Peter Donolo is a communications consultant based in Toronto. He served as director of communications to prime minister Jean Chrétien.
Given the truly calamitous news of the first days of this new decade – from the raging Australian fires to conflict and tragedy in the Middle East to the ominous coronavirus – it is ironic that Canadians should find a relevant lesson in one of this winter’s tawdrier episodes.
But that’s just what the continuing Harry-Meghan soap opera is – a lesson in how ludicrous an institution the monarchy is in the 21st century and how profoundly out-of-step it is with the values that we prize as Canadians.
It is also a reminder of some unfinished business for our country. The monarchy is Canada’s last colonial vestige. It has remained in place largely due to inertia. But the increasing sideshow nature of the Royal Family and the impending end of the second Elizabethan era should focus our collective mind. We need to start preparing for a post-monarchy Canada – in the parlance of the day, let’s call it a Canadian “Rexit.”
Canada’s attachment to the British Empire played an essential role in our creation and in our history. It was a key factor in our resistance to American Manifest Destiny and our joining together as a country a century-and-a-half ago. In truth, in our early years, Canada was not fully independent from Britain. That independence came in a typically Canadian way – incrementally. The Statute of Westminster in 1931; the Supreme Court’s replacement of the British Privy Council as Canada’s final court of appeal in 1949; the first Canadian-born Governor-General in 1952; the adoption of our own national flag in 1965; and the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982.
Many of the British institutions we inherited from colonial times have served Canada well. Our parliamentary democracy and our system of laws have been guarantors of the “Peace, Order and Good Government” promised in our Constitution.
But from the beginning, there were made-in-Canada differences. For example, we were one of the world’s first federal states. And the founding political culture of accommodation of English and French not only defined our character, it also set the stage for one of the great success stories of the contemporary world – the unequalled and broadly celebrated nature of Canadian diversity and inclusion. Where so many other societies have failed – with often tragic consequences – we continue to set an example for the world.
In short, we’re not the country we were 150 years ago. We’ve grown. And we’ve outgrown an institution that has no relevance to the society we’ve built and is, in a number of ways, a standing insult to it.
Insult No. 1 is the notion that public office – indeed the highest public office in the land – is a hereditary right to be passed down within a single family from one generation to another. This is fundamentally at odds with democratic values. Indeed, as a society we work hard to create more equal opportunities – if not guaranteed outcomes – for our citizens. As it stands now, the only qualification for being our country’s head of state is not how hard you’ve worked or how much you’ve accomplished in your life, but whether you were born into the right bloodline. This is dissonance in the extreme between our values and our practices.
The second insult to contemporary Canada is the fact that not only is the House of Windsor fundamentally undemocratic, they are also foreigners. That we should be required to look to foreigners to fill the role of head of state is both absurd and demeaning for a sovereign country. Compounding this insult is the fact that in our increasingly diverse and secular society, this foreign head of the Canadian state must belong to a single specific religion – the Church of England. In fact, the monarch also officially serves as “Supreme Governor” of that faith.
That this situation is still in place is telling. Part of the reason is that abolishing the monarchy would require a constitutional amendment – with the unanimous support of the federal and provincial parliaments. The last major constitutional project bitterly divided and ultimately almost destroyed our country, so the lack of political will is understandable.
The status quo also speaks to Canadian incrementalism – which can, in some matters, verge on inertia. That has certainly been the case in appropriating many of the tools of Canadian sovereignty. Too often we have been like the millennial child among nations, taking forever to move out of our parents’ basement. What other country took a hundred years to acquire its own flag? And even longer to take possession of its own constitution?
But Canadian inertia is only part of the answer. In truth, much credit must be given to the Queen, a truly remarkable and, in many ways, inspiring figure. Through her unique combination of sang-froid, dedication to duty and tireless globetrotting, she has kept this creaky, obsolete institution going half a century longer than it should have. She deserves our respect and our appreciation.
Indeed, those who say that the Queen is irreplaceable are right. We should not even try.
The Queen is in her 10th decade. You don’t have to be an actuary or an estate lawyer to know that we should be planning now for what happens after her reign.
And that’s why the Harry-Meghan imbroglio is instructive. When all the nostalgia and cynical fairy-tale marketing is scraped away, what we have is just another privileged family dealing with their own problems. No better, perhaps, or no worse than others. But in all honesty, more relevant to the pages of Hello! or People magazines than to the lifeblood of a modern, diverse, future-focused democracy.
Whether or not Harry and Meghan spend part of the year in Canada is not really the issue. They will be following a well-trod path of the global super-rich who use Canada as a convenient pied-à-terre or mailing address, and whose main contribution to Canadian society is to drive up property values in our largest cities.
The issue is whether or not this is the future we see for our country. Are we yoked in an unbreakable allegiance to an institution and family whose relevance is fading by the year? Or can we lay the groundwork for a post-Elizabeth Rexit?
That could start by further minimizing the size of the royal footprint in official government proceedings. It wasn’t that long ago that God Save the Queen was sung at movie theatres and sporting events in Canada. The Queen’s image used to grace all our currency. Through the aforementioned Canadian incrementalism, these practices have all changed through the years. Let’s keep those changes going. We could curtail the requirement of an oath to the Queen (and her “heirs and successors”) by new Canadian citizens and government officials, including parliamentarians. None of this would require the amendment of our constitution, as Philippe Lagassé of Carleton University pointed out in a recent article for Policy Options.
At the same time, we can start meaningfully restructuring the role – and the selection process – of Canada’s governor-general, preparing that office to be in title, as well as function, our country’s true head of state.
Currently, the selection of governor-general depends entirely on the criteria – or whims or political calculation – of the prime minister of the day. A process that would require the confirmation of parliamentarians – the way the Speaker of the House of Commons is selected – would imbue the office with greater legitimacy and seriousness. In fact, it’s the way non-elected heads of state are chosen in many successful democracies, such as Germany and Israel.
That would be the Canadian way of doing things. Laying the groundwork and biding our time.
Of course, a more direct approach would be for our elected officials to acknowledge, in effect, “the emperor has no clothes,” and call for an outright “Rexit” – the end of the monarchy in Canada after the Queen.
The internet would explode. And so would more than a few died-in-the-wool monarchists. Pundits would intone on the need to address more serious and pressing matters. And many would lament a focus on an issue that divides, rather than unites us, all the while saying, “it’s all just symbolism, so who cares?” And in a minority parliament, do we really want to be dealing this an issue like this, anyway?
In other words, all the same reasons that might have dissuaded prime minister Lester Pearson in the mid-sixties from pushing for a national flag for Canada. In fact, all those arguments – and more – were used against what critics derisively called “the Pearson Pennant.” But Mr. Pearson didn’t let himself get talked out of it. And as a country, we’re very fortunate he didn’t.
During the rancorous flag debate in the House of Commons, Mr. Pearson said: “This is the flag of the future. But it does not dishonour the past.”
That is the key. Nostalgia is never a sound policy for a country. We need to understand and respect history, not be mired in it. But most of all, we need institutions that reflect the country we are today and want to be in the future. That’s what a “Rexit” would do for Canada – tether us to the future, not the past.
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