At the National War Memorial on Wednesday, Canada's constitutional monarchy worked. The Prince of Wales and our Governor-General stood side by side, solemnly and in unison laying wreaths of remembrance and reviewing a parade of veterans and active servicemen and women. On a gorgeous autumn day, the sometimes creaky institution of the Canadian Crown came to life.
This was not a moment to be lost, for it reminded Canadians of why we have a Crown, how difficult it is to change, even for those who want to, and most importantly, how it befits a strong and independent Canada. Before our soldiers and Prime Minister were two powerful and intertwined symbols - Prince Charles, the heir apparent of our sovereign, a living symbol of our past, a link to centuries of history and tradition, and Michaëlle Jean, the Governor-General, the face of a new Canada, a symbol of our present and future and, in all but name, our head of state. Together they represented something greater than either could alone.
During the 11-day royal visit, that very symmetry has helped Canada re-engage with its monarchy. The visit of the Queen next summer, and a rumoured visit later by Prince William of Wales, may give further currency to what has become, for many, a distant memory. Some credit should go to Stephen Harper, who is nobody's monarchist but for the first time in a long time is a Prime Minister unafraid of acknowledging the realities of our system of government.
With the royal visit over, however, it's now time to get on with the hard part - preparing for the inevitable transition in monarchs and a historic opportunity to further modernize the Canadian Crown. To start, let's shake the yawning indifference to the monarchy. Nearly one year ago, when Parliament was prorogued and the country was thrust into momentary crisis, we were reminded why it matters. Next, let's realize there is no public clamour for its abolition. Such a change is not considered by many to be a national priority.
Any attempt to sever ties with the Crown after the death of the Queen (and there is no stomach to propose such a change during our admired monarch's lifetime) would require a constitutional amendment that itself demands the unanimous consent of all provincial legislatures and the federal Parliament. As sure as winter follows autumn in this land, there would be a wrenching national debate - unpalatable not only to the minority of Canadians who support the Crown, but to the majority who are indifferent to it.
What to do?
In 1991, this newspaper advocated a novel and subtly republican change. The plan assumes that all provinces would agree to such changes.
Under that plan, the title of governor-general would survive, in respect for Canada's traditions. The incumbent would not be selected by the prime minister, but rather by the companions of the Order of Canada. Effectively, an elite group of some 165 people, such as Stephen Lewis, Celine Dion, Peter Newman and Adrienne Clarkson, would choose Canada's head of state. It is an interesting idea, but it is unworkable and indeed in some respects is objectionable. If the head of state is to be elected, it must be a franchise much larger than 165 people. But an elected head of state would require a complete constitutional reordering of Canada. Of the many priorities facing the country, a constitutional conference is not one.
This country can do better. On Wednesday, and in the days before and after, Canadians had an awakening with respect to our system of government. While the sovereign is a symbol of our unique history of which we should be proud, the powers of the Crown are vested in the governor-general, who may not be technically head of state, but is the de facto head of state of Canada and should be acknowledged as such. We should seize on the opportunity to strengthen that institution, ensuring the office of governor-general is filled in a manner that brings Canada pride, not the shame of patronage plums and politically correct gestures - Conservative and Liberal - that have characterized Rideau Hall for too long.
All the more reason, then, for Rideau Hall to be occupied by an eminent person, someone with empathy and an innate understanding of Canada, someone who can be trusted to exercise good judgment and place the interests of the country ahead of partisan concerns. A process needs to be established by which candidates are vetted and a short list proposed by an apolitical advisory committee, representative of Canadian society and knowledgeable about its Constitution and conventions.
We suggest using a non-partisan body modelled upon the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada. It would be chaired by the Chief Justice of Canada (who would only vote in the case of a tie), and would include the Clerk of the Queen's Privy Council, the chair of the Council of the Federation, to represent the premiers, the Speaker of the House of Commons, to represent Parliament, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the president of the Royal Society of Canada, and leaders representing other diverse aspects of Canadian society.
This body could be tasked with submitting a short list of candidates to serve as governor-general for a set five-year term. The choice would belong to the Prime Minister, who is of course accountable to the Canadian people for it. There is a precedent for such a limitation on the prime minister's power of appointment, in the form of the Supreme Court Selection Panel. This change can be made without a constitutional amendment.
In 2010, Ms. Jean's term will expire. She can be offered an extension, but in any case the Prime Minister will soon be looking for her replacement. Patronage needs to be removed from the selection process for the governor-general. The powers of head of state should not be open to cronyism, or greater abuses. The country cannot abide an indentured viceroy, one beholden to the prime minister who appointed him or her. The governor-general must be seen to have not only authority but also legitimacy.
If Mr. Harper is serious about reviving Canada's constitutional monarchy, he should place the nation's interests ahead of partisanship by making this urgent reform of the Canadian Crown.