John Fraser is executive chair of the National NewsMedia Council of Canada and Master Emeritus of Massey College. He is also the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada and the author of The Secret of the Crown.
For most of her extraordinary reign as Queen of Canada, a title quite a few Canadians felt disobliged to accord her, Queen Elizabeth II rarely had a misstep. She would tell Canadians she was happy to be “coming home” and even when she was here during fraught times, she made a point of saying she was especially happy to be here. “I’m not just a fair-weather friend,” she once said famously, and it was true. She never sought to avoid the rough days.
And there were rough days – none more fraught than in 1964, when Quebec was seething with discontent during the not-so-quiet Quiet Revolution. It was actually not so much the “English queen” that had Quebec separatists seething as the entire idea of Quebec still being a constituent part of Canada. On that singular occasion, she endured people booing her and pointedly turning their backs as she and Prince Philip made their way to the provincial legislature.
“We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways to enjoy ourselves,” Philip said at a subsequent press conference, enjoining Canadians who wanted to end our links to the Crown to go about their business with a modicum of civility. And it was the Queen’s own civility that marked her reign. She was in for the long haul and, if we wanted her, she was prepared to go the full distance, even if it took up three-quarters of her life’s span.
In the Queen’s seemingly unending reign in Canada, there were ironies within ironies, of which one of my favourites was that she spoke both our official languages often better than some of our prime ministers or her chosen representatives, the viceregal crew of governor-general and provincial lieutenant-governors.
But it has always been hard to get Canadians to understand that the Queen serves as our head of state at the will of the Canadian people.
The right to sit upon a throne may be inherited and unelected, but if a federal administration came to office in Canada with the avowed intent of severing the links to the Crown and could get the agreement of all the provincial and territorial legislatures, the Crown would end in a – well, not in a twinkle I guess, but fairly speedily.
However, as Australians discovered in 1999 when they held a referendum on the future of the Crown in their country, the institution is not as easily disposed of as some thought. When the reality of the possibility occurred, it suddenly dawned on Australians that – to borrow a phrase – there was going to be a battle royal over what and who would replace it and her. In the end, the devil known seemed to be better than the unknown.
This is the constitutional part of our relationship with the Crown that escapes those who feel some sort of national shame that “English monarchs” rule over us. In fact, we have chosen to stick with the world’s only international monarchy and so far it has suited our purposes.
In an interview Stephen Harper once had, when he was prime minister, on the subject of the Crown, he said that, “like most Canadians, I was largely indifferent to the Crown.” But then he went on to say that since he held high office, he had come to see its remarkable value. Even more importantly, he added in a somewhat dark aside, “I have looked closely at the alternatives and they scare me.”
The Queen succeeded to the throne in 1952, when she was just 25, upon the death of her father, King George VI. She was our head of state for almost half the post-Confederation history of the country, which means there are only a minority of people left in Canada who remember living under a different sovereign. I am just old enough to remember how strange it was as an eight-year-old at primary school to stop singing God Save the King every morning.
I had grandparents born in the reign of Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II was their sixth monarch. The entire map of Canada is littered with the progress of those reigns, and even earlier ones: Georgian Bay (George IV); Prince Edward Island (named after Queen Victoria’s father); Victoria, B.C.; Coronation, Alta.; Regina and Prince Albert, Sask. … Well, the list goes on and on, and Alberta itself is named after Victoria’s prince consort. There are actually more than 1,500 place names rooted in the Canadian Crown.
Which means what, exactly? It means that there is a bedrock history rooted in the Queen’s family and she knew it. Canada was clearly her favourite amongst “the overseas dominions,” and she came here often on both extensive and short progresses around the country – 22 journeys by official accounts. She also understood, as few Canadians themselves did, the strong bond between the Crown and the Indigenous nations, which stretched back in her family’s case to the court of Queen Anne, which received a delegation of Mohawk chiefs as “the kings of Canada” and accorded them head-of-state dignities with an official reception at St. James Palace in 1710.
Queen Elizabeth II herself never missed any opportunity to connect with the Indigenous nations of Canada. If you go through an archive of photographs of her Canadian reign, they are festooned with endless Indigenous interactions. There was a strange symbiosis between these two “estates,” as if they each realized that in the strangest of ways, they supported each other’s legitimacy when many in the rest of Canada doubted the legitimacy of both. It is a curiosity in Canada that most Indigenous leaders know better than most non-Indigenous the difference between the person of the sovereign and the role of the “Crown” as government.
