By: Drew MacEachern
This article was originally published Oct. 30th 2014. Some minor edits have been made.
Most Canadians do not think about the monarchy. For most it’s a non-entity, not worth discussing. This lack of debate on the monarchy is buffeted by the massive constitutional upheaval that would inevitably arise if some attempt was made to get rid of the monarchy, along with the chronic Canadian unwillingness to even attempt constitutional reform in the aftermath of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. All signs to point to the continuation of the monarchy being quite likely. However, just because something is unlikely to change, it doesn’t mean that people should not examine it. I used to think the monarchy was pointless and considered myself a republican. However, I am beginning to change my mind. The monarchy just might be a very important Canadian institution that deserves to remain and be acknowledged.
Some people claim that the monarchy is an anachronistic institution in this modern age; that it represents an old colonial past at odds with a modern multicultural Canada. However, this overlooks several important considerations. The Crown can serve as both an anchor to our past while a symbol of how the past can evolve into the present. An amazing facet of the Canadian Crown in particular is how it has evolved throughout history. Just as Canada has transformed from a British dominion of ‘two nations’ (the absence of Aboriginal influence in the official discourse should be noted) to a multinational country from sea to sea, the monarchy too has transformed from an absolutist institution to a constitutional one which acts as a safeguard and capstone to our political system. It is a potent reminder of the real and substantial effects of reform; that can institutions morph over time from bad to better, and we need not rely on either reaction or radicalism to change a system.
Furthermore, the monarchy can be an outlet for emotion in public life. While some people may criticize the outpouring of interest that happened during the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Will and Kate), is this really a valid criticism? There is a certain amount of irrationality among the public anyway; it is certainly better directed at national public figures instead of celebrities. It also certainly better that these public figures be non-political rather than partisan. Canada has done well to avoid the sheer emotionalism directed at Presidents and presidential politics (George W. Bush and Barack Obama anyone?), although it has started to seep into Canada, with the personalities of our current and former Prime Ministers being the focus of mainstream attention, rage, and adulation. It can be argued that this a direct result of the office of Prime Minister being seen in a presidential context instead of its traditional parliamentary one. Perhaps a return to our roots may be a remedy.
Of course, the monarchy is not just important for its symbolic value; it has a concrete purpose in Canada’s political system. Many people criticize the development of an “imperial presidency” in America, in which the President and the executive increasingly comes to dominate the political system; as well as the severe partisanship that characterizes American elections. This has been possible in large measure because of the extremely symbolic value and potent political power vested in the office. These problems stem from having a political head of state who, instead of representing the nation, also represents a group of political interests. Some people might agree with this analysis, but say that Canada bypasses these issues by having a separate head of state and head of government and that, therefore, we can afford to become a republic with an elected head of state. However, that does not solve the dilemma. The political element is still there and lying underneath the surface. Indira Gandhi, a former Prime Minister of India, most notably twisted the Indian Presidency from a non-political position to one inhabited by her allies, before instituting a pseudo-dictatorship under her ‘emergency rule’.
The monarchy is useful in this situation precisely because it avoids an expressly political head of state. A more ‘democratic’ method of choosing head of state does not equal a more political choice but a more partisan one. Instead of relying on the meaningless buzzword ‘democracy’ this gets us to think about what democracy actually means. Democracy is not good intrinsically, it is good because it puts a check on unlimited political power and forces political elites to pay attention the rest of society, thereby creating the conditions for a relatively peaceful, orderly, free and prosperous society. The Monarchy, despite being ‘anti-democratic’, actually helps preserve democracy from becoming a farce. In fact, it is probably because it is anti-democratic it helps preserve democracy; in order to preserve its own legitimacy and justify its non-democratic foundation, the Monarchy cannot take a partisan approach.
A monarchy also has important moral consideration in society. Behind the supposed splendor and opulence of the monarchy is a foundation grounded in concepts of duty and noblesse oblige. Both since they are brought up believing in it, and because it necessary in order to legitimize the institution, the royals live and encourage a life of charitable giving and duty. In a world where markets are prevalent and the profit motive encourages people to view mere material wealth as the standard of success it is refreshing and healthy to have an institution that taps into a traditional sense of duty and charity that is swiftly becoming marginalized. This blend of traditionalism and liberalism helps promote the idea that classes and societies have duties to each other, which can mitigate the effects of social hierarchy and capitalist competition. Without this, all that is left is the cutthroat world of contemporary hyper-competitive individualist capitalism.
The claim that we should drop our connection with the monarchy to align ourselves with the rest of the world, in which republicanism is increasingly commonplace, is extremely disingenuous. It is nothing more than an appeal to the authority of world opinion. What is even more laughable is that the very people who say this would be just as quick to say that we should be proactive and chart a course into a brave new world if the situation were reversed. We should not choose things out of desire to either conform or rebel. We should choose them because they are the sensible thing to do. I hope that we decide that keeping the monarchy is the sensible thing to do. And if we should decide that that is the case, we should be willing to protect the institution. Should it ever be abolished, it will be almost impossible to bring back and the benefits we enjoy from it will be lost forever.