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God Save the Queen, 'Cause Canadians Aren't So Sure

Despite royal baby mania, new poll finds less than half of us support the monarchy.

By Justin Ling 11 Jun 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Justin Ling is a Montreal-based freelance journalist.

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Monarchs, hang on to your hats! Photo of Queen Elizabeth II taken 2007 via Creative Commons license.

Canada's vestigial head of state may be spry for 87 years old, but she can't reign forever. And for the first time in years, there are more Canadians in favour of abolishing the monarchy than those definitively in favour of keeping it -- at least once Elizabeth II goes to that great place in the sky.

Queen Elizabeth is really the only Canadian monarch most reading this have ever known. She's reigned over 11 prime ministers, 12 Governor Generals, and who knows how many fancy hats. Sure we've had a trio of kings hold the Canadian Crown, but Elizabeth is the one we actually liked. We put her all over our money.

But according to a new Forum Research poll, 45 per cent of Canadians would, once Elizabeth passes, abolish the institution altogether. The Crown-hating ingrates are spread across the country, ranging from 70 per cent of the nationalist masses in Quebec to a mere 26 per cent of the aptly-named British Columbia.

Forty-four percent, meanwhile, hope that the sun will never set on the British Empire, and 11 per cent don't know or care. The poll shows that the proletariat -- the lower income brackets -- are most likely to support abolition, while the upper-crust tend to rest their faith in the institution. Forum polled 1,779 people to reach its findings, with accuracy within two per cent, 19 out of 20 times.

Even the frenzied mania over the rockstars of the system, William and the royal-baby-bump-wielding Kate, can't seem to redeem the centuries-old office.

Canadian opinion has oft been mixed on the matter. Early in 2012, another Forum poll showed that Canadians were evenly split on abolition and the status quo. A follow-up at the end of the year, however, showed that Princess Kate's royal pregnancy had won back some of the naysayers, buoying support for the Crown and, seemingly, putting Canada on track for the dawn of a new monarchism.

But it wasn't to be so.

Now, over 70 per cent of Canada thinks that the head of state should reside in this country. Even two-thirds of the Queen-loving Tories think so.

The royal lag

Colby Cosh is a Maclean's columnist and noted royalist, and he's not convinced the dethroning that this poll implies is around the corner.

"This sort of stuff tends to undulate in multi-decade cycles," he says. While Canadian support for the monarchy has been pretty consistent for much of our history, there was a paradigm shift that appears to have followed the popularity of grunge -- in the early '90s, Canadians opted in large margins for republicanism.

As the decade ebbed, support for the Crown flowed back in. Certainly, in recent years, support has been high -- the Queen's diamond jubilee, the royal wedding, and a succession of Canadian tours has the public inspired by the throne once more.

Deference to monarchism in Canada has a long, complex history.

In the 18th century, for example, punishment for failing to swear an oath to the king netted the east's Acadian population a swift one-way voyage to anyplace-else.* On the other hand, consistent opposition to Louis Riel's republican experiment in Manitoba garnered Canadaphile Thomas Scott a bullet to the face.

As time wore on, and we became a real country, those old differences simmered. By the 1870s, with the country just settling into its new digs, Canadians were pretty well pleased with being a constitutional monarchy.

Today, apart from the usual naysayers in Quebec, organizing their manifestations whenever the Crown comes to town, the debate over our monarchist status has been quiet. This despite a heated constitutional screaming match over the status of the Senate. While the political class appears eager to debate one relic, they seem loathe to consider the other.

Cosh sees the royal abolition debate raging somewhere in the future. But rather than it ending with Canadians taking a metaphorical guillotine to the office, he thinks it will give monarchists a chance to properly defend their love of the Crown.

Our elected soft monarchists

The group Citizens for a Canadian Republic, however, is more convinced that debate will end with Canada cutting the umbilical cord.

J.J. McCullough, a Vancouver-based spokesperson for the group, has a level of smugness in his voice when he learns of the poll.

"These kind of numbers flow in one direction." That direction, he suggests, is away from monarchism.

In past years McCullough's group has pushed the federal parties to propose alternatives to our head of state, but hasn't gotten much for its trouble.

