete. We never got around to abolishing the monarchy. Moreover, a small but vocal minority has never fully accepted multiculturalism, the end of Empire, and all that it entailed. This minority, which represents a particular subsection of the political right in Canada, has latched on to the monarchy as a way of legitimizing what is, in effect, a counter-revolution against the developments described by Igartua.

The Monarchist League of Canada argues that the Queen is politically neutral. It is true that the Queen studiously avoids political and other controversies and that her representatives do likewise. But the monarchy is used by right-wing people to bolster obsolete ideas about Canada’s place in the world. On 3 April 2003, Stephen Harper denounced the Chrétien government’s decision not to participate in the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq as going against Canada’s tradition of helping the other English-speaking powers. Harper ended his ringing speech with the words: “God save the Queen. The Maple Leaf Forever.”

On an earlier occasion, Mr. Harper plagiarized from the Australian Prime Minister, but this time his script was both original and rooted in Canada’s distinct history. The Maple Leaf Forever was a nineteenth-century patriotic song that alluded to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Its use was discontinued in the post-1945 period, largely in deference to the feelings of Quebec. (In 1980, O Canada, a song written by a French Canadian, was made Canada’s national anthem in a noble gesture by English-speaking Canada).

Harper’s 2003 speech shows that the monarchy is not politically neutral, at least not in its Canadian context. The monarchy has implications for Canadian foreign policy: it helps to bolster a particular type of ethnic nationalism in English-speaking Canadians that tells Canadians of British descent that they should align themselves with the other Anglo-Saxon countries rather than showing undivided loyalty to Canada.

The current government has toyed with the issue of Senate reform, which is a question of largely symbolic importance since the Senate cannot alter money bills. Canada’s dime-store imitation of the House of Lords will find few defenders. But the monarchy is the part of our constitutional inheritance from Britain that requires much more urgent attention, since it touches on Canada’s place in the world and the relations between ethnic and linguistic groups within Canada. Canada’s first ministers should start a national conversation about replacing the monarchy. Reasonable people can differ as to whether a ceremonial or elective presidency would be a better substitute, but on the necessity of a scrapping the monarchy, there can be little doubt. The new Labor Party government in Australia has committed to ending the monarchy in short order. We should do likewise.”


P.S. It has been pointed out to me that a presidency can be both ceremonial and elective. The President of Ireland has an essentially ceremonial role similar to our Governor-General, but is elected by the people.

P.P.S. The lyrics of the Maple Leaf Forever have been put online by Canada First, an obscure anti-immigrant group in Toronto. See here.

Update 13 October: See historian Christopher Moore’s thoughts on this issue. The editorial in today’s Globe and Mail dealt with this question. Buckingham Palace has also broken its silence.