The resignation of Canada’s governor general and the renewed in-fighting within the royal family have sparked a fresh round of reflection about Canada’s ties to the monarchy. What began as a discussion about who should vet candidates for governor general has segued into a debate about whether we should get rid of the Queen as Canada’s head of state.
This is a mere rehearsal for the soul-searching that will be triggered when the throne passes to the Queen’s eldest son. While Queen Elizabeth II is widely respected for her kindness and devotion to duty, the same cannot be said of her heirs. The appearance of an unfamiliar face on Canadian currency, and the expectation that public officials swear an oath of allegiance to a strange king for whom few hold affection, will have a jarring effect. When the Queen dies, the question of Canada’s status as a constitutional monarchy will move from the bottom to the top of the political agenda.
Debating the monarchy is one thing; forging a consensus of what, in the Canadian context, could possibly replace it is entirely another. The issue is not just the difficulty of achieving that degree of constitutional change: the need to obtain unanimity among first ministers who carry with them a list of other possible amendments they feel should take precedence. A greater challenge is democratizing the institution of the head of state in a country where the idea of popular sovereignty is in tension with other principles that underpin the functioning of the country, such as federalism and minority rights.
British journalist Walter Bagehot famously observed that “the nation is divided into parties, but the crown is of no party.” None of the Queen’s realms illustrates the importance of this maxim more than Canada. The Queen herself may be British, but she is not, for example, an Ontarian or an Albertan. For Canada, being ruled by an outsider has been both peculiar and helpful.
More importantly, in modern practice, the appointment of the governor general has been used to reinforce Canada’s linguistic duality, by alternating between anglophones and francophones, and ensuring that each is bilingual. More recently, other considerations have been taken into account, including province of origin, gender, and ethnicity. This balancing of the country’s different constituent parts is the very opposite of the majoritarianism that underpins republican systems with a directly elected president.
Two other aspects of Canada’s head of state arrangement would come to the fore in any serious debate about change. One is the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown, which pre-dates the establishment of the Canadian state. Any proposal to fold the office of the Queen’s representative in Canada into the regular apparatus of government may be perceived as a threat to Indigenous rights, and particularly treaty rights. The other is the often-overlooked office, in each province, of the lieutenant governor. Absent the symbolic link to the Crown, the lieutenant governor risks appearing as envoy of the federal government, which is out of sync with modern federalism. Were Canada to abolish the monarchy, it would have to find an acceptable way to select, not only one head of state, but no fewer than eleven – and the method that works for the one in Ottawa may not necessarily work for the other ten.
None of these complexities mean that Canada is destined to forever retain a hereditary British king or queen as head of state. But they do suggest that we need to go beyond the observation that the monarchy seems outdated, and prepare ourselves for the hard work of finding something that works better for us. There will be no off-the-shelf models to choose from. We will need to design something for ourselves, in keeping our country’s unique demography, geography, history and values. Any workable solution likely will be neither simple nor elegant.
The question we should be asking ourselves, then, is not whether it is time to abolish the monarchy. It is this: have we matured as a country to the point that we can engage in significant constitutional change in a manner that leaves us more, and not less, united? Once we are sure we can say “yes” to the second question, we will know we are ready to tackle to first.
Andrew Parkin is the executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research.