In 1963, the historian W. L. Morton published a splendid one-volume history of Canada. The title still has the power to thrill, and to shock: The Kingdom of Canada.
At the back there is a list of all the kings and queens “sovereign over Canada.” There are 18 of them, nine French and nine English, from Francis I, who ruled at the time of Jacques Cartier’s first landing in 1534, all the way to Elizabeth II. Prince Charles will one day be the 19th King of Canada, and Prince William the 20th.
So you see, we are not, as some imagine, a young country. We are an ancient kingdom, with a history of continuous monarchical rule stretching back nearly five centuries. For 20 generations it has endured, each king ascending on the death of the last—the Conquest is the sole discontinuity—much as 20 generations of Canadians have built upon their parents’ legacy.
You either think there is something glorious in that, or else you find it a little embarrassing. You either think this country is the cumulative work of generations, or you imagine it all began yesterday.
The latter view is on parade again, in all its preening, modish finery, as it is on the occasion of any royal visit. It is a kind of custom, a ritual show of disloyalty as hoary in its way as any gathering of the Daughters of the Empire. Scarcely have the Queen or Prince Charles set foot on Canadian soil before they are greeted with a 21-gun salute of newspaper columns complaining at the outmodedness of it all. Here we are in the 21st century, and still a monarchy?
Well, yes. And while we’re at it, isn’t democracy getting a little long in the tooth as well? How long has it been, 2,000 years? And that system of English common law, whew, isn’t it time we replaced the liner on that?
It’s pointless to debate, in a way, since the monarchy isn’t going anywhere. It isn’t only that the position of the Queen is embedded in the Constitution, irrevocably—or the next thing to it, given the requirement of provincial unanimity. It is that the Crown, as an institution, is woven into every line of our constitutional order. It isn’t just some little old lady in London or a middle-aged gent who talks to plants. It is, as the political scientist David Smith has observed, “the organizing principle of Canadian government,” whose “pervasive influence . . . reaches into every area of government activity in all jurisdictions.” The Crown principle is at the root of all executive power. It is the foundation stone of our system of laws (the “Queen on the Bench”), our courts and legislatures: the “Queen in Parliament,” embodying the Crown, Commons and Senate. It is the common fount of federal and provincial sovereignties. It is the basis of our system of land tenure, of the Indian treaties, of an impartial civil service, with a whole body of precedent attached to it and underpinned by several centuries of political thinking. To do away with the Crown, to replace it with a republic, would require nothing less than a revolution.
The Queen is the personification of that system of laws and government, indeed of the state itself. The idea is rich in symbolism. In other systems, the State is an abstraction. In ours, it is represented by a human being: a reminder that, as much as ours is a system of “laws not men,” it is all the same concerned with actual flesh-and-blood persons, whose welfare may not be sacrificed to any principle, however exalted. The Queen’s powers being constitutional and circumscribed, not arbitrary and absolute, serves further as a reminder of the hard-fought victory of parliamentary democracy, a struggle won not, in the main, by violent revolution but by gradual reform.
At the same time, as the permanent embodiment of popular sovereignty, the Queen humbles the pretensions of democratic politicians, in possession of their temporary majorities. As it has been said, when the prime minister bows before the Queen, he bows before us. That’s of more than symbolic value. In moments of crisis, as during the power struggle of the last year, when it is unclear who holds the democratic mandate, the Queen (or in this case her representative in Canada, the governor general) plays a vital role as constitutional arbiter, her powers and legitimacy serving as a bulwark against abuses or usurpations.
And yet, for all that, the Crown is in trouble in Canada. Impregnable as its position may be in law, manifold as its virtues may be in principle, it has all but ceased to command the loyalty and affection of the people—one of its primary functions, after all, and the basis of its legitimacy in the long run. The abolitionists at least pay it the compliment of thinking it matters, most comically in the case of those fanatical nationalists in Quebec who see the Crown as the source of all their woes. For the rest of us, the monarchy inspires little more than a puzzled smile at best, as the tepid response to Charles and Camilla’s tour suggests, and as poll after poll confirms.
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