Behiels on the Monarchy Debate

6 11 2009

Prof. Michael Behiels, University of Ottawa

Prof. Michael Behiels, a historian at the University of Ottawa has been interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen about the monarchy debate. I agree with most of what he had to say, but I thought he was on shaky ground when he answered one of the reporter’s questions about the monarchy’s role in Canadian politics.

The reporter mentioned that there had been speculation during December’s constitutional crisis that if Michaëlle Jean had denied Stephen Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament, Harper would have asked Queen Elizabeth to fire her.  The reporter wanted to know whether the Queen would have agreed to such a request. Behiels said the Queen would have turned down such a request from Harper, “I’m sure she [Jean] was speaking with the Queen throughout the crisis. She would have been on the blower all the time, and they would have been on the same page.”

As a young assistant professor, I don’t know if I should dissent from the opinion of such an accomplished historian as Behiels! However, I’m not certain that Behiels is right about this particular point. In 1975, there was  constitutional crisis in Australia when Governor-General suddenly announced that he was dismissing Gough Whitlam, the left-of-centre Prime Minister. The GG appointed the leader of the conservative opposition as Prime Minister. The new Prime Minister quickly called an election, which he won. In the days immediately prior to Whitlam’s dismissal, the Governor-General kept his plan to fire the Prime Minister secret for fear that if Whitlam found out what was being planned, he would telephone the Queen and have the GG  replaced before he could act. In this case, it seems to be have been assumed by all parties that the Queen would have removed the Governor-General had the incumbent Prime Minister asked for it (in time). As it happened, the Prime Minister was fired before he had the chance to learn about the GG’s plans and telephone London. If it was assumed in 1975 that the Queen would automatically defer to the advice a Commonwealth Prime Minister, I think it is safe to say that in 2008 she also would have deferred to Harper’s request.

Aside from this quibble, it was a very good interview.

Ignatieff on the Monarchy

4 11 2009

An opinion piece on the monarchy that Michael Ignatieff published in The Observer in 1992 has surfaced.  Some people are interpreting this article as evidence that Ignatieff supported the idea that Britain should become a republic.  (See here). The article, in true Ignatieff fashion, avoids making a clear statement on whether the monarchy should be abolished, although it does criticizes aspects of the British monarchy as it then existed. As far as we can tell, Ignatieff appears to have been calling for a more Scandinavian-style monarchy. Either way, I don’t think Canadians will care about what Ignatieff said in a British debate nearly twenty years ago.

The sad thing is that Michael Ignatieff is unwilling to take a stand on this issue as it relates to Canada in 2009. If he championed the cause of republicanism, he might boost his popularity, since most Canadians favoured getting rid of the monarchy. The silence of the NDP on the issue of the monarchy is also deafening. Even though the majority of Canadians want us to become a republic, the leaders of the three federalist parties are too cowardly to broach this issue.

The royal visit has generated some discussion in the media about the future of the monarchy in Canada. See:

Lawrence Martin in the Globe and Mail

Heather Mallick in the Guardian

Claire Hoy in the Orangeville Citizen

Andrew Duffy in the National Post (see also here)

(I will add new links as they appear)

Why Prince Charles Should Be Chucked Out of the Country

2 11 2009

Prince Charles and his wife arrived in Newfoundland a few hours ago to begin their tour of Canada. Their arrival has re-started the debate about the future of the monarchy in Canada, with many columnists using the tour as an occasion to pontificate about what should be done. See here, here, and here. Lord Black of Crossharbour has published a lengthy article in the National Post on this issue.

Acting with impeccable timing, the CanWest newspapers have published the results of an Ipsos-Reid survey of Canadian attitudes to the monarchy. They show that a small majority Canadians want Canada to become republic.

Charles,_Prince_of_Wales in 2005

Prince Charles in 2005, in White House Rose Garden

The tour of Canada has been billed as Charles’s last chance to convince Canadians that he should be allowed to become their king. I’m not certain whether he will win Canadians over. In fact, he appears to have already made a serious error, for his first speech of the tour loudly praised Canada for sending troops to fight in the Anglo-American War in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for the Prince, most Canadians oppose the presence of Canadian troops in that country. The Prince has given the appearance of trying to interfere in Canada’s internal politics— Canada has announced that it is pulling out of Afghanistan, whereas Britain and the United States are ramping up their efforts there. Most Canadians probably think that a sufficient number of Canadians died for King and Empire in the twentieth century and that we need no sequels.

The Prince, who is the honorary colonel of no less than eight Canadian regiments, will visit several military bases in Canada. By associating himself with a very unpopular cause, Charles is doing himself no favours. The Canadian military and its traditions are a reflection of Canada’s colonial past and the political culture of Atlantic Canada, the most ethnically British part of the country. The problem for the Prince is that Atlantic Canada and the military represent Canada’s past, not its future. Canadians of British ancestry are a dying breed, with a birthrate even lower than that of francophone Quebeckers. The traditions of the Canadian military, such as playing “Rule Britannia” whenever a ship enters port, are literally laughable to Canadians descended from the post-1945 waves of immigration and indeed anyone familiar with the course of world history since, say, 1897.

