The televised interview of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry with Oprah Winfrey in early March has resulted in the usual calls for the abolition of the monarchy. These are channeled through the anti-colonialism prism. The British Empire was racist and the monarchy is an integral part of that past. However, Canada’s constitutional straitjacket makes abolition here highly unlikely. At best, it would take a long and contentious process, something Canadians likely do not want. The optimal republican pathway seems to rest upon attrition through rising indifference.
What happens to Canada if the United Kingdom abolishes the monarchy? Simply put, we would be constitutionally stranded, and that would create a crisis of the first order. Many questions would need to be answered.
The British monarchy has lasted for more than 1,100 years and REX-IT would be startling. While public support for the institution may be falling, it appears to be buttressed by widespread appreciation for Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles, her successor-in-waiting, is not nearly as popular. The revelation by Meghan and Harry about the toxic comment concerning their son’s skin colour has highlighted the undeniable racist nature of British colonialism.
People ask why they should respect and honour a racist institution. Anyone who has attended a Canadian citizenship ceremony has seen people conflicted. They are proud to become a citizen but may be unhappy with having to commit to “bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors.”
To abolish the monarchy in the U.K., all that is required is a majority vote in its Parliament. But even after that, Canada would still be a constitutional monarchy and the still-living monarch residing in the U.K. would still be the King or Queen of Canada. Of course, the former British monarch might decline to continue in the Canadian role (perhaps informed by public opinion that has turned against maintenance of the British connection).
The foundational role of the monarchy in Canada’s constitutional framework is set by Section 17 of the Constitution Act of 1867 which states: “There shall be one Parliament for Canada, consisting of the Queen, an Upper House styled the Senate, and the House of Commons.” Thus, any REX-IT would require action to be taken regarding the Queen and her representatives (the Governor General and lieutenant-governors) in Canada
Changes to the role of the Queen in Canada requires approval of the legislative assemblies of all provinces, the Senate and the House of Commons. Unanimity, being a high bar, may encourage delaying, even disruptive, behaviour. Should we be confident that the variegated Canadian public would be much agreed on various matters?
Consider the Governor General.
The very name, infused with our colonial past, would surely be debated, as would the role of the head of state. Traditionalists would argue that the parliamentary system (if that’s what we opt for) necessitates that a non-partisan must grant or deny the prime minister’s request to prorogue or dissolve Parliament, forcing an election.
In very rare circumstances, the current Governor General asks someone to attempt to form a government that has the confidence of the House. This may happen when there has been a sudden death or resignation of a prime minister or when an election result has been inconclusive.
If we stay with the parliamentary system, how will the new head of state be chosen? Perhaps in the longstanding pattern of Canadian politics, the process will be dominated by elites, working amongst themselves.
However, others will want a populist option – and have the decision made by vote. Should the method of appointment be subject to an authorizing referendum? Is a simple majority sufficient or do we need some formula, involving percentages of the vote, number of provinces (say, seven), or even, say, Ontario, Quebec and some number, but not all, of the Atlantic provinces and of the four western provinces? What about the territories, with miniscule populations but an enormous swath of Canada’s land? Indigenous peoples will point to Section 35.1(b) of the Constitution Act (1982) to establish their necessary inclusion.
Over the long arc of previous constitutional discussions, a clear pattern is discernible. Matters on the table become more diverse, more complicated, more symbolically existential, with a widening set of actors, making it harder and harder to produce a coherent agreement. Why would Canada, in its moment of post-colonial liberation, reach agreement? Would the ghosts of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord thread their way through our debates?
Are our bonds between our various diverse communities – east and west, north and south – resilient and strong enough not to fracture?
There is another matter of compelling importance. The Supreme Court of Canada in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014) determined that there exists a “special relationship between the Crown and the Aboriginal group in question,” which gives Indigenous land “special status.”
It also reinforces the special relationship established in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 between the British Crown and the Indigenous peoples of Canada, which has sometimes been described as “The Indian Magna Carta” and the “Indian Bill of Rights.” Its signal importance for Indigenous rights is highlighted by its inclusion in Section 25 of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Abolition of the monarchy by the British people will not happen precipitously. However, politics in the internet age can change quickly. The U.K. referendum on its membership in the European Union produced a surprising result, reflecting an unleashing of latent populistic forces.
For Canada, the monarchy is not a disposable ornament. It is embedded deeply in its constitutional architecture. If the U.K. abolishes of the monarchy, Canada’s ability to handle quickly any necessary changes will be hampered by its constitutional straitjacket.