Julie Payette’s departure as governor-general over reports of abusive behaviour and Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism within the Royal Family prompted fresh calls for an end to Canada’s connection to the British monarchy.
There’s only one problem: It’s next to impossible.
The monarchy “is not just a frill, it’s not just a symbol, although it’s a powerful symbol,” argues D. Michael Jackson, who is president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada. “It goes to the heart and root of what we are in Canadian government.” To remove the Crown from government in Canada would be to remove government itself as we know it.
Nonsense, you say. Many a constitutional monarchy has converted itself into a republic. Barbados is doing so later this year. But what is possible in Barbados – or Ireland, or India or South Africa – is not possible here. Consider these five impediments to forming the Republic of Canada.
1. Politically, it’s very difficult. One party would need to fight and win an election on a promise to abolish the monarchy. But with majority governments typically receiving around 40 per cent of the popular vote, that’s hardly enough. Even if legislation to make Canada a republic passed the House and the Senate, that would only be a first step.
2. Constitutionally, it’s even harder. Let’s say a prime minister secured passage of the Republic of Canada Act, with or without an affirming referendum. The Constitution requires that all 10 provincial legislatures must also pass similar legislation. Who believes Quebec or Alberta would agree to reopen the Constitution and abolish the monarchy, without demanding greater provincial autonomy?
Philippe Lagassé, a political scientist at Carleton University, points out that Canada’s constitutional sclerosis is so severe that federal and provincial governments can’t even agree on Senate reform, which most people would likely support. Replacing the monarchy would be even harder.
“If we can’t fix something that most people want fixed, how are we going to fix the really complicated things?” he wonders.
3. Why would First Nations consent?
From the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to the Constitution Act, 1982, Indigenous peoples have engaged with the Crown as the representative of non-native government in Canada. The leaders of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples would not easily accede to any change in that relationship.
“Their treaty rights are tied to the Crown. The Crown is their treaty partner,” observes Nathan Tidridge, who has written several books exploring the role of the Crown in Canadian government. “For Indigenous people, the last thing that they would want is for those treaty relationships to be turned over to the settler government. That would complete the colonization enterprise.”
And what if some of the 630 First Nations communities assented, while others refused? How would you measure sufficient consent? Is consent even needed, constitutionally? It would be the biggest headache ever handed to the Supreme Court.
4. What would replace the governor-general?
For all intents and purposes, the prime minister of the day chooses the governor-general as the Queen’s representative in Canada. In a republic, would that person become head of state? If there were a constitutional crisis, an appointed governor-general might not be seen as truly neutral. That is why most republics have an elected president with largely ceremonial duties as head of state.
But while the governor-general and the Queen are completely non-partisan, “a republican system would remove the non-partisan nature of the head of state,” says Robert Finch, Dominion Chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada. “You could ultimately end up with a political president who clashes with the prime minister. How is that better than what we have now?”
5. And what about the lieutenant-governors?
In Canada, each province is sovereign within the sphere of its jurisdiction. “The provincial embodiment of the Crown is co-sovereign, in tandem with the national Crown, the governor-general, not subordinate to it,” Mr. Jackson says. So if Canada is to become a republic, then either the provinces must surrender that sovereignty – and good luck with that – or the new republican system must reflect the sovereignty of the provincial governments, through appointed or elected lieutenant-governors or provincial presidents.
See how complicated this gets?
One more thing.
It’s important to separate the Crown as an institution from those who wear or are near it. “The first is constitutional monarchy as a system of government,” says historian and author Carolyn Harris, who has written on the monarchy in Canada. “Having a level of government that is above party politics, the historical connections to other Commonwealth realms, the shared history and the involvement of the monarchy in various Canadian institutions.” All that is quite distinct from the latest episode of Windsors Behaving Badly.
It’s worth noting that of the world’s 20 happiest nations, as ranked by the annual World Happiness Report, (Canada came in at 11 this year) 10 are constitutional monarchies and 10 are republics.
So why bother?
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