It’s Canada Day and our future king and queen are visiting Ottawa on their first foreign trip as a married couple. But is this really a “foreign” trip for Will and Kate? If and when Prince William becomes king, he will not only be Canada’s sovereign; he will symbolically embody the Canadian state, which makes it hard to think of him entirely as a foreigner.
Nevertheless, he is not Canadian. Nor is his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, our head of state.
Does anyone else find this situation a bit… awkward? While I agree with Jeffrey Simpson that it would be “unpardonably rude” not to greet the future king and queen with courtesy, this seems as good a moment as any to raise questions about Canada’s vestigial ties to the British crown.
In good Canadian fashion, let me apologize in advance for the question I’m about to ask, and make it clear that I hope Will and Kate have a wonderful visit. I watched yesterday as their entourage arrived at the National War Memorial, where the royal newlyweds laid a wreath and greeted the crowds. They seemed to shake every hand thrust at them, which was very sporting – although it left me hoping, for their sake, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are accompanied by the Gentleman Usher of the Royal Hand Sanitizer.
Anyway, here’s my question: Why does Canada have a foreign head of state? There, I asked. Sorry.
The simple answer is that history has led us here. Whereas in 1776 America abruptly and rudely severed its ties with Britain in a fit of pique over taxes, Canadian democracy emerged gradually and more consensually. Over many decades, we gained the right of self-government, control over our own foreign affairs, and finally the ability to change our constitution without seeking permission from the “Mother of Parliaments” in London.
An outside observer might wonder why we stopped there. Shouldn’t the next step be to “Canadianize” the office of head of state, and wouldn’t the evolution of our democratic institutions point toward an elected head of state, to boot?
There are, of course, imposing institutional obstacles to disconnecting ourselves from the monarchy, the most daunting of which is the legal requirement of unanimous consent by the federal government and all ten provinces. Forget about that, at least for the foreseeable future.
But I don’t think these constitutional hurdles are the real explanation for the lack of any serious republican movement in Canada. More revealing, I think, is how little most Canadians seem to care about the issue, one way or another. Yes, polls show the public to be roughly divided between those who would prefer to keep or do away with the monarchy, but the intensity of feeling is low, even among French-speaking Quebeckers. As André’s colleague, Yves Boisvert, recently wrote in La Presse: Quebeckers are opposed to the monarchy, but it just doesn’t seem to be worth the trouble to do anything about it.
This is, in many ways, a commendable trait. As a long-time student of civil wars, I am frequently struck by the seeming triviality of the issues that lead people elsewhere to kill each other in large numbers. In Canada, by contrast, a question as fundamental as the nationality of our head of state is more likely to evoke yawning than yelling.
We also know that opening up the constitution to fundamental amendment could lead us back down the rabbit hole of endless, wrenching discussion. Once initiated, such discussion may open the door to other issues that could potentially provoke real yelling.
So, why bother? After all, the powers of the Queen and her representative in Canada, the Governor-General, are almost entirely symbolic. The practical effect of republicanism on our political system would be minimal.
What, however, about the symbolism of the status quo? It’s an anachronism and we should move on, shouldn't we? Perhaps not.
The result is quintessentially Canadian: we feel lukewarm about our foreign monarch but unmoved to give serious consideration to republicanism. And we greet our monarch and her heirs politely – as we should.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.