Who will wear the crown in Canada?

The monarchy has deep roots in this nation. They can’t easily be cut.
Brian Bethune with Patricia Treble
Luke MacGregor/PA Wire/Press Association Images

As the Queen of Canada gets older and every visit to her senior dominion becomes closer to being her last, the latent flow of Canadian anti-monarchical thought bubbles to the surface. We are not fully grown up, not a real country runs the main current, so long as a foreign monarch sits on our throne, or any monarch at all, say the more militant republicans among us. Most of this grousing, which tends to rise with incidents of dysfunctionality—or embarrassing normality, depending on your view of human nature—among the lesser royals (or even ex-royals: see Sarah Ferguson), completely ignores the fact that the monarchy is sunk deep, not only in the country’s fabric, but in the effectively untouchable part of the Constitution.

Royal Tour

Replacing the monarchy would require the unanimous agreement of Parliament and all 10 provinces. Last time we tried anything like that, we ended up with the creaky travesty of the Charlottetown accord—a grab-all that included every interest-group demand short of bus passes for seniors—which was mercifully euthanized by Canadians in a 1992 referendum. In other words, any sensible politician would rather open his veins than open constitutional talks.

But let’s say the thing could be done, that some combination of dedication to principle and federal bribes could keep all the constitutional players—many of them members of aggrieved minorities who have deeply divergent notions on how the country should be organized, or whether it should exist at all (see Bloc Québécois and Assembly of First Nations)—focused on the one issue. The simplest notion, given the vast residual power still inherent in the Crown—appointing prime ministers (and weighing their requests for shutting down uncooperative parliaments), signing treaties and, oh yes, declaring war—is to keep it in a different form. First option: we disinherit the House of Windsor and replace it with our own royal family. There may have been a brief shining moment in February when the House of Crosby could have seized a vacant throne, but on the whole, the chance that Canadians, tall poppy loppers with a vengeance, would ever agree to address one of their own as “Your Majesty” is beyond risible.

Next up: keep the monarchy but do away with the monarch. In other words, turn the governor general into a real-life (if non-hereditary) version of The Lord of the Ring’s Steward of Gondor, a king (or queen) in all but name. Okay, but . . . given how helpful a co-operative GG can be to a beleaguered prime minister (see Michaëlle Jean), Canadians are hardly likely to allow our new head of state to be selected by the PM any longer. Those who automatically think an election is the answer should reflect on the fact there is good reason why we don’t elect anyone on a nation-wide basis in this country. (Canada’s largest electorates are those that choose big-city mayors.) Back to those aggrieved minorities—the largest is geographically concentrated and can, if it so chooses, send to Ottawa 50-odd representatives dedicated to dismantling the country. The chances of Quebec ever seeing one of its own, however federalist, elected in a nationwide vote is minuscule; the chances of it agreeing to try, even less.

So then, that favourite of the political classes the world over, having parliamentarians (or other “eminent” citizens, say members of the Order of Canada) choose a head of state? Politicians wanted the former in the Australian constitutional referendum of 1999; Australians, hardly more democratic or distrustful of their political class than Canadians, rejected the notion, despite polls indicating majority republican sentiment. And both options—Quebec magically agreeing to popular election or an elite electorate—would inevitably put a politician in Rideau Hall, a formidable rival to the PM (especially if elected nationwide) and an invitation to political deadlock. The only way around that is to combine head of government and head of state in the same individual, as with the American president (see Richard Nixon). In a parliamentary democracy, however, where that same person also sits in and (generally) controls the legislature, the idea is nothing short of madness—not even a saint, let alone any conceivable Canadian party leader, should be trusted with that much power.

It’s time then, to reflect that history and, yes, good fortune, have conspired to provide us with an available, trained-from-birth family (however fallible) to do the job for us. Time to recall the poet W.H. Auden’s immortal remark upon hearing of the Church of England’s ill-conceived notion to “update” the poetic beauty of the 17th-century English in the King James Bible: “Why spit on your luck?”