Watching Oprah Winfrey’s incendiary sit-down this past weekend with Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, who stepped down from the British royal family in 2020 and moved to Southern California, I soon found my thoughts drifting back to Canada in the early months of 2009. Stephen Harper, the country’s right-wing prime minister, had just suspended parliament to avoid a motion of no-confidence that would surely have ousted him from office and ended his career. The move, permitted by the unelected governor general, was more or less a naked power grab, amounting to an arbitrary suspension of representative democracy by executive fiat. Officially, of course, the governor general was acting on the advice of experts. Unofficially, as many observers implicitly understood, she lacked any real legitimacy to thwart Harper’s ambition.
Among other things, the whole episode revealed a serious weakness in Canada’s constitutional design, in which an appointed figurehead serves as viceregal representative for the British monarchy — an arrangement which in practice gives the prime minister of a majority government near untrammeled executive authority. It also underscored the deep ambivalence many Canadians feel toward their own ruling institutions.
According to one poll conducted by the Dominion Institute in 2009, a full three-quarters of Canadians couldn’t even identify the governor general as Canada’s de facto head of state. While some pundits might be inclined to brush off such a finding as a regretful instance of civic ignorance, popular comedian Rick Mercer had it right in his reaction to the poll:
When asked “Who is Canada’s head of state?”, 75 percent of Canadians could not answer the question. And who can blame them? The answer is ridiculous. It is… the Queen of England. Now, for those unaware of her work: she’s an elderly lady of German descent who lives in a castle across the ocean. In fact, in order to become a Canadian citizen you must swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen and her heirs. Luckily I was born here so I’ve never had to do it. Now, unfortunately the Queen is a very busy woman. She has nine dogs, and when she doesn’t have time to pay attention to Canada (which is, let’s face it, always) she has a representative who lives in Ottawa and is in charge of Canada… In this country, nothing happens until the governor general says so. But, to be fair, [the governor general] takes [their] orders from the government of Canada. After all, we are a democracy … though it may not seem like it yet.
Though Canadian attitudes toward the monarchy itself have oscillated somewhat, a poll published just ahead of this past weekend’s interview suggests that many have soured on the institution — some 45 percent now preferring an elected head of state to the Queen (an increase of thirteen points from a previous survey conducted one year ago). Given new revelations about the royal family’s backward and racist attitudes, there’s every reason to believe the trend will continue.
Ultimately, of course, the problems with monarchy extend far beyond its faltering popularity, who happens to reside in Buckingham Palace, or the ethereal, conservative influence it exerts on Canada’s institutions. As a matter of design, the principle of heredity cuts against every democratic and egalitarian impulse you can imagine — the philosophical ground on which it rests being quite literally medieval and contrary to the basic beliefs of many if not most citizens in modern democracies.
In Canada’s case, however, it’s difficult to see how even the small-c conservative case for keeping the monarchy holds up. The British political theorist Michael Oakeshott famously argued that politics should be about “attending to the general arrangements” of society rather than making them based on a priori beliefs about how it should operate. Reform, for Oakeshott, was therefore more about fixing inconsistencies within existing institutions. Though in practice this principle is pretty difficult to apply (what constitutes Oakeshott’s hated “rationalism” ultimately being a matter of debate), it’s also a useful heuristic for Canada in 2021 — officially a pluralist, representative democracy whose institutions are critically engaged with their own colonial past.
Notwithstanding the considerable blind spots and limitations of this official story, it’s one difficult to square with a hereditary monarchy left over from a long defunct empire. While the actual business of overhauling Canadian institutions is not a simple matter (one only has to revisit the constitutional debates of the 1980s to be reminded why) there’s no reason the process can’t be taken up via other means — by way of public school curriculums, official histories, and changes to the liturgy of national politics — in the short term.
Meghan and Harry have maintained their respective titles while also effectively leaving the monarchy behind. What exactly is Canada waiting for?