John Fraser is the executive chair of the National NewsMedia Council of Canada, the author of The Secret of the Crown and he was founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.
The Queen turns 96 today and her great age continues to excite monarchists and republicans in Canada alike. The monarchists are excited because of the example of selfless duty continuing non-stop since the day she pledged herself to our service almost 70 years ago in her coronation oaths. Republicans on the other hand are almost quivering with excitement because they assume once she dies what they see as the colonial relic that is the Crown will be headed straight for the dustbin of history.
Some of the speculation about what will happen when the Queen dies and Prince Charles becomes king assumes that most Canadians will find the continuation of the monarchy in any form simply unacceptable. Polls may show the monarchy is losing public support, but that also reflects the inherent superficiality of polling and the woeful absence of any meaningful education on our civic culture and political history.
As a small celebration of the great woman’s birthday, therefore, I would like to sketch a somewhat different scenario for the immediate years ahead for the Crown in Canada, a scenario that doesn’t seem to get much airtime at the moment.
It has the small advantage that it is based on Canada’s federal-provincial reality and the still active Canadian disinclination to get caught up in constitutional wrangles when we can’t even get all the provinces to agree on our Constitution. It also takes for granted the sensitivities of Indigenous cultures, which have their own unique take on the Crown that rarely sees the light of day in most polls I have seen. And finally it is based on the sure knowledge that any federal government that is foolish enough to enunciate a different solution for a head of state of Canada will encounter the very same negative result the Australian government did when it tried to ditch the Crown in 1999 in favour of a republic.
For all those republicans on the death watch out there, there’s this reality too: The Queen could probably make her century and then some. I believe she still has some years to go, despite reports of her mobility problems. She will never abdicate because she considers her duty a sacred matter not to be cast lightly aside.
At the same time, the Canadian vice-regal compromise for a resident head of state is going through its own continuing evolution, with a bit of trial and error, but at the moment beautifully personified through Mary Simon, the first Indigenous Governor-General, a development already successfully undertaken in provincial vice-regal circles several decades ago.
The Queen will obviously pull back on the pace she has always followed, as she has been doing recently because of the reality of her great age. She will go to fewer events but when she does appear it will inevitably be increasingly memorable.
At the same time, we will also see a corresponding increase in the presence of Prince Charles, who will pick up the slack. Other members of the Royal Family will pitch in too, but Charles will finally be able to show Canadians what the British already know: that he is a good man with a kind heart and a strong sense of civic responsibility and duty, and that he knows perfectly well what is expected of him as a constitutional sovereign.
Even though he will speak out in a different way than the Queen, it will always be with the same understanding she has that it is elected governments that dictate legislation regardless of anything you have read to the contrary or seen in The Crown.
We will also see the inevitable volte-face in the media and then in public perception. Count on it. The zeitgeist of our times brandishes many things as colonial, but our next constitutional head of state – who may very well be approaching 80 before he succeeds his mother – will be defining our understanding of the evolving Crown by showing how ancient institutions can also speak to our needs in troublesome times, whether it is about climate change or culture wars.
The more Charles becomes a familiar constitutional and ceremonial figure, the more Canadians will understand what the Queen herself patiently tried to explain when she was in Toronto way back in June, 1973: “The Crown is an idea more than a person,” she said, “and I want the Crown in Canada to represent everything that is best and most admired in the Canadian ideal.”
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