Should the monarchy still matter to Canadians?

Two old warhorses, John Fraser and Allan Fotheringham, duke it out (yet again)
John Fraser
For better, for worse
John Stillwell/Getty Images

John Fraser is Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto and the author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Affair With Royalty, published by the House of Anansi Press.

Last week, an article in the New York Times noted the durability of the “British monarchy” but also marvelled at the lack of a coherent body of serious study of why and how it has survived. The article went on to cite a serious conference being held in London with dozens of British and American academic historians who “lamented the tendency to see the modern monarchy as little more than a highbrow soap opera of minimal interest to a profession that has turned decisively to bottom-up social history.”

“The modern monarchy has so much more use as a window onto broader social trends, attitudes and the way people imagine themselves as citizens,” said Arianne Chernock, an assistant professor of history at Boston University. Neither the Times nor the academics bothered to look at Canada, where the specific and unique ups and downs of the Canadian Crown and the stubborn survival of the Queen of Canada and her “heirs and successors” continue to catch some people by seemingly endless surprise.

That’s because our story is so different from anyone else’s, even though very few of our educators and media analysts have much of a clue as to how the Crown in Canada has survived and evolved so successfully. Many of them keep expecting the institution to disappear almost by magic, and then—whoosh!—there it is again. The various explanations offered are often hilarious and none more so than when the Crown is dismissed as caught up entirely in “celebrity culture,” as if that were enough to explain a country’s constitutional underpinning and history.

Then there’s the dear old Queen of Canada herself, smiling benevolently on her “senior realm,” the one she has visited the most; the same dear old Elizabeth II who has travelled to more places in Canada than have most Canadians alive today; the same dear old Queen who speaks our two official languages better than do most Canadians; the same dear old Queen who has had more contact with Aboriginal Canadians than have most non-Aboriginal Canadians. I could go on!

Well, I will go on actually. There she is still, the same dear old Queen of Canada, approaching her 90th birthday, who is spending an increasing amount of time helping out the constitutionally challenged dear old Queen of the United Kingdom (who looks the same but wears way more jewels). Thanks to Quebec, for example, our Queen has taught the British Queen how to handle the rampant, growing nationalism of Scotland. Our Queen also has a pretty good idea of what the British Queen is going to face in the ever-changing House of Lords because it is increasingly looking like her Canadian Senate. Our Queen knows that a multicultural realm can work well if notions of community and reverence are communicated with patience and dignity. In sum, our Queen rocks and even helps their Queen pull up her socks. Hell, she’s even given the Queen of Australia a new lease on life!

All this is no doubt extremely irritating to the dwindling band of veteran anti-monarchists who still dismiss the Queen as irrelevant, dismiss Prince Charles as a doofus, and dismiss Prince William and Kate as transient celebrities. Mercifully, most of these duffers are retired or semi-retired (historian Michael Bliss and journalist Allan Fotheringham, for example, and Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail can’t be far off), but they have never seriously looked beyond their own incredulity at some of the profound reasons why the Crown endures in Canada. They have been content enough with either the inescapable logic (they think) of their own arguments, irregularly supported by dodgy opinion polls, or simply to deploy ad hominem attacks and cheap cracks.

What they miss, repeatedly, is that the Crown is woven into the fabric of the Canadian story and constitutional evolution. We are what we are today thanks to many factors—hockey, weather, geography, doughnut stores, universal medicare, throw anything else into the mix you want—but the one ingredient that is never conceded by these grumbling old naysayers is that the Crown has been integral to our story again and again. It helps to give us definition, integrity and defines our commitment to an ever-evolving democracy.

That’s why we can say with an open heart, God Save the Queen, and—in the 60th year of her reign—long may she still reign over us, as happy and glorious as it is possible to be in this changing, troublesome world.

Allan Fotheringham has been a newspaper columnist for 50 years, 27 of them writing for Maclean’s.

Oh boy. A page wasted discussing a subject that isn’t even worthy of a debate.

Take any group of intelligent adult foreigners and tell them of a country that has as its head of state a lady who lives in a castle far away across a very large ocean. Who would allow such a travesty? And how would you describe them?

The answer would be: either goofies or gutless. And the truth? Both.

John Fraser, the intelligent publicity-hound, has been spending his spring abroad and, apparently bored, has been seen pulling that old, tattered Queen Elizabeth II speech from his desk drawer.

The reason it isn’t worth a debate is apparent to any journalist who has spent some time abroad and has discovered how many other nations feel that Canada has never really grown up and never will as long as it maintains this screwball arrangement of its political system.

In an earlier life, I spent three years on Fleet Street in London and of course would wander around, through France and Germany, Norway and Sweden, everywhere on the continent. While treated politely, there was always the feeling that I came from a colonial baby that hadn’t yet reached adult status.

For my sins, I spent five years in Washington, covering the White House. At cocktail parties (Washington is one non-stop cocktail party), I would be introduced to some high politician or diplomat or lobbyist as “a Canadian foreign correspondent.” And the politician/diplomat/lobbyist would mutter “Oh” and look over my shoulder in search of the cocktail waiter.

(In five years, Canada made American headlines only once. That was the night at a Canadian Embassy dinner, with everybody who was anybody in Washington present, when Sondra Gotlieb, wife of Canadian ambassador Allan Gotlieb, slugged her press secretary, Connie Connor.)

In the head-of-state argument, the innocent in it all is Queen Elizabeth II herself, a captive of her position. As she celebrates her 60 years on the throne, this fine woman is misunderstood by many. She knows that her son probably will be an old and discouraged man before he ever rises to the throne she would almost certainly like to give up.

She would like to, but she can’t. Because of the past, and because of the conduct of her offspring, she’s been advised by her Buckingham Palace advisers that she has to stay, for the survival of the monarchy. The past of course was her selfish uncle, Edward VIII, who abandoned the throne for the double divorcée Wallis Simpson (a Yankee!) and spent the rest of his life wandering in exile, a pitiful figure.

She could never forgive her uncle Edward for that: the abdication forced her shy father, who didn’t want the job, to become king, a task that killed him—and therefore ruined the youth of a 25-year-old woman who had to accept a heavy crown. If King Edward VIII can junk the job for love, can Elizabeth now do it because she’s 86? Nope. It’s not a job, it’s a calling—a lifetime calling.

And the solution for the embarrassing Canadian situation rests with the silly people in Ottawa who don’t have the courage to show the world that we don’t need a nanny to look after us. Among other things, there is the fact that as matters stand no Canadian will be our next head of state, no Roman Catholic, no Jew, not even a Protestant who isn’t a member of the Church of England.

I have been writing a column for 50 years. And for all that time I have been complaining about this ridiculous situation that makes us, a member of the United Nations, seem so juvenile beside other rich and successful countries. So I was surprised 10 years ago to receive the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, to mark her 50 years on the throne.

I continued my tiresome complaints. And therefore was rather astonished to receive an order last month to appear on May 14 at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club where Her Majesty’s representative, Sen. Art Eggleton, in a formal ceremony presented me with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. I tell everyone that she reads my column every week.

This is 2012. Let’s grow up.