A fuddy-duddy who talks to his plants, or a misunderstood visionary whose thoughtful views on everything from architecture to ecology and faith reflect a man whose values are important to Canadians?
Which is it when it comes to Prince Charles, who arrives for a four-day visit Sunday, starting in New Brunswick? And are Canadians content to see him ascend to the throne when the time comes?
Public opinion polls suggest more Canadians would rather the crown pass directly from Queen Elizabeth to her grandson Prince William than to his dad, who clearly loses the day in a straight-up popularity contest.
But observers — those who speak favourably of Charles, and those who see his shortcomings — agree on one thing: these polls make for interesting chit-chat in the pub, but unless fate or some sort of constitutional intervention throws a curve, Charles will succeed his mother the Queen and become King Charles of Canada someday.
"The Canadian judgment is in many ways very, very superficial," says Ninian Mellamphy, a professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., and a longtime royal watcher. "And that goes to the choice of William as a preferred heir to the throne over Charles."
It's almost absurd that people should contemplate that option, Mellamphy says, because "after all, the throne is occupied by a person whose claim to the throne is historical. It's not a popularity thing."
Got his measure
Mellamphy is one of those who feels that Charles is "basically not the brightest guy in town." But he also thinks the public has a pretty good view of just who Charles is.
"His judgment is often in question," Mellamphy says, adding that "there's a certain kind of severity about his opinions that makes him seem cranky rather than poised.
"I think the English feel the same thing, especially the younger ones … that ultimately he's an old fuddy-duddy. He's only 64 [this year] but he sounds more or less as if he were in his later 70s."
Others beg to differ. Author John Fraser, the master at the University of Toronto's Massey College, has a book out this year, The Secret of the Crown – Canada's Affair with Royalty, in which Fraser argues that Charles has been a victim of "media royalty mania."
The future King Charles III, Fraser writes, "has been subjected to more ridicule, innuendo, outright fabrication, and grotesque invasion of privacy than almost any other individual alive today."
(One small example: Some media reports suggested that Charles even had someone put his toothpaste on his toothbrush. Clarence House, which oversees his media relations, has denied that.)
Fraser goes on: "Everything that is decent and good about Prince Charles comes as a shock to those who insist he is a crank or a wonk or a wuss or a doofus or a whatever."
The author points to many attributes, including Charles's athletic skill on the polo field, his bravery during assassination attempts, his "genius" as a loving father to William and Harry, his "prophetic wisdom about ecology," his astuteness as a businessman and his efforts helping young people and the unemployed.
Not surprisingly perhaps, Robert Finch, the chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, agrees. He has met the heir to the throne, and says there is a "perception problem in Canada when it comes to Prince Charles."
Finch rattles off a list of significant issues that Charles has championed, everything from the environment to his attempts to bridge religious divides.
"He's not out to lunch ... and out of touch with Canadians," Finch says. "His ideals are very much in sync with mainstream Canada."
Long live polarization
Finch says there's no clear-cut answer as to why most Canadians seem so lukewarm about Charles.
But he feels there has been a "horrible communications strategy when it comes to selling Prince Charles to Canadians" and applauds the current federal government's favourable view of the monarchy.
That government support is also welcomed by Tom Freda, the co-founder of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, but for a very different reason.
"I'm actually very pleased with their stance on the monarchy because what it's done is it's created more interest in the issue," Freda says. "It's also polarized debate."
Citizens for a Canadian Republic wants to see Canada's constitutional ties with the monarchy cut and the country have a head of state who is democratically selected here.
As Freda sees it, the attention the Stephen Harper government has drawn to the monarchy has fuelled a debate that could help spawn the kind of constitutional change his group would like to see.
"What I've seen is an outpouring of support for, at the very least, parliamentary debate on ending the monarchy in the Liberals and in the New Democrats and in the Greens."
Ultimately, Freda doesn't think Charles will end up as king of Canada, although how exactly that might happen isn't 100 per cent clear.
"I think that we're still possibly a decade or more away from that," he says. "The Queen has showed no interest at all in abdicating in favour of her son and for good reason. There's still a long way to go to rehabilitate his favour among the public."
Freda says his group doesn't believe the Royal Family itself is the problem – it's the Canadian Constitution.
He also doesn't think Charles himself is too bad a guy. "I personally agree with a lot of things that he stands for."
What Freda doesn't agree with is "the fact that [Charles] has any right at all to say anything," given his position.
"One of the basic rules of constitutional monarchy is that you're not supposed to have any political views," he says. "The Queen has navigated around that basic rule very well in the last 60 years. She's done it masterfully."
But Freda adds that he has seen a "certain amount of irritation among monarchists at how outspoken Charles is.
"He's made it clear he has no intention of changing that, so I think that goes in our favour because when you have a constitutional monarch who's outspoken on issues that aren't state policy, you have a problem."
As for the debate and interest in the crown leapfrogging Charles for William, Freda considers it irrelevant.
"It's interesting to look at and it's very telling but it's not going to happen. It's Prince Charles. He's the next king of Canada whether we like it or not. And unless we start talking about it, that's what we're going to get."
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