Michael Valpy is a senior fellow of Massey College and a senior fellow in public policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Charles, King of Canada, descendant of Vlad the Impaler (his great-grandson 16 times removed), may have only a few weeks to capture public support in this country as his reign begins. If he fails, the odds are strong that he’ll be brought down by the wolves of republicanism – not by constitutional change but by being disappeared, deprived of oxygen.
That’s a bleak job forecast for a man whose mother was sovereign of Canada for more than 70 years, who can bring much to the country, is attuned to much that it values, wants to be part of its journey in the 21st century and should at the very least be tested before being dismissed.
But whatever views Canadians have had about their country being a monarchy for more than 500 years, they almost certainly have been diminished with Elizabeth II’s death. The Queen brought unparalleled stature to her role as sovereign. What comes next?
The staff at London’s Clarence House, Charles’s office, when they think at all about the 14 Commonwealth realms other than Britain where he has succeeded his mother as head of state, privately expect them to follow the path of Barbados, which transformed itself from monarchy to republic at the end of 2021.
Royal tours have been made into stuffy, massive, antiquated affairs of ribbon-cuttings and stilted speeches that members of the Royal Family show as little interest in as the public, but which can’t be pried loose from the organizing fingers of bureaucrats and politicians.
Harry and Meghan had the North American pizzazz to connect with Canadians, but they’re gone – muted and sidelined in sunny California as the 21st century’s Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Few expect them back.
The royal image has been tarnished by the fictionalized television drama series The Crown, about Elizabeth’s reign. Widely viewed in Canada, it has become increasingly anti-Royal Family. Royal biographer Hugo Vickers declared that in Season 4, the most recent, “every member of the Royal Family … comes out of it badly, except [Diana] the Princess of Wales.” The final two seasons are expected to be even more hostile.
For Charles, that’s particularly problematic. In North America, he remains largely cemented into the narrative as the wicked one in a failed marriage, while the late Diana is cherished. (His image in the United Kingdom is more balanced.)
Canada’s bonds to the monarchy are the stickiest to undo in all the Commonwealth because of how the monarchy is welded into our Constitution: Altering it requires resolutions of both houses of Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures, meaning there would have to be consensual agreement both on dropping the monarchy and on coming up with a replacement (the latter being even more difficult than it sounds).
As sovereign nominally resident in the United Kingdom, Charles is only able to come to Canada at the formal request of the federal government, a rule crafted by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. There’s been no hurry in the past few years to ask him to come – even though there have been several requests from provincial governments. Charles’s office has said publicly that he would like to spend more time here, and Charles himself has let it be known that he would like to be more engaged in Canada.
Hence the threat of oxygen deprivation for the monarchy if Charles fails to make himself popular in Canada and get an official do-drop-in card. It could be that Canada retains the monarchy but allows it to wither without visits from Charles or his heir Prince William.
Or there could be another narrative. Call it the reign of Charles the Popular, beginning with the prime minister and provincial premiers agreeing that on a list of 100 things that need fixing in Canada, as former governor-general Edward Schreyer once said, the monarchy ranks 101st.
Charles needs to give Canadians a fair chance to get to know him – to know his interests in young people, Indigenous culture, architecture, urban planning, organic agriculture, military veterans and, above all, the environment and climate change.
It can happen. Charles is “not one for chilling,” Camilla has said of her husband. She meant he doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet. But his presence in Canada will depend on who is prime minister and who will speak out in support of the monarchy.
Ottawa could invite Charles to Canada almost immediately, present him to the country as head of state – actually, in historic terminology, he is not so much head of state as he personifies the state – get him out talking to ordinary people and have him visit regularly thereafter.
Canadians, given the chance, could see a close relationship with Charles as beneficial. He is a complex, passionate, determined and intelligent man. His interest in environmentalism, in particular, could be a strong tie that links him with the country.
He laid out his detailed environmental interests in his 2010, 330-page book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. It begins, “This is a call to revolution. The Earth is under threat. It cannot cope with all that we demand of it. It is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen.”
That was more than 10 years ago, before the climate crisis claimed front-page headlines – and Charles was mocked as an alarmist. The world has now caught up with him. Young people around the globe, including in Canada, are on the same page.