On the whole, the Queen had happy relations with our elected leaders. Her first was Louis St. Laurent, and then in succession: John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. Commentators have speculated on who her favourite was, but no one knows for sure because that was precisely the sort of information she never allowed anyone to have. I myself am pretty sure it was Pierre Trudeau, not particularly because there was almost the same age difference between the two of them as there was between Prince Philip and herself, but because in all the video clips and photographs of the two together, she seems more relaxed with him than any of the others.
There is also an extraordinary tale, revealed just a couple of years ago, of how she colluded with Mr. Trudeau to frustrate British prime minister Edward Heath’s plan to have her boycott a Commonwealth heads of state and government meeting in Ottawa/Mont-Tremblant in August, 1973, because of the presence of the dictatorial Ugandan leader, Idi Amin. She astutely parlayed the advice of her British PM to stay away with the advice of her Commonwealth host Canadian PM to come. Mr. Heath had to change his own plans and come to Canada with his tail between his legs.
The subsequent formal meeting between Elizabeth II and Trudeau the Second (Justin) was almost hilariously the opposite: great-grandmama greeting a distant overseas relative for the first time since he was a baby. Ironically, useful as he sometimes found her, the elder Trudeau was actually not much of a monarchist, but in patriating our Constitution and ensuring that every legislature in the land had a stake in deciding any future role of the Crown, he virtually assured its survival here. Some sardonic observers have said that even if Britain severed its own links with the Crown, Canada might still be trying to decide.
Unlike the United States, Canada never had a revolution. Instead we had an evolution, and that is how the whole concept of viceregal representation of the Crown came about. Initially, all the Canadian governors-general came from the United Kingdom, but this too evolved.
It is another curiosity about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II that all her governors-general were either Canadian-born or naturalized Canadians. In all her long reign, she only had one British governor-general of Canada – Viscount Alexander of Tunis – and in that role he only survived for three weeks after she succeeded her father. King George died on Feb. 6, 1952, and Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born governor-general, was sworn in at Rideau Hall on Feb. 28.
All of the viceregal figures were nominally appointed by the Queen, but in reality they emerged from whatever machinations were going on in the Prime Minister’s Office. Some were delighted to bask in the royal shadow, others were less pleased. From time to time, there developed a real divergence between the attitude to the sovereign by governors-general and that of their provincial counterparts. Strong-willed viceregals such as Adrienne Clarkson or Julie Payette paid scant attention to the Queen.
In Ms. Clarkson’s case, she created a strong link between her immigrant story and the Canada she aspired to represent, and there wasn’t a lot of room for the Queen in that tale. Ms. Clarkson was a brilliant communicator and presided over the office most days with great aplomb. She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but she gave Canadians a tangible taste of what an effective non-royal head of state could be like. The trouble was, it was a term appointment, unlike the Queen’s life sentence.
Ms. Payette, as equally strong-willed as Ms. Clarkson, was the other side of the coin and less politically astute, and that lack of astuteness caused more immediate damage to the office than did any of her predecessors – combined. There was more than a little irony that Ms. Payette’s successor was Indigenous and that the Queen probably felt more comfortable with Mary Simon than with any of the other GGs, with the notable exceptions of Mr. Massey and his successor Georges Vanier.
Throughout this long reign, the Queen abided stoically with whatever way and manner in which the country wanted to deploy her. She has graced all our coins; survived in our paper currency only on the $20 bill (the most familiar denomination these days); remained – sometimes controversially – in the oath of citizenship new Canadians are obliged to take, as well as in all the oaths government ministers take before assuming their high offices.
She went only to the places she was advised to go, assented through her viceregal appointees only to the legislation she was required to approve, honoured citizens she was expected to honour, and was altogether the very definition of a perfect and unobtrusive sovereign presence.
If that doesn’t mean much to some people, it is only because they have not realized how difficult it has been for anyone to endure such steadfastness during such a prolonged period of extraordinary national and global change. Most of all, they have not pondered how lucky we have all been that she was there throughout these many years and spared us a mountain of constitutional grief trying to make another system work.
Her endurance has been her greatest gift to Canadians and her passing a great sadness, but hopefully for many Canadians, it will not be the end of the story about Canada and the Crown.