It's Time for Canada to Leave the Monarchy

Paul Heinbecker makes the case for a Canada with a truly Canadian Head of State.
By: /
July 2, 2014
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge arrives at Ottawa's Macdonald-Catier International Airport in Canada June 30, 2011. The potential future king and queen of Britain and Canada began their Canadian tour in Ottawa. REUTERS/Chris Jackson/Pool

It is time to prepare to turn the page on Buckingham Palace. Fealty to the British monarchy is an anachronism and a drag on Canadian foreign policy that confuses many and delivers little. In cutting ties we would not have to disrespect the royal family or disavow our own history; we would just have to acknowledge how far we have evolved as a society since the sun set on the British Empire and how far apart we and the monarchy have grown, and will continue to grow apart.

For most of the past half century, I had the rare privilege of serving in the Foreign Service of our unique country. During that service I came to see ourselves as others see us, and the experience was gratifying. As Ambassador to the United Nations, whenever I took the microphone in the Security Council or General Assembly I was given a respectful hearing because of the people and their values that I formally represented, and because of the constructive foreign policy carried out in their name. Canada was regarded as the most successful country on the planet in integrating foreigners into our society and making diversity a strength, all the while safeguarding the rule of law, protecting the interests of our minorities, albeit with some regrettable lapses with respect to aboriginal Canadians, and promoting progress abroad. As Prime Minister Mulroney’s foreign policy adviser, I saw the high regard with which Canada was held overseas in fighting Apartheid in the Eighties and in promoting German unification in the Nineties, often in conflict with London. As Canadian Ambassador to the UN, I saw the respect Canada enjoyed when Prime Minister Chrétien withstood British (and American) pressure to join in the catastrophic 2003 Iraq war.

In international relations, fealty to the British monarch delivers us precisely zero benefit in the conduct of Canadian foreign policy and at the same time associates us with a checkered British colonial legacy. Under the Crown, Britain’s accomplishments include standing up to authoritarianism and fascism in two world wars and giving the world its most common voice. But historic wrongs were committed in the name of the Crown, errors that have become part of the political DNA of many ex-colonies and integral to their national identities, not just a dim, distant memory as it is here. British and other European colonization carved up Africa with little reference to the people who lived there; the consequences are still felt today. The lucrative UK-driven opium trade addicted millions in China in the 19th Century (Source: History of the East India Company, British Library) to the benefit of the British Exchequer. In India, when a Century of British rule ended in 1947, life expectancy was just 31 years, less than half what it was in the UK then and half of what it is in India today [K. Sujatha Rao, former Secretary of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India]. Literacy was 12%, a sixth of what it is now [Census of India, 2011]). The Sykes-Picot Treaty, the self-serving British-French redrawing of the map of the Middle East after World War I, brought the peace to end all peace and remains a major factor of instability in the seemingly perpetual war that creates so much misery there and threatens to engulf us, as well.

The Monarchy adds celebrity and lustre to Britain’s reputation but not to ours (ask any American or African which country William will be King of). It generates confusion in the minds of bemused foreigners what our relationship with London actually is, why we do not have a Canadian head of state, why we would want a British King and whether we really are independent, necessitating endless explanations that the Crown is a kind of legal convenience and historical artefact in Canada, even a convenient fiction. At the front door of our foreign ministry in Ottawa, foreign visitors encounter a huge portrait not of John A. Macdonald or Robert Borden or even Lester B. Pearson, for whom the building is named, but of Queen Elizabeth, resplendent on the recently named “Sovereign’s Wall’’. At every Canadian mission abroad, portraits of the Queen adorn the lobbies, necessitating further explanation for the benefit of confused foreigners.

