Joseph L. Clarke is an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Toronto. He co-organizes the project Canada Constructed: Architecture, Landscape, History and is the author of Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space.
Canadians may view the monarchy with mild embarrassment, but Americans have an abiding fascination with the House of Windsor – an overcompensation, perhaps, for the country’s anti-monarchical origins. My own interest began when, as a child in the U.S., I soaked up a characteristically American obsession with royal pomp and pageantry. Eventually, my fixation mellowed into a quiet respect for Queen Elizabeth, the ultimate anti-celebrity, who managed to maintain dignity and discretion while living squarely in the public eye. I also developed a contrarian admiration for her son Charles, who, as Prince of Wales, advocated for environmentalism and thoughtful architecture. I disagree with some of his aesthetic judgments but respect him for championing sustainable built communities long before this became a fashionable cause.
Here in Canada, where I’m preparing to become a citizen, I’ve discovered that supporting our head of state is something of a fringe position. Many Canadians don’t even know our country has a monarch. When so informed, some propose scrapping the institution. Every few years, a poll comes out suggesting that a growing number of Canadians don’t find the monarchy “relevant.” The problem with surveys like this is that they mistakenly frame the institution as a popularity contest. Riding the waves of public opinion is the job of elected politicians; the duty of a non-partisan head of state is to be the eye of the storm, the one point of restraint and discernment amid the political flux.
At his accession, King Charles became the living symbol of the Westminster constitutional system, which has been implemented in numerous countries and has proven to be the world’s most stable and sustainable framework for a liberal polity. In Canada – a shining example of Westminster governance – the sovereign’s responsibilities are tightly circumscribed, and include presiding over the transfer of power and mediating constitutional disputes behind the scenes. In practice, he delegates these duties to a governor-general, but the governor-general is chosen by the prime minister and, if not for the sovereign’s backing, would lack the stature to stand up to Canada’s elected leaders.
These days, the monarchy faces periodic accusations that it is a distressing reminder of colonialism and the displacement of Indigenous peoples. This critique overlooks the respect with which many Indigenous people in Canada regard King Charles and the institution of the monarchy. The sovereign is often seen as the personal counterparty to the ancient treaties that structure their relationship to the Canadian state. As Perry Bellegarde, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in 2019: “This Covenant was created through ceremony – the use of the pipe and the sweat lodge. What we have done through ceremony, we cannot break. And that is why there is sacredness to this treaty. That is why we have songs about the Queen, and about the Crown.”
Even if public enthusiasm wobbles, Canada’s monarchy is not going anywhere. Abolishing it would be constitutionally arduous – harder, indeed, than in the United Kingdom. The Brits could oust Charles with a simple act of Parliament, whereas here it would take unanimous agreement among the federal government and all 10 provincial legislatures. This level of consensus is almost unimaginable, especially since nobody has explained how abolition is supposed to leave the country materially better off. Still, in polite society, Canadians will probably keep talking about our new King in awkwardly apologetic terms. This tendency reflects the unmistakable creep of American sensibilities – or rather a misappropriation of them, since our neighbours to the south are in fact deeply preoccupied with the Windsors.
But why not embrace what makes this country different? Canada is mercifully free of the national “exceptionalism” that plagues U.S. politics. Surely this is in no small part because the country’s head of state – the embodied symbol of the Canadian people – is conspicuously absent, living overseas and making only sporadic visits to our shores. Having a non-resident sovereign is the ultimate safeguard against toxic nationalism. That’s yet another reason to be proud of the maple monarchy.
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