If Charles wishes to ingratiate himself to the multicultural Canada of the present, he needs to do a walkabout in the shopping centres of Toronto and Vancouver. While in Vancouver, he might apologize for the racist anti-Asian remarks made by his father. The Prince might also talk to the workforce of Calgary’s office towers or the scientists in Waterloo who are working on genetically modifying crops.  This would allow him to see the future being made. Unfortunately, the Prince doesn’t believe in shopping centres and office towers, preferring organic farmer markets and traditional cottage architecture to consumerism, freeways, GM foods, Blackberries, and modern buildings.

Poundbury, the experimental pseudo-medieval town recently built by Prince Charles in Dorset, represents his vision of the future: white people in Tudorbethan homes eating organic food. It has little resemblance to the world inhabited by most modern Britons. It is even more alien to the values of most Canadians.

Opposed as he is to so much of capitalist modernity, Prince Charles is reactionary in the deepest sense of the word. He is also represents the most pathetic last vestiges of British militarism. He would be a singularly inappropriate head of state for Canada, a country that values technology, consumerism, multiculturalism, and peace. His values are antithetical to our most fundamental values.

Andrew Cohen on the Canadian Monarchy and the Head of State Controversy

22 10 2009
Canadian Postage Stamp, 1954

Canadian Postage Stamp, 1954

Andrew Cohen, the author of the Unfinished Canadian, has published a piece in the Ottawa Citizen calling on the federal government to begin a national debate on the future of Canada’s head of state. Cohen thinks that it would be wrong to continue sharing a head of state with Britain, as do most Canadians.

Head of State Controversy II

19 10 2009

I have posted earlier on the “head of state” controversy and the future of the monarchy in Canada. Political analyst Randall White has published a piece in the Toronto Star on this subject. White has some interesting comments about Canada’s unwritten constitution, an issue I have discussed with blogger Janet Ajzenstat.

I have earlier posted links to polling data that shows that most Canadians want the country to become a republic. I would also like to draw your attention to a poll about Canadian attitudes to the monarchytaken by Angus Reid in September 2007. The poll’s designers sought to find out whether there was a connection between people’s partisan leanings and their attitudes on the monarchy question. The poll found that while virtually all BQ voters are republicans, the other parties’ supporters are divided on the issue.

However, while the monarchy is not an issue that divides English-speaking Canadians on straightforward, left-right lines, there is a statistically significant connection between voting intentions and republicanism. People who vote Conservative in federal elections are the most likely to be the strongest republicans, while NDP voters are most likely to be strong monarchists. Anti-Americanism and monarchism in Canada, which were once the hobby horses of the political right (the Conservatives from Macdonald to Diefenbaker) are now the pet issues of the left. Most Conservatives are now continentalists who want Canada to be more like the United States.

Statue of United Empire Loyalists in Hamilton, Ontario

Statue of United Empire Loyalists in Hamilton, Ontario

In contrast, leftist Canadians are the more likely to be sensitive about differences between Canada and the United States, and thus most likely to defend institutions, such as the monarchy, that illustrate those differences. The picture above is of the monument to the United Empire Loyalists in Hamilton, Ontario, a city with a very left-wing political culture.  Polls like this show just how different the modern Conservative Party of Canada is from historical Canadian conservativism.

The poll also found that men (60%) were more likely than women (45%) to be republicans. I’m not certain what this means.

Ajzenstat on the BNA Act

11 10 2009

Janet Ajzenstat has replied to a recent post in which I said that Canada’s constitution was partly written and partly unwritten. A written constitution is one in which the political system is blueprinted in one or more written documents. In an unwritten constitution, important offices and practices are defined by custom and tradition, not a written document.  The United States has a written constitution that, among other things, describes the powers and mode of selecting the President and the Congress. Britain has a largely unwritten constitution: the office of Prime Minister evolved gradually and there is no constitutional document defining that office or its occupant’s powers or mode of selection.  “Responsible Government”, the cornerstone principle of Canada’s system of government, is not described or mandated in any of Canada’s constitutional documents. Indeed, the office of Prime Minister went unmentioned in the British North America Act of 1867. Professor Ajzenstat has said that I was wrong to assert that Canada’s constitution is partly unwritten because there are sections of the British North America Act that allude to Responsible Government and which suggest that the drafters of the statute had Responsible Government in mind. The BNA Act certainly referred to the Ministers of Agriculture and Finance, but it made no reference to the office of Prime Minister. It is true that the written part of Canada’s constitution was created with the unwritten conventions in mind, but this does not mean that Canada’s constitution is entirely or even mainly written. Canada’s constitution is a hybrid, combining bits of the British and American constitutions. Perhaps the most important part of Canada’s written constitution is the preamble, which states that the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire [for]… a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” These words entrenched parts of Britain’s unwritten constitution in the Canadian constitution.

It seems to me that it is an indisputable fact that Canada’s constitution is partly unwritten. That’s why the constitutionality of things like last December’s proposed coalition is a matter of passionate debate. (Indeed, the identity of Canada’s head of state is also a constitutional grey area). Whether or not Canada’s half-written, half-unwritten constitution represents an ideal arrangement is, of course, a matter open for discussion.