A CERTAIN IDEA OF CANADA: A former permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, John Coles, once observed that it was a “certain idea of Britain” which brought that country out of the doldrums of the post-war decades and the collapse of its empire. Is there a “certain idea of Canada” in our own future?
With the following article by Jim Cox, The Vimy Report is embarking on a dialogue from which we hope there emerges a more profound understanding of Canada to inform the more mature national security and defence policies the country deserves. What kind of Canada should we aspire to, not just in the next year or two but in future decades, when a new generation is running things? We intend the discussion to be open and frank and to expose the sacred cows which have artificially constrained Canada’s performance both at home and abroad. We’ll ask and try to answer big questions. Are we clear about who we are and where we want to go? Is there such a thing as Canadian “nationalism”? If there is, what condition is it in and how important is it in shaping our future? To lead off, we ask: Is it not time for Canada to become a truly independent country, to move on from being a constitutional monarchy and have institutions which reflect home-grown values and a “certain idea of Canada” with which Canadians present and future can identify?
Time marches on. History accumulates. Canada changes, grows and matures. It’s time to truly rid ourselves of the last vestige of colonialism and think of jettisoning the monarchy in Canada.
Canada has a wonderful history of which we can all be proud. Our country has grown from being a dependent colony to a self-governing Dominion and now a prosperous and respected independent state within the modern international system. Canada, however, is not finished. We will continue to grow. We have more to do. Our next step should be to mature beyond being a constitutional monarchy and become a truly independent parliamentary republic.
How much has Canada changed? According to Statistics Canada, in 1867, at the time of Confederation, 79 per cent of the people living in Canada were born in Canada. In addition to these 2,616,063 souls, there were nearly 1 million Canadians of French origin while the remainder were of English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish and “foreign” origins. Today, the Canadian population is nearly 36,100,00. By 2017, it is expected that more than one Canadian in five might be foreign-born and about 20 per cent might belong to a visible minority, the largest of which are Chinese and South Asians.
What may have been relevant to Canada’s mainly anglophile population in 1867 is not so relevant to modern Canadians.
Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Canada, is now 90 years old. God bless her. Having served Canada well, she is clearly the greatest monarch in the history of our country, if not of the world. Her Majesty has earned the right to conclude her reign with our gratitude and respect. But who comes next? By law, her successor must be a Protestant member of the Royal Family. So the next King or Queen of Canada cannot be a Canadian born in Canada.
In 2017, Canada will be 150 years old and we should begin to think about a Canada in which all Canadians have an equal opportunity to aspire to becoming the Canadian head of state.
In the past, Canadians and their governments have only reluctantly engaged in serious constitutional debate. However, if Canada is really as mature as we like to think, we should be able to discuss the future enhancement of Canadian governance in a meaningful and sober manner. We need not argue about all the necessary detail here, but we must move with determination to take the first step. Such an important idea as doing away with Canada’s constitutional monarchy is a significant development. It must be able to stand on its own and be shown to be a clear benefit to Canada. Here are three reasons why it is a good idea.
1. The constitutional monarchy offends Canadian values
The idea of a monarchy is archaic and somewhat offensive to Canadian values such as freedom and diversity. At present, the law governing royal succession stipulates that an heir must be the sovereign’s eldest, Protestant child. British and Canadian law thus prohibit Canadians of any non-Protestant religion from being the King or Queen of Canada.
In 2011, acting on a British initiative, Commonwealth countries agreed to the amendment of rules of royal succession to put an end to the practice of giving men priority over women in succeeding to the British throne. The rules now allow a woman, if she is the oldest royal child, to become Queen. Provision was made for this and other changes to be agreed to by each of the Commonwealth countries and the Canadian parliament did so in 2013, passing the Succession to the Throne Act, 2013 which assented to amendments made to the British law of royal succession.
Soon thereafter, two Université Laval law professors went to court claiming the Act was unconstitutional. They argued that any change to the rules of succession for Canada required an alteration of Canadian law, not simply an acceptance of changes to British law. They contended that changes to the rules of royal succession affected the office of the Queen itself and that, under paragraph 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, the office could be altered only by a constitutional amendment. The approval of the House of Commons, the Senate and all provincial legislatures would be needed to update the law of royal succession in Canada. Absent such agreement, the law professors argued, the rules remained unchanged. Consequently, the rules of royal succession apply differently in Canada and the United Kingdom, with Canadian law continuing to favour male (British) heirs.
In response, the federal government argued that the Succession to the Throne Act complemented the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that Canada and the United Kingdom share the same monarch: the “Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” Accordingly, whoever is monarch in the United Kingdom is automatically the sovereign in Canada. Therefore, so the federal argument goes, no Canadian law or constitutional amendment is required to alter the rules of royal succession for Canada because royal succession is not a matter of Canadian law. In brief, Canadians cannot become King or Queen of Canada and also have no say in who does.
