Commentary | Pawn takes Queen

Toward a Canadian republic

I don’t have any right to tell you what to do, but as a Brit who has lived here for year and a half, I do feel like I can tell you that you can definitely do better than this. Or more specifically, better than ‘us.’ Now that I’ve recovered from the shock of crossing the Atlantic to find Her Highness’ face gracing your currency I feel almost obliged to urge you that there are better things that could be occupying this space (and I don’t just mean on your money). I have no doubt that it would be more appropriate for that space to be filled with something a little more, well, Canadian.

Queen Elizabeth II is currently equally shared with fifteen other independent countries. While the Queen is in fact just one old lady with a lot of different hats, each country’s monarch is legally distinct. For the most part, the Queen resides in the United Kingdom and governmental and ceremonial duties in Canada are enacted by various representatives of the crown.

David E. Smith admits in the introduction to his book The Invisible Crown, a “degree in constitutional law is almost a prerequisite for clarifying an arrangement of power that recognizes as head of state a non-resident monarch.” The Monarchist League of Canada’s (MLC) chief executive officer went so far as to say that “indifference” rather than republicanism is the Crown’s real threat.

I am a republican: that is to say, I am in favour of power residing with the population, and dismantling the undemocratic institutions of our past. I believe that the monarchy, along with the House of Lords, should be abandoned in Britain, and it is in Canadian interests to follow the same path. The debate is an old one, but one I believe important to revisit.

It is worth noting that the crown was increasingly sidelined until the arrival of the recent Harper administration which fetishizes a certain kind of conservative view of history.

One source of continual controversy is the cost of the monarchy to Canadian citizens. The MLC takes it upon itself to provide figures and concluded that just under $57 million was spent in the routine cost of the ‘Maple Crown’ in 2011-12, coming out at $1.63 per head. This does not include the cost of the diamond jubilee celebrations in Canada, which came to $64 million. The MLC offers the not unreasonable comparison to the Senate (approximately $90 million), National Gallery (approximately $51 million) and the Library of Parliament (approximately $41 million).

The MLC is also at pains to point out that this money is spent on Canadian constitutional activities, and not for the royals in any other capacity. That said, it is easy to understand why Citizens for a Canadian Republic felt it was gratuitous when they discovered that their country was expected to pay $1 million for the Queen’s attendance in Ottawa on Canada Day in 2010.

While similar administrative costs might be incurred irrespective of what kind of head of state Canada chooses, the fact is that it represents an investment on the part of Canada’s citizens. This makes it essential that they actually have the opportunity to choose a constitutional arrangement that is more in their interest – ideally, one whose main interest isn’t to maintain anachronistic delusions about empire and Britain’s place in the world.

It is worth noting that the crown was increasingly sidelined until the arrival of the recent Harper administration which fetishizes a certain kind of conservative view of history. This often manifests itself in strange ways, such as in September 2011 for example, when the order went out to all Canadian embassies to ensure portraits of the Queen were on display. Left unresolved, this kind of exacting pettiness could end up escalating into more questionable assertions about Canadian identity.

Among the questionable arguments in favour of Canada retaining its monarchy is the outright absurd claim that it is a cornerstone of stability and unity in the democratic state.

Polls conducted last year show that support in Canada for abolishing the monarchy found that the 45 per cent in favour of abolition had fallen to 37 per cent after the birth of Prince George. Monarchists held this up as a sign that the royals were as relevant as ever and that George would offer a new era of a popular monarchy. As wonderful a thing it is when a child is born, for that to be the supporting sentiment of a nation’s constitutional system degrades the meaning of both life and the institution.

The uncomfortable fact of British life is that the nation’s collective consciousness has increasingly become poisoned by tabloid culture. The royal family represents a quasi-historical ideal of glory and empire. Yet at the same time the public reads of their disgrace, whether in divorce, affairs, or personal lapses of judgement. As the late Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “This is what you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII.” Baby George may hold the British media in his thrall, but rest assured that once he is of age he won’t escape their barbed hooks and the cruel court of public opinion. Why Canada, with its more unassuming and well-adjusted public sphere, would wish to aspire to the degradations of British public life truly escapes me.

Among the questionable arguments in favour of Canada retaining its monarchy is the outright absurd claim that it is a cornerstone of stability and unity in the democratic state. To see how spurious this assertion is, you only have to look back across the pond. Right now the United Kingdom is looking distinctly less united. The growing divide between the north and south of Britain has been a major national problem for many years. In September, Scotland will undertake a referendum on independence – a  threat to British national unity – and the monarch seems powerless to intervene. Suggesting that the royal family might unite the country in single spirit can only be taken in jest.

It might simply be better to have a head of state representing Canada, who is not only Canadian, but whose greatest achievement is something more than inheriting a collection of solid gold hats.

Canada will no doubt sympathize with such issues of national sovereignty. Support for the Canadian monarchy is far from universal or evenly distributed; unsurprisingly low in Quebec and relatively high in British Columbia. That said, the issue seems to be ignored when compared with other Commonwealth countries. Australia, for example, has long had a serious republican movement, and in 1999 went as far as having a referendum on the issue – the monarchists carried the day with 54.87 per cent of the vote.

But recent political events, specifically the collapse of the Bloc Québécois and the rise of the NDP in Quebec, suggests that flexible federalism is in everybody’s interest. What better way to build on this potential than when Queen Elizabeth II sheds her mortal coil and instead of King Charles filling her spot on Canadian banknotes, something more Canadian fills his place?

The best safeguard to stability is empowering our democratic institutions and extending the franchise. In many Western countries, political apathy and disillusionment is prominent among the challenges to maintaining the democratic ideal. Reforming the constitutional system so that it is more relevant, comprehensible, and accessible to the Canadian people is an obvious opportunity to move against this trend. It might simply be better to have a head of state representing Canada, who is not only Canadian, but whose greatest achievement is something more than inheriting a collection of solid gold hats.


Daniel Woodhouse is a PhD 2 in Mathematics. To contact Daniel, email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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