Not just separatists who don’t want a monarch .. at Quebec City or anywhere else

Apr 16th, 2007 | By | Category: Canadian Republic

As further evidence that “Canada’s new government” is still attached to some nowadays too old-fashioned Canadian habits, it has just been reported that the “British monarch’s name was put forth by Ottawa for a list of potential guests to be invited to the celebrations … at next year’s 400th birthday bash of Quebec’s capital city.” As spun in such places as the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Sun, Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Sun, and Edmonton Sun, “separatists” and “sovereigntists” in Quebec have made clear that Queen Elizabeth II is “a symbol of British colonialism” and “will not be welcome.” Closer students of Canadian opinion since the advent of the Charter of Rights, which celebrates its 25th birthday this Tuesday, April 17, might think that at least vaguely similar sentiments are increasingly shared across the country too. One of Stephen Harper’s Achilles’ heels may be that he really doesn’t like this side of the new Canada he so wants to govern.

About half the Canadian people today want to cut all remaining (and now extremely vague) ties with the British monarchy …

Maclean’s magazine – as close as English-speaking Canada gets to a national news publication, more or less on the model of Time or Newsweek or even L’Express in France – published an intriguing article this past September, keyed to the first birthday of the appointment of Governor General Michaelle Jean.

The main burden of the piece was a vote of support for former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s proposal to somewhat broaden the current selection method for Canadian governor generals (or governors general, however you like). And this question has assumed added interest lately, as a potential wave of federal minority governments increases the prospect that the governor general might actually have to do something serious at some point, to help Canadian federal politicians as they struggle to interpret the people’s complex and cunning vote.

But nowadays you can’t get too far into any question about the future of the governor general, without also opening up the question of the British monarchy that the governor general is still in theory supposed to represent. This is especially true for those of us who believe that Mme Clarkson’s proposal, while worthy because it at least raises an important issue, does not go at all far enough in broadening the current selection method – for an office that is one way or another ultimately destined to be formally accountable to the Canadian people, who are the real sovereign power in what the Constitution Act 1982 calls Canada’s “free and democratic society” today.

On the broader question of the royal future itself in Canada, the September 25, 2006 issue of Maclean’s pointed out that: “Canadians are deeply divided on the role of the British monarchy in our parliamentary system … A year ago, a Strategic Counsel poll found Canadians were evenly split on whether the British monarch should remain Canada’s head of state, with 47 per cent saying ties to the Crown should be cut, and 47 per cent in support of the status quo.” An April 2005 opinion poll conducted by Ipsos-Reid for CTV and the Globe and Mail similarly reported that 55% of Canadians now agree with the statement: “When Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends, Canada should end its formal ties to the British Monarchy.”

Just on the strength of this evidence alone, it seems a bit odd that Stephen Harper’s allegedly at least somewhat forward-looking “new government” in Ottawa has increasingly gone out of its way over the past several months to promote the current status of the British monarchy in Canada – and even to somewhat revive the likes of the old Canadian red ensign (with the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner), that was officially replaced by the current independent maple leaf flag of Canada as long ago as 1965.

The immediate explanation of all this, some will say, is that even Mr. Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada has continuing support for the now extremely vague role of the British monarchy in Canada written into its constitution. (Section 2.1.8 of the document at any rate professes a “belief in our constitutional monarchy, the institutions of Parliament and the democratic process,” whatever that mouthful may be seriously thought to mean in the 21st century.)

But even this seems at best a poor excuse for the Harper minority government’s current promotion of the British monarchy in Canada. The Conservatives won not much more than 36% of the popular vote in the last federal election, and they now control a mere 125 seats in a 308-seat Parliament at Ottawa. According to the two most recent opinion polls, they currently command either 36% or 38% of popular support across the country – considerably less than the 47% or 55% of the Canadian people who want to see the now strictly formal ties to the royal family across the sea come to an end in the fullness of time (or sooner). However you look at it, a prime minister who does what Mr. Harper is apparently trying to do with the monarchy in this context certainly does not qualify as any kind of serious Canadian democrat.

Some will claim that Mr. Harper really is a democrat anyway, and point to his ostensible passion for the reform of the current unelected and quite undemocratic Senate of Canada. Yet the British monarchy in Canada today is just as much a “relic of the 19th century” as the unreformed Senate. (In Mr. Harper’s very apt phrase of almost a year ago – and even if, thanks to the quiet dignity that Queen Elizabeth II has brought to the role of British monarch over the past 55 years, the monarchy is at the moment not quite as unpopular as the Senate in Canada.)