The royal family is under no illusion about what they are—British—where they live—Britain– and who they represent —the United Kingdom. When I was posted to Bonn in the Nineties Queen Elizabeth paid an official visit to Berlin. For protocol reasons apparently, ambassadors from Commonwealth countries were convened to Berlin from Bonn, at their countries’ expense, to greet the Queen. In addition to the political purposes of her visit to Germany, the British emphasized that the Queen was visiting Germany to promote the interests of British industry. Because there were Canadian firms in Germany that could use some high level support, because she was formally our Queen too, as Monarchists never tire of affirming, and as my credentials in fact said that it was in her name and on her behalf that I was accredited as the Ambassador of Canada to Germany, I decided to test how much all this meant in practice.

Not much, as it turned out. I drew up a list of Canadian firms and asked an Aide at the Photo-op (only the British Ambassador was welcome to speak with the Queen) whether while promoting UK business, the Queen could perhaps put in a good word for Canadian business as well. It was evident from his startled reaction that such an idea had never occurred to him. Years after the Berlin visit, after Kate and William had been given a rapturous welcome to Canada, they headed to Hollywood, where it was announced they would be promoting British artists. Plus ca change.

The same young royal couple named their first born, the inheritor of “our” throne, in part after Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Vice admiral who planned the raid on Dieppe in World War II, the bloodiest disaster in Canadian military history in which 60 % of the force was killed, wounded and captured in one day. Today’s Canadians were too distracted by the couple’s celebrity to comment or too polite or too little aware of our history.

Elizabeth has a long connection to Canada, forged initially in the desperate days of World War II and maintained through a score of visits here since. She takes a significant and sympathetic interest in our country and enjoys the respect of many Canadians and the admiration of most. The next royal in line for “our” throne from the semi-dysfunctional Windsor family, however, Prince Charles, checks none of those boxes. His visit to Canada this spring went virtually unnoticed by Canadians and his eventual ascent to “our” throne has been banished from the consciousness of his not so loyal subjects here. Nor is it sure that when he finally gets the keys to the Royal Rolls his interest in Canada will be as benign as his mothers’.

The link to the monarchy notwithstanding, in the 147 years since Confederation Canada has progressed in virtually every way possible—we are richer, healthier, safer, more populous, better educated, better connected, and more capable than ever before. Canada is one of a small handful of states capable of helping make the world a better place as General Romeo Dallaire has recently observed. That is the Canada that Canadians have created and it is the Canada that the vast majority of our approximately 10 million immigrants since colonialism ended in the mid-Fifties have chosen to join. It is not the Canada of monarchical nostalgia.

Yet, when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, an asterisk will remain on Canadian independence. How do we bring this anachronism to an end when we are manacled to the Crown by a constitution that requires the agreement of all of the legislatures of the provinces and both Houses of the federal parliament to change? We should start by treating the Governor General as the de facto Head of State in all ways that the constitution does not actually preclude. In the current incumbent, as with his predecessors, we are fortunate to have a highly regarded, exceedingly successful and distinguished bilingual Canadian who already personifies the values and aspirations of Canadians and Canada better than any royal, including Elizabeth, ever could. He has even played hockey. We should simply ask him to perform the ceremonial roles of Head of State. This would include travelling abroad to represent Canada as de facto Head of State on all matters of state for example anniversaries of D Day, and to promote non-partisan Canadian interests such as Canadian education (and hockey) while abroad. At home he would acquit himself of all regal duties not specifically required by law that the Monarch herself do. His title would remain, simply Governor General, out of deference to our history.

Further, we should amend the Citizenship Act to change the Oath of Citizenship to require new Canadians to swear allegiance not to “to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors “ but to Canada, and to the Canadian Constitution and rule of law. And when the day comes that Canadians are ready to change the Constitution in order to reform the Senate, we should change the process for selecting a head of state while we are at it. There are plenty of models to choose from; for example, the 1050 elected members of the federal parliament and legislative assemblies across the country could be formally empowered to elect a Governor General from among the members of the Order of Canada, for a fixed term. All powers vested in the Monarch would be invested in the Governor General. In the meantime, we should prepare for that day by taking down the portraits of the royal family and curtailing, not encouraging their highly political and not inexpensive visits to Canada. Last and not least we should elect the government that will make these changes.

This piece also appeared in Constitution.ca and the Globe and Mail.