Some of the Fathers of Confederation wanted to call the new country “The Kingdom of Canada.” They instead went with “Dominion,” for fear of a belligerent reaction from the republic next door. That was probably wise, given that one of their goals was independence from the United States. (It worked: 155 years, and still not American).
But the term “kingdom” reflected the system of government they adopted, and which we still live under: a constitutional monarchy, with a crown that symbolically reigns and democratic parliaments that substantively rule. Monarchy was poured into the foundations, and there it remains. The question of whether that still makes sense comes up every few years.
Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, there were frequent calls to ditch the monarchy as a way of addressing Quebec separatism; the thing was, these calls tended to come from English Canada, not Quebec.
Real changes, like (finally) recognizing French-language education rights outside Quebec and making the federal government truly bilingual, were far more meaningful.
Later, there were arguments that the existence of a monarchy was somehow unwelcoming to immigrants. A lawsuit wended its way through the courts until 2014, when the Ontario Court of Appeal confirmed that the oath to the Queen that new citizens take is not discriminatory.
Why not? Because it isn’t an oath to a person, but rather to our Constitution and country, of which the Crown is a symbol. And among the hallmarks of our country are freedom of speech, conscience and political organization. So when a new citizen takes an oath to be faithful to the Queen, they are really promising to be faithful to a Constitution that guarantees their rights – including the right to work for the removal of the oath, or the end of the monarchy.
For those interested in making Queen Elizabeth II the last Queen of Canada, we have bad news for you: It’s almost impossible. It would require a constitutional amendment of the type that is the most difficult to obtain, involving the unanimous support of the provinces, plus Parliament. That means Charles, the Prince of Wales, will one day become King of Canada.
But just for the sake of argument, what if it were easier to amend the Constitution and turn Canada into a republic. Would that be a good thing? Who would replace the Queen?
The example of the republic next door shows how it would work.
We’d need an appointed or elected official to serve as head of state; in the U.S., that’s the president. He lives in a palace known as the White House, and there’s a whole lot of pomp, ceremony and saluting when he does anything. Though a politician and partisan, holding the office also makes him an embodiment of the country– so his picture is on the wall of every government office. Four years of Donald Trump; four years of Joe Biden.
The Canadian system is better. A century and a half ago, some of the Fathers wanted us to have an in-residence monarch, with a son of Queen Victoria installed in Ottawa as King or Prince. That’s not what happened, and it has turned out to have been a good thing.
What we’ve ended up with is something very 21st century: Virtual monarchy. A sovereign who is geographically removed, yet who remains 100 per cent the head of state.
A permanently absent sovereign means someone must act in her stead, and that’s why we have a governor-general at the federal level, and lieutenant-governors in the provinces. But these temporary stand-ins can have no delusions of grandeur, being empowered by neither aristocratic lineage nor democratic election.
They are appointees to the position of acting regional manager, with the certainty that “acting” will never be removed from their title.
Their job involves sharing no public opinions on issues of public debate. Why? Because in our democratic system, politics is for politicians. And our vice-regal representatives are doubly constrained, being not only figureheads but temporary stand-ins for a greater figurehead.
The setup is deliberately humbling. And since constitutional monarchy means premiers and prime ministers are themselves merely custodians of government, rather than heads of state, it’s humbling for them, too. Which makes the whole arrangement as Canadian as can be.
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