He spent five days at Glasgow’s COP26 climate summit, attending more than 30 functions. He has said: “I am determined to be the defender of Nature. That’s what the rest of my life is going to be concerned with.”
Obviously he is going to need to meld his environmental passions with the constitutional requirements of a politically neutral sovereign, but people will know where his spiritual commitments lie.
He meets with Indigenous leaders who ask to see him in London – another act mirroring attitudes taking shape in Canada. He has been recognized as reflecting the legal phrase “the honour of the Crown” – meaning the government’s duty to consult with Indigenous peoples and accommodate their interests. “The honour of the Crown is always at stake in its dealings with Aboriginal peoples,” wrote former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin. “It is not a mere incantation, but rather a core precept that finds its application in concrete practices. Nothing less is required if we are to achieve the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown.”
Charles has an impressive track record working with Canada’s charitable sector, helping for instance to sponsor children’s books in Indigenous languages and working to get business involved in providing equitable access to jobs for Indigenous people.
The Prince’s Trust Canada has set up supports for veterans – especially those who have been medically discharged with either physical or emotional wounds – helping them transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces into civilian entrepreneurship programs.
The Trust has opened doors for young people into the labour market.
The Prince’s Canadian charities partner with green trades and businesses, urban forestry projects and land and water stewardship programs. In 2021, he launched the Terra Carta (Charter for the Earth) movement to provide a roadmap to 2030 for businesses hoping to move toward a sustainable future, combining, as he put it, the transformative power, innovation and resources of the private sector with the fundamental rights and value of nature.
In order to have an influence on Canada, it will be essential for Charles to increase the frequency and impact of his visits. Former governor-general David Johnston, a friend of Charles, once quoted him as saying that every time he arrives in the country, “a little more Canada seeps into his bloodstream and, from there, straight into his heart.”
Charles, 73, and Camilla were most recently in Canada – for three days – in May (his first visit since 2017). They could have stayed longer; they could have spent more time with young people, certainly with Indigenous people. Official Ottawa showed little interest in this happening.
In 2009, when he hadn’t been in Canada for eight years, a top aide interviewed by The Globe and Mail said (unusually for the record) Charles was keen to deepen his relationship with the country. He wanted to visit, get to know people. He’d arranged meetings with key Canadian philanthropic and community leaders with the aim of cementing connections with his own charitable interests.
“But I suppose it comes back to [the] point that that requires an invitation and it requires the timing to be right. The Prince of Wales would very much love to pay a visit to Canada but, as I’ve said, he has to wait for the invitation,” said his spokesperson Paddy Harverson.
The Prince’s relationship with the government of Jean Chrétien was warm, especially with heritage minister Sheila Copps, whose hometown of Hamilton got an impressive number of princely visits. Charles also got along well with Mel Cappe, the former privy council clerk who was high commissioner to London from 2002 to 2006.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-eighties, Prince Charles was in Canada almost annually. Then, during the next decade, tours were spaced out every five years. Then they just petered out. He has spent far more time in the republican United States (sometimes paying two visits a year) than in monarchical Canada.
His friends Galen Weston, the late food and clothing billionaire, and his wife, former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hilary Weston, did their best to introduce Charles to the Canadian public. They took his itinerary out of the hands of Ottawa planners in 2001 and arranged a blowout gala for him with the Toronto arts community. They skirted the proscription on private visits in 1998 and arranged a skiing trip to Whistler, B.C., for Charles and his two sons that was a smash hit – thousands of screaming, cheering students greeted them on their way through the Vancouver area.
What’s useful to remember is that constitutional monarchy has worked for Canada. It has preserved and strengthened its democratic institutions over centuries and given it a uniqueness. Charles will be a constitutional leader whose values and objectives are in tune with the contemporary world and who superbly understands the sovereign’s role as guarantor of continuous stable governance and representation of the power of the people above government and political parties.
Novelist William Boyd concluded his review of Sally Bedell Smith’s acclaimed biography of Charles with the words, “We can look forward to the reign of Charles III with quiet confidence.”
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