Elitist, Racist, Religionist, Sexist, Inegalitarian: Canada’s Head-of-State

It is true that the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy, for at least in the republic there are moments when, though always exploited, the people are not oppressed, while in monarchies they are never anything else.

— Mikhail Bakunin, ((“Rousseau’s Theory of the State,” in Bakunin on Anarchism, ed. Sam Dolgoff. (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1972).))

The social-capitalist states of continental northern Europe — Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — are often portrayed as leading exemplars of egalitarianism in the world. The pretense to egalitarianism reveals a paradox when one considers that simultaneously these states maintain the elitist system of monarchy, whereby only the offspring of a privileged family can aspire to the role of head-of-state.

It is contended that the monarchs in these northern European nations are popular and that the citizenry support the monarchy. This may well be true but it doesn’t detract from the fact that the scions of one family are born into prestige that is unattainable, except through marriage, for the progeny of other families. Nevertheless, it not argued here for overturning the democratic will of the people to institute egalitarianism.

Canada is often perceived as a nation along the lines of the social-capitalist states of Scandinavia. Likewise, Canada is also a constitutional monarchy. However, Canada’s monarchy is not homegrown but represented by British royalty.

The popularity of the British monarchy ebbs and flows depending on the temporal propinquity of the most recent royal scandal. The British monarchy differs from the continental European monarchies in that it enjoys greater pomp and ceremony and the finest life among an extended royal lineage. Another major difference is that the British monarchy still reigns in many countries of the former British Empire.

Most former colonies, however, have shaken loose from the British monarchy. Those countries where the British monarch continues to function as the head-of-state include countries where British subjects populated lands new to past British explorers; Australia, Canada, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) are examples of this.

In each of these countries republican movements have arisen. Prominent is the movement in Australia, which was unsuccessful in its republican referendum in late 1999 but this was due more to political chicanery than pro-monarchical sentiment among Australians.

The Case for a Republic of Canada

The US-UK invasion of Iraq has buttressed the republican position that it is time to put an end to the British monarch’s reign as Canada’s head-of-state. The Canadian government stakes its policy to the multilateral system headed by the UN. As such it did not openly sanction the violence against Iraq. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, however, gave her blessing and good wishes to the dispatch of British troops. Canada’s head-of-state had assumed a stance fundamentally contrary to that of the Canadian government. This was not some trivial matter but rather the launching of what the Nuremberg Law deemed the supreme crime, an unprovoked aggression on another nation. Canada was trapped in this farcical situation by its head-of-state.

Yet despite what should have been a national calamity, this received little media attention in Canada. Why?

It seems that many Canadians are unaware that their head-of-state is a foreigner awarded the position by happenstance of birth. They view the British queen as a link with Canada’s historical past. Indeed one of the major arguments against abolishing the monarchy is the desire to preserve tradition. This argument rings weak because of the major historical changes in the institution of the monarchy itself. Historically the monarch wielded great power; however, nowadays, the British monarch has been reduced to an expensive figurehead.

In the hotbed of Canadian colonial sentiment, the British Columbia provincial capital of Victoria, named after a former British monarch, there are voices of displeasure expressed at the monarchial ties. Shane Caulder of the Capital Region Race Relations Association states: “As far as our organization is concerned, the royal family epitomizes white power.”

Jonathan Makepeace, originator of the Res Publica: International Anti-Monarchy Web Directory notes that “Buckingham Palace only lists the predominantly white countries in which the queen is head of state on their website.”

It would be harder to choose a less representative head-of-state for the Canadian people. To Canada’s First Nations the British queen symbolizes the imposition of colonialism that led to the cultural repression and decimation of the indigenous peoples. To French-Canadians the monarchy serves as an ignominious reminder of the defeat inflicted upon the French by the British centuries ago. Why is it that such a divisive figure still represents Canada?

Yet a core of sentiment for the monarch still exists itself in Canada. This is not surprising since many Canadians trace their ancestry back to England.

John Aimers, head of The Monarchist League of Canada (MLC), sees support for the monarchy as one way for Canada to set itself apart from the “cloying embrace” of the United States. Curious, to say the least, Mr. Aimers would have Canadians accept a nationalist argument rejecting a next-door neighbor in preference of a far-flung aristocracy.