Before the 2011 election, the group ranked the parties on how open they were to ending ties to the monarchy -- the Tories, unsurprisingly, were deemed the least open, followed by the Greens, Liberals and NDP respectively.

The Liberals proposed a policy amendment at a 2012 convention to jettison the royal tradition, but it failed. This year, the NDP introduced a proposal to cut the Queen from our citizenship oaths, but otherwise tend to keep quiet on the issue. The Harper government, meanwhile, affixes "Royal" to any department it can get its hands on. (They start with the Royal Canadian Air Force, next it could be the Royal Food Inspection Agency.)

McCullough notes that the parties are pretty well stacked with soft monarchists -- not "the tea and crumpet-type people," but monarchists nevertheless -- and they're loathe to break the status quo.

He singles out two of the big reasons: the more conservative mentality of history and heritage, where proponents have nostalgia for the "chivalrous notions of hierarchy," and the liberal-leaning nationalistic feeling that the "monarchy is something that keeps us distinct from the Americans."

Either way, he says, they are a lot of "post-hoc justifications for it," and it suppresses the debate.

Making it 'our' monarchy

The latest threat to the monarchy in Canada was a succession crisis that had Prime Minister Harper, noted monarchist, rewriting the rules on who gets to be our head of state.

At a 2011 Commonwealth meeting, London proposed updating the succession process through which the Crown changes hands -- as big an update as the process has seen in nearly a century -- to ensure that first-born females and those married to Roman Catholics can still ascend the throne.

England encouraged the rest of the Commonwealth to reconcile their domestic laws with the new changes. That's where the trouble began, says Phillippe Lagassé, associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.*

He's been following Harper's effort to fix the issue of succession, and he thinks the Conservatives' Succession to the Throne Act, which flew through the House and became law in March, is a very dangerous proposition.

According to him and others who study the royal system, there is not, as many think, one Crown. Instead, there is a British Crown, a Canadian Crown, an Australian Crown, and so on. But it's never quite been codified.

Rather than take the opportunity to make the Crown "ours," as Australia is doing, the Harper government essentially just passed the British reforms wholesale, and made the argument that it's not Canada's place to interfere with the Crown.

Australia's government moved to amend the constitution and ensure that all of its states signed off on the changes -- that, in Lagassé's view, is what Canada should be doing, because it recognizes the idea that each of the Commonwealth nations have to enact the changes themselves, rather then letting England do it for them.

In effect, Lagassé says, Canada's method gave up our sovereignty as a nation. He says that "if you are arguing that we're under the British Crown, you're saying that we're not actually a sovereign country," as he figures any changes to the line of succession for our head of state requires a constitutional amendment.

Instead, we recognized that it's England's decision, not ours. By that logic, he argues, we admitted that we don't have our own head of state, and that rather disqualifies us from being a real, sovereign, country.

What of Charles?

Of course, for monarchists, this whole fear of forfeiting our sovereignty is a bunch of bollocks. Keith Roy, the dominion vice-chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, says that fears are overstated, and Cosh agrees.

Roy doesn't buy the idea that the bill's changes negate the "Canadian Crown," because he figures that Elizabeth -- by virtue of being Queen of our country -- is already "remarkably Canadian."

Whether or not she's actually a Canadian doesn't matter too much to the public, as Elizabeth's popularity is very much tied to the institution itself. Some, like McCullough, note that once Charles takes over the throne, that might change. The Forum poll shows that 61 per cent of Canadians poo-pooh the idea of Charles as king.

If only you knew him like Roy does. The royal herald paints the prince as a great environmentalist -- before being green was cool -- and lauds his social justice and internationalist work. He figures Canadians will be "pleasantly surprised" with how Charles approaches the job.

But, just the same, he thinks Canadians are still quite smitten with Elizabeth and says that we've "a long way to go" before we have to deal with her passing.

When all is said and done, Roy says that Canadians will appreciate the contributions of our historically symbolic overlords.

"The rights and freedoms we enjoy as a country are not in spite of the monarchy," he says, "but because of it."

*Correction made June 11, 9:30 a.m.  [Tyee]

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