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On Victoria Day, Think About Ending the Monarchy in Canada

05/17/2015 11:40 EDT | Updated 05/18/2016 05:59 EDT
Danny Lawson/PA Wire
File photo dated 20/11/14 of Queen Elizabeth II as the leader of the Green Party has suggested the Queen could move into a council house, as a result of Natalie Bennett's plans to abolish the monarchy.

Well, it's the month of May in Canada and Victoria Day is upon us once again. Apparently, if you don't already know, it's the birthday of Queen Victoria. She's been dead a while. But that part you probably knew.

It's also the official celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's birthday, who's still living. Strangely, her birthday is actually in April, but we moved it to May for convenience. If and when Prince Charles succeeds her, it'll then be his birthday, even though it's really in November.

Confused? You're not alone. Most Canadians just consider it the day we celebrate the beginning of warm weather, barbecues and camping out. Mention the monarchy and eyes glaze over.

Regardless, the day does get its name from Victoria, the reigning British monarch at the time of Canadian Confederation. Where it gets weird is when you realize that not once did our "founding mother" ever set foot in this country.

Defenders will say that was normal for the 19th century. Trans-Atlantic voyages were long, uncomfortable and risky.

Fine, but then there's the matter of Victoria's entry in her diary on July 1, 1867, the day embedded in every Canadian's psyche as the moment of our birth as a fledgling nation. She writes about her daughter's wedding anniversary and the weather in London -- but not a word about Canada!

OK, back then, Canada was just another primitive outpost of the British Empire. But no mention at all? Ouch!

That's history, however. Here we are in 2015. It's the 21st century, not the 19th. Surely it's different now.

Sadly, no. We still have a foreign person, a queen living in a castle on another continent -- Victoria's great, great, granddaughter, in fact -- as Canada's head of state. And it's a pretty safe bet that Canada isn't on her mind a whole lot either, if at all.

So why do we put up with it? Without question, Canada deserves to have its own head of state, chosen by us and from among our citizens. How have we made it this far without taking the final step to full nationhood?

The answer isn't due to lack of desire or strong sense of Canadian identity. Opinion polls for years have shown that when asked if it's time for Canada to have a resident Canadian as head of state -- which means becoming a republic -- the majority agree. But asked in the same poll if Canada should "abolish" the monarchy (possibly conjuring images of guillotines and crowds with pitchforks storming the gates of Rideau Hall), one usually sees a lower figure.

The reason lies with misinformation:

Some believe the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" idiom, implying that to end the monarchy means a tedious overhaul of our system of law and governance, rather than the minor "adjustment" that it really is.

Or that in the process, we also "toss out our history and culture." No one can explain exactly how that would happen. Our government isn't a museum, but it's quite often used as a reason to discount the whole idea of a republic.

Of course, the big one is not wanting to become like our neighbour to the south. The trouble with that argument is that Canadian republicans (small "r," please) advocate a parliamentary republic, which bears no resemblance to the U.S. system at all.

There's more:

"If we get rid of the monarchy, what would we replace it with?"

Well, it doesn't need "replacing." Other post-monarchy countries simply made their governor general the head of state. In other words, the ceremonial president of a parliamentary republic, which is no real departure from the present in Canada. The GG already does everything a president does.

Electing the position could be by popular vote (like Ireland) or a federal convention of legislators (like Germany).

Everything else, like the PM as the dominant figure as the head of government, remains the same.

"Canada would have to leave the Commonwealth."

A fact-check would reveal that most members of the Commonwealth are already republics.

"The royals would no longer be welcome to visit."

Nope. Of the last ten state visits by the Queen, eight were to republics.

"Canada would have to give up its royal institutions and symbols."

Royal charters and warrants cannot be revoked just because a country becomes a republic. The republics of India, Ireland, South Africa, even Hong Kong, China, have all retained royal institutions.

Likewise, symbols such as crowns and coats of arms would not have to go either. Many republics, including Russia and Serbia, even have crowns on their national flags. Poland hasn't had a monarchy in nearly a hundred years, yet has historical kings on all its banknotes.

"The Crown is everywhere, in the legal community and government legislation. It would be a mess to tamper with it."

In reality, "The Crown" is the apparatus of "The State." It doesn't go anywhere if we remove the monarchy from the constitution. Many other former monarchies just deleted the name "The Crown" and seamlessly kept the legal authority. Nothing changed except the letterhead.

"Native treaties would be void."

In 1973, the Queen herself reassured Chiefs in Alberta that the Government of Canada now recognized "compliance with the spirit of your Treaties."

Since 1982, enshrined in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, First Nations and treaty rights in Canada are fully protected, not by the Queen, but by the Canadian government.

In a newspaper article in 2013, Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, even referred to the "relationship between First Nations and the Crown (now Canada)."

"Having the monarchy makes us different from Americans."

It does, but is failure to shed the last vestiges of colonialism something to be proud of? Canada is different in so many other ways. And, as a parliamentary republic within the Commonwealth, we'd also have that distinction.

Finally, in any discussion with nay-sayers, the coup-de-grace meant to shut down any rational debate about a republic:

"It's impossible to do because the constitution requires unanimous approval by all the provinces and parliament."

That's a tough one, if it were true. Section 41(a) of the Constitution actually refers to amendments to "the office of the Queen," not the institution of the monarchy. So it's entirely possible to keep "the office of the Queen" intact, while allowing the government or a referendum to decide if an elected Canadian can be the head of state.

The distinction between "the Queen" the person and "the Queen" the state, is one that's evolved over many decades in Canada. There was a time when they were one-in-the same, but as anyone who has ever had legal dealings with the Government of Canada can attest, "The Queen" is the exact equivalent of "The State." "The Queen," the individual, isn't involved.

For instance, in a 2014 constitutional challenge by three permanent residents who objected to having to declare allegiance to the Queen in the Citizenship Oath, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that their claims were based on "misconception" of the meaning of the oath to the Queen as an individual, that "The oath to the Queen of Canada is an oath to our form of government," and not the Queen as a person.

On a slightly different tangent: Constitutional authority Edward McWhinney even suggests in his book "The Governor General and the Prime Ministers," that when the Queen ends her reign, Canada could leave the position vacant by just "failing legally to proclaim any successor to the Queen in relation to Canada."

Sound crazy? Well, thanks to Prime Minister Harper, ending the monarchy could now be easier because of the passing of the Succession to the Throne Act, 2013 (Bill C-53), which many believe directly effects the "office of the Queen." The legislation's intent was to modernize the rules for royal succession in Canada, but in a transparent attempt to avoid a national debate on the monarchy, the bill was passed without going through the constitutional amending formula.

The Harper government defended the tactic with the assurance that even though the legislation definitely affects who can become head of state, it doesn't affect the office itself.

That's good news for republicans. Experts like University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé believe that it could set a precedent for future attempts to change the constitution, including the monarchy, without provincial consent.

In the years to come, these legal issues will likely be important parts of any government's attempts at head of state reform.

So, this Victoria Day, while you're reclined in a lawn chair sipping a beer, take a moment to think about all the answers you now have for those who say we can't retire the monarchy, and look ahead to the day when any Canadian child can grow up and aspire to become head of state.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog stated incorrectly that the Queen made five state visits in 2014 (she made one).

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