All this finally leaves you with, however, is the thought that the real old-country model for Stephen Harper’s sometimes puzzling stewardship as minority prime minister of Canada actually is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

A prime minister who commands the support of just a bit better than a third of the Canadian people can quite reasonably claim to be a good democrat when he aggressively pushes proposals for Senate reform that opinion polls show a very clear majority of the people support. But he cannot make this claim when he persistently pushes a British monarchy – and other now ancient accouterments of the old “British connexion” in Canada – that at least half the people already no longer see as part of the Canadian future. The Dr. Jekyll Senate-reformer side of Mr. Harper may be more than just OK. But the over-aggressively monarchist Mr. Hyde needs to be sent back to Preston Manning’s democracy institute for some additional training.

Does Stephen Harper’s abiding hatred of Canadian Liberalism really make him think he can just cancel the last half-century of Canadian political history?

In trying to understand the Mr. Hyde side of Mr. Harper’s sometimes puzzling persona, from what is publicly known of his political biography, it is tempting to go back to the abiding hatred of Canadian Liberalism and almost all its works (the latest federal budget excepted of course) that seems to be the one firm foundation of his political philosophy. And this almost pathological hatred could be the thing that finally places some quite stark limits on his ability to contribute positively to the Canadian future, as his Dr. Jekyll side also clearly seems to want to do.

The Canadian confederation of 1867 was no more and no less than the first “self-governing dominion” of the old British empire. But Canada had already started to become an “actual democracy” in its own right by the end of the First World War (as made clear, e.g., in the British political polymath Lord Bryce’s intriguing short book of 1921, Canada: An Actual Democracy). And the past half century has seen many further forward-looking changes, towards Canada’s independent free and democratic society of today.

If it would be wrong to say that Conservatives have played no constructive roles at all in these Canadian political changes of the more recent past, it is also true that the process has been largely dominated by the Liberal Party of Canada (with recurrent support from many New Democrats and even various Quebec and French Canadian nationalists).

To make the story very short, it began in earnest with Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s new independent Canadian maple leaf flag in 1965 (which was largely opposed by John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives, who continued to argue for retaining the old red ensign with the Union Jack in the top left corner).

Some 17 years later it reached its initial high tide with Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the first or leading part of the Constitution Act 1982, which, some 115 years after the establishment of the present confederation in 1867, at last fully “patriated” the Constitution of Canada from the United Kingdom, and provided for a method of Canadian constitutional amendment inside Canada. (And even as a matter of pure form and abstract theory, as the political scientist Frederick Vaughan has recently urged, “Trudeau’s 1982 Charter quietly undermined the monarchic character of the constitution by introducing republican principles of government.”)

Much more recently, just to wrap everything up quickly, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien extended and enriched this ongoing story of Canadian political progress by appointing Adrienne Clarkson as Canada’s first governor general of Asian descent. Mme Clarkson played her own part in the advancing saga, by, e.g., refusing to allow the Queen to sign a bill of the Alberta legislature into law during her last personal visit to Canada. (Such things are nowadays the sole responsibility of Canadian governor generals and provincial lieutenant governors. And then there is also Mme Clarkson’s current proposal for broadening the selection method for governor generals, as endorsed this past September by Maclean’s magazine.) And finally Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin advanced the cause a little further still, with his appointment of Michaelle Jean as Canada’s first governor general of African descent, in September 2005.

Steven Harper and “Canada’s new government” today, it sometimes almost seems, really like none of this late 20th and early 21st century evolution of the free and democratic Canadian Constitution at all. They don’t like Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights – and especially the efforts of the past quarter century to use it as a progressive vehicle of social change (or its somewhat vague endorsement of the traditional rights of “the aboriginal peoples of Canada”). They still prefer the old “constitutional monarchy” of the Constitution Act 1867 to the new “free and democratic society” of the Constitution Act 1982.

At their worst they even almost appear to be challenging the constitutional legitimacy of all the cumulative political changes of the past half century, that have made the new Canada what it is today and what it is becoming for the future. Like all good very ideological conservatives perhaps, they ultimately want to just turn the clock back to some earlier imagined golden age.

Some will say that for the time being they may actually get away with their sadly retrogressive plots and schemes. What goes on with the British monarchy in Canada these days is of course not an urgent practical matter for most Canadians, because even the limited traditional practical role of the monarch in Canada’s kind of British-style or “Westminster” parliamentary democracy nowadays lies entirely in the hands of the Canadian governor general.

Yet, as the opinion polls of the past decade or so do show, increasing numbers of Canadians are coming to appreciate that since the British monarchy really does play no practical role at all in Canada today, there is really no need to have any continuing formal attachment to it at all. And by trying to revive this role in various not so subtle and crafty ways, Mr. Harper’s new minority government is finally just showing that it is not really about a bolder and better Canadian future, as it sometimes tries to pretend. It is just about vainly trying to recover some now vanished past, because a bit too much of the present has been created by the hated hands of the Liberal Party of Canada. A minority prime minister who actually deserved to win a majority government would be able to take a larger and more public-spirited view than that, in the interests of all Canadians, coast to coast to coast.

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