Somewhat surprisingly, in February 2016 the Quebec Superior Court sided with the federal government and agreed that no amendment to the Constitution is required. The Laval professors have since decided to appeal the decision to the Quebec Court of Appeal on the grounds that the existing law calls into question Canadian independence. Interestingly, Quebec government lawyers plan to present arguments to the same court defending the province’s position that Ottawa should not be acting without consulting it. That these arcane legal arguments even arise underscores the fact that Canada’s constitutional monarchy is, by any measure, something of a mythical institution.
2. The constitutional monarchy is a myth
The second reason Canada should move beyond being a constitutional monarchy is that our model of governance is something of a pretend monarchy. The Queen does not really rule over Canada, she reigns abstractly, in a constitutionally neutered way. We could do away with the monarchy tomorrow and continue quite nicely with the same structure, under a truly Canadian Governor General overseeing a parliamentary republic, where republic is defined generically as a state governed by elected individuals exercising power according to the rule of law. Modern usage usually refers to states without a monarch.
The constitution states that “The Command-in-Chief of the Land and Naval Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.” Even today, it is the Queen who grants her commission to Canadian Armed Forces officers. However, royal Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, issued by King George VI in 1947, designate the Governor General as Commander-in-Chief of Canada. As such, many Governors General have worn military uniforms during their tenure. But there cannot be two commanders-in-chief at the same time, both the Queen and the Governor General. If the constitution is supreme, one wonders whether the Governor General is really the Deputy Commander-in-Chief or entitled to wear a military uniform at all. On the other hand, perhaps the Queen is redundant.
3. The constitutional monarchy is not needed
A third reason for abandoning the monarchy in Canada is that it is not needed. We do not need a monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, or a royal family of any kind. Canadians have proven time and time again that they can manage their own affairs in their own way, without guidance from Britain. What then is the purpose of an off-shore, paternalistic institution ranking above the government of Canada?
As matters stand today, the Governor General is appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, and serves functionally as Canada’s Head of State. Why do we also need an abstraction in the form of The Crown to represent the Canadian state over and above the Governor General? Moreover, in our federal system, the Queen is also represented in each province by a Lieutenant Governor. What real purpose is served by having 11 vice-regal representatives within the same country?
Some will argue that, despite the occasional test, Canadian unity has endured under a constitutional monarchy, so why tinker with something that apparently works? There are three problems with this approach. First, it is based on a false premise. The existence of a constitutional monarchy has had nothing to do with constraining centrifugal forces in Canada, whether in the form of Quebec separatism or any other brand. Malcontents have been isolated and defeated because people decided that remaining in Canada was to their benefit, both economically and socially. Second, sticking with what we have ignores the impact of the growth and change which has occurred in Canada in past generations, and the maturing and development that will continue in future generations. At some point, Canada will have to stop living in its mother’s basement and strike out entirely on its own. Third, since 1940, Canada has steadily drifted away from its strongly British heritage and linkage, to find comfort in an American sphere of influence. The notion of a constitutional monarchy seems oddly ill-fitted to western hemisphere republicanism.
So why, nearly a century and a half ago, did the Fathers of Confederation feel it necessary to hang on to the British monarchy and not establish a truly Canadian head of state? Here is John A. Macdonald (not yet ‘Sir’), at the time the Attorney General of Canada, speaking to the Parliament of Canada about the idea of Confederation, in 1865:
We have provided that for all time to come, so far as we can legislate for the future, we shall have as the head of the executive power the sovereign of Great Britain. No one can look into futurity and say what will be the destiny of this country. Changes come over nations and peoples in the course of ages. But so far as we can legislate we provide that for all time to come the sovereign of Great Britain shall be the sovereign of British North America …
I think it is well that in framing our Constitution our first act should have been to recognize the sovereignty of her majesty … We accordingly felt that there was a propriety in giving a distinct declaration of opinion on that point, and that in framing the Constitution its first sentence should declare that “The executive authority or government shall be vested in the sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” …
We provide that “the executive authority shall be administered by the sovereign personally, or by the representative of the sovereign duly authorized.” … The executive authority must therefore be administered by her majesty’s representative. We place no restriction on her majesty’s prerogative in the selection of her representative … But we may be permitted to hope that when the union takes place, and we become the great country which British North America is certain to be, it will be an object worthy of the ambition of the statesmen of England to be charged with presiding over our destinies.
So it seems that no one compelled Canada to remain subject to the British crown. Canadian political leaders wanted it. We might wonder how many really want it today.
From dependent colony to self-governing constitutional monarchy, Canada has an enviable history of which we can all be proud. Our wonderful but aging Queen deserves to continue reigning with her usual grace and dignity. However, as Canada approaches its 150th anniversary, it is time to consider jettisoning the constitutional monarchy in Canada for the three reasons cited: the existence of the monarchy in Canada offends Canadian values, it is in any case something of a myth, and it is not needed. We can do better. We can govern ourselves, by ourselves.