End of a royal era

A new governor general. An aging Queen. A government trying to reconcile
with its Indigenous communities. Is Canada headed for its fiercest debate yet over the monarchy? 

By: /
29 September, 2017
Sami Chouhdary / The Centre for International Governance Innovation

It