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opinion

I've been watching the monarchy cast its spell over Canada and I'm impressed at how an exclusive, conservative, essentially feudal institution is not only popular but is perceived as relevant, even critical, to an emerging Canada of multiple and mutating identities.

You have to marvel at how the House of Windsor has managed to pull off such an optical illusion in this, the age of irony. I suppose you can partly ascribe it to the enduring attraction of myth and symbols. The Royal Family knows a thing or two about that game. They practically wrote the rule book, with their elaborate paraphernalia of rituals and arcana designed to protect, preserve and prop up the dynasty. It is hard not to be impressed by the weight of their heritage: the flags; the ermine; the history. I know of a couple of eminent Canadians who professed to be republicans but who obediently fell into line as soon as the royal train rolled into town.

My republican bona fides are strong: The Crown appropriated my ancestors' lands in southern Nigeria, forcing my Ogoni community into the British Empire in 1914. The House of Wiwa is essentially republican, by instinct and temperament. But, as with so many things, time and space inform and alter our beliefs. Nigeria's declaration of independence in 1960 inoculated my generation against the virulent strain of republicanism that animated my father's contemporaries.

Even though I was partially indoctrinated by the British class system at a private school in southern England, I emerged with my bona fides intact. So much so that although I lived within two miles of Buckingham Palace for 10 years, I never saw nor was even interested in the Royal Family.

All that changed a little during the past week. Coming to Canada had already subtly altered my perception of the Windsors and all things English. Something must have been added in the translation -- because to a jumped-up colonial boy raised (and lowered) in England, the imagined communities of Englishness you find in Canada are both reassuring and alarming.

While these communities provide a comforting reference point, there's something alarming about being attracted to what you thought you had left behind. And as John Manley discovered to his political cost, you can't easily dismiss Canada's attachment to the monarchy until you appreciate the pathology of loss, pride, rejection and anxiety that informs it.

On Thursday, I put on my Sunday best and went to observe how the monarchy manages to coalesce many of Canada's divergent tendencies under its mythic mantle.

To all outward appearances, Massey College and the Duke of Edinburgh were made for each other. When the Duke became a senior resident at a ceremony there that day it completed a circle; it was the same Duke who laid the foundation stone back in 1962. I imagine the Duke probably felt at home at Massey College. With its towers and chapel, the place is like something out of the English shires, consciously and quintessentially a slice of Britannia. College fellows don gowns for high table; a bell tolls for lunch and dinner. Built with golden brick and pale limestone, it was designed to age gracefully, like an English castle.

But if you loiter around Massey, as I do most days, on any given morning you can talk to Namibians, Jamaicans, Tajiks, Peruvians, Iranians and Ecuadorians. There is a real sense within the college that it is a place that reflects the kind of world emerging beyond the college's quadrangle. Most of the college came out to welcome the Duke on Thursday -- joined by what looked like a fair representation of Canada's elite -- all swarming enthusiastically to press some royal flesh.

You suspect, with El Duque, that he attracts attention for the same reason that some people go to watch motor-racing -- for the accidents. The Windsors are like a box of chocolates; there is something for everybody: The Duke appeals to the NASCAR tendency in all of us; the Queen is devoted, attentive and house-proud; Prince William is the poster boy for the Britney generation. And so on right down to Canada's Governor-General.

That Adrienne Clarkson, once a refugee, represents the Queen here in Canada is, for me, the singular most important reason for believing that the monarchy is relevant to Canada's emerging identity.

Her role may only be ceremonial and symbolic, but as the enduring quality of the Royal Family attests, you can never underestimate the power of myth. Even -- or rather, especially -- in this iconoclastic age.