The MLC website features arguments in favor of the monarchy. First, it argues that Canada has always been a monarchy. This is the genetic fallacy: arguing a point based on its origin, but not its justification. The MLC argument is equivalent to maintaining that since the middle-eastern monarchy of Jordan has always been a dictatorship it should continue to remain one. At any rate this argument is only partially true since the republic set up by the Six Nations Confederacy predates Canadian confederation.

The MLC asserts that the queen is more democratic than a president since she represents all Canadians whereas a president represents a political faction. It begs the question of which Canadians the queen was representing when she gave her blessing to the British troops about to invade Iraq?

The preposterousness of the MLC’s stance is manifested by its claim that Canada is the land of the British monarchs. The First Nations among others would dispute this.

Canada today is a nation of immigrants and bills itself proudly as a multicultural mosaic. The monarchy stands in contradiction to this billing although the MLC, in a stretch of credulity, claims that intermingling among European royalty constitutes multiculturalism.

The staggering illogic of the MLC statements at times defies comment. Regarding the inegalitarianism of a hereditarily-determined head-of-state, the MLC asserts: “In choosing to leave the selection of their head of state to this most common denominator in the world — the accident of birth — Canadians implicitly proclaim their faith in human equality.”

The rise of the republic movement

Having a foreign head-of-state poses other quandaries for Canadians. For instance, Canadians who take the oath of citizenship are required to swear to the queen. Civil servants and parliamentarians are likewise required to pledge allegiance to the queen. It is a humiliation for many Canadians or would-be Canadians to be compelled to submit to an elite foreign figurehead.

The institution of Canada’s head-of-state militates against both democracy and egalitarianism. Obviously there are many Canadians who cringe at the knowledge that their head-of-state is an appointed foreigner living abroad.

Polls often show conflicting results regarding Canadian attitudes toward the monarchy but a recent poll indicated a trend to republicanism. A poll conducted by Ipsos-Reid in February 2002 found that 48 % of Canadians consider the constitutional monarchy “outmoded” and prefer a republican government with an elected head of state.

Revealingly 65 percent responded ‘yes’ to the statement denying a formal role for the royal family in Canadian society: “the Royals are simply celebrities nothing more.”

Growth of movement

It is difficult to put republicanism on the political platform in Canada. Politicians are loath to alienate a certain constituency and this makes it difficult to push the republican movement in Canada.

Ben Albright heads the British chapter of Citizens for a Canadian Republic (CCR), “a non-profit organization committed to the promotion of a democratic republican alternative to our current constitutional monarchy.” Mr. Albright identifies a trend:

I think that support for the monarchy is slowly but surely starting to dwindle. For evidence of this in Canada one only has to look at the efforts of CCR, … CCR is over 1 year old and in that year not only has it not simply faded away, it has grown by leaps and bounds to the point where we now have international chapters. However, many people in both the United Kingdom and Canada continue to support the monarchy. This support, I believe is mainly based on misconceptions. The first major misconception is what I call the US affect. Many people, particularly I think in Canada, are under the belief that by becoming a republic we will become American. In my opinion, nothing can be further than the truth. Canada is a unique separate nation with its own values; one only has to visit the two nations to see that. Consider though France and Germany, two neighboring republics and yet, no one would ever call them similar.

The second major misconception, mainly I think in the UK, is the idea that the monarchy helps democracy — as the monarch can block our Prime Ministers. How does this help democracy? How does having an unelected figurehead who may be able to block a democratically elected prime minister help democracy? One only has to look at these misconceptions to realize that they do not make sense.

British Challenge

While sentiment for the monarchy stills runs high, it is being challenged. The Guardian newspaper has launched a legal assault on the monarchy claiming it contravenes the Human Rights Act. Clearly an institution that operates on the basis of primogeniture and bans Catholics, and arguably all non-Protestants, is behaving in a sexist, religionist manner.

The monarchy cannot be expected to go quietly. Renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith said: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” ((John Kenneth Galbraith, The Age of Uncertainty (1977), p. 22.)) Nonetheless it is high time that Canada eradicates this blot on democracy and egalitarianism — the replacement of which has been demonstrated to be unnecessary.

A majority of Canadians opposed empire in Iraq and as awareness grows of the colonial implications of the monarchy in Canada, it will dawn on more Canadians that the monarchy in Canada is an institution that doesn’t belong in an aspiring progressive nation.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.