Philippe Lagassé is associate professor and Barton Chair at Carleton University.
So Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are coming to Canada. Now what?
The answer to that question depends a lot on what they hope to do here: Do they settle in Toronto or on Vancouver Island? Will they work with non-profits and charities – as a recent photo of Ms. Markle in a Vancouver women’s centre suggests – or focus on earning incomes of their own, as her reported contract with Disney also suggests? Maybe they’ll ultimately decide that the United States is a better fit. Who knows?
This “who knows" attitude is enmeshed in what is basically new territory for all involved, including the Canadian and British governments. Who pays for their security? What about transportation and medical care in an emergency?
But one thing is clear. If the Sussexes choose to reside in Canada, they will be living, breathing reminders of the differences between our national institution, the Canadian Crown, and the colonial heritage that Prince Harry and Ms. Markle represent – the British monarchy.
The Crown is a fundamental, if largely hidden, part of Canada’s Constitution. In author and Ryerson University professor David E. Smith’s words, the “invisible Crown” is the “first principle of Canadian government.” We vest the executive power in the Queen acting on the advice of her Council [i.e. federal cabinet]. The Queen is also one part of Parliament, alongside the Senate and House of Commons. The courts are formally the Queen’s and the law officers of the Crown are an essential part of the justice system. Formally speaking, the Crown is our concept of the state – the source of sovereign authority, as personified by the Queen.
When we say all this, however, we’re referring to the Crown and Queen as an idea – an abstraction, a legal fiction. That doesn’t take away from their importance, but it does mean that we aren’t really referring to Queen Elizabeth II in the flesh, except when she occasionally does specific things, such as proclaiming our new Constitution in 1982 or appointing a Governor-General. Most of the time, we experience the Crown when state officials – be they the prime minister and cabinet, bureaucrats, military leaders or judges – exercise the institution’s powers. When the Crown’s authority is wielded by them, it looks, feels and acts Canadian.
Our monarchy is another matter. While the Queen may wear her Canadian honours in official portraits and her longstanding affection for Canada is no doubt genuine, she remains fundamentally British. She is our Queen because Canada was once British North America, a set of colonies that confederated as a self-governing Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1867.
Over the next century-plus, we gradually asserted our autonomy and later our independence, which included the development of a Canadian Crown distinct from the British one, legally and constitutionally speaking. As Lord Justice Anthony May of the English Court Of Appeal found in 1982, “In matters of law and government, the Queen of the United Kingdom, for example, is entirely independent and distinct from the Queen of Canada.” But the monarchy couldn’t mirror the divisibility of the British and Canadian Crowns. The human side of the equation lacks the malleability of the conceptual.
In short, Britain’s Royal Family is our Royal Family because we share the same human being as our monarch. But rather than representing Canada as an independent state, they symbolize our heritage and continuing connection with the Queen and the Commonwealth, as demonstrated by the continued use of God Save the Queen as our Royal Anthem and the Canadian royal flags designed for members of the Royal Family with close ties to our country.
Royal tours and visits operate along a similar principle. The Royal Family is welcomed as members of our extended family – hallmarks of where Canada came from and as celebrations of historic institutional and cultural links. This relationship works because they come for short stints, share in our celebrations and commemorations and do their duty without causing a fuss. As Prince Philip once quipped, however, most members of the Royal Family don’t come here for their health; they come because we’ve asked.
Prince Harry and Ms. Markle are different. They’re the ones asking to come – and have for a while. Chances are that if they do choose to live here, the novelty will eventually wear off. And assuming Canadians aren’t footing big bills, we won’t think that much about it. A recent Angus Reid poll found that 73 per cent of Canadians are opposed to such spending and two-thirds say the House of Windsor is losing or has lost relevance. But their presence will be awkward. They would be more or less permanent embodiments of a British monarchy that remains attached to our independent Canadian Crown, reminding us of what we were – not what we’ve become.
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