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The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh pose with the Commonwealth heads of government during their meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, in December, 2003.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh pose with the Commonwealth heads of government during their meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, in December, 2003.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Canada, Commonwealth and the key to relevance Add to ...

The Commonwealth turns 60 this year, but the results of global polling suggests there isn't much to cheer about. Surveys in seven of its states indicate that knowledge of what the 53-member association does is very low and that support for it is lukewarm at best. While the Canadian figures may be the bleakest, Canada may also hold the key to the Commonwealth's continued relevance.

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Despite being a founding member, supplying the association's first secretary-general and continuing to be one of its major funders, Canada seems to have fallen out of love with the Commonwealth. Less than a quarter of Canadians could name anything the Commonwealth does, and only a third would be upset if Canada withdrew its membership.

This level of ignorance and indifference about the Commonwealth and the imbalance in its support base are unsustainable. These poll results should be a wake-up call for the Commonwealth to show its relevance in the 21st century. In fact, Canada provides a litmus test for its future.

One of the greatest strengths of the Commonwealth seems to be one if its more serious weaknesses. The strong historical ties that bind members to each other - and to Britain - are an undeniable part of what makes the Commonwealth work. Yet, history alone is not going to be enough to convince a new generation that the association is worth bothering about or, indeed, for governments to invest in it.

Tellingly, the Commonwealth was less popular in the three monarchies polled compared with the three that are republics. This could be because in countries such as Australia, Canada and Jamaica, people still confuse the Commonwealth with the monarchy and, by extension, the relationship with Britain. In India, Malaysia and South Africa, the public better understands the language of the "modern" Commonwealth and policy-makers better appreciate the importance of a more multilateral forum in which emerging countries have a voice.

This is a shame: not because of any inherent problem with the monarchy but because the monarchy can obscure what the Commonwealth represents. This association of states representing two billion people should be one of the most diverse club of nations, not just an anachronistic vehicle to promote Anglo-Canadian relations or celebrate Britishness.

All this is part of a wider challenge. In the immediate aftermath of Empire, the Commonwealth was a neat way of retaining links between governments and peoples in the former colonies. These days, with countries such as India in the driver's seat - an Indian is Secretary-General and the association is most popular in this country - the challenge is to become a truly post-postcolonial institution.

The key is raising the Commonwealth's profile while recognizing its limits. For Canada, the Commonwealth is not going to replace the U.S. in terms of economic or political importance any time soon, and it should be seen as a complement to la Francophonie.

The Commonwealth has to find a niche for itself that connects with ordinary people and convinces policy-makers of its value. This should not be difficult, given the latent goodwill that seems to exist in most Commonwealth countries. We also do not have to look far to find examples of how effective the Commonwealth can be. When it lends its collective voice to support democratization - as happened when Canada led the Commonwealth's effective strategy against apartheid in South Africa - it can be a powerful force for change.

Whether it's through shared values or an agenda to tackle shared challenges, the Commonwealth has to work harder to make itself relevant. If it can't win back the affection of Canadians, it may not live to see its 70th birthday.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is director of the London-based Royal Commonwealth Society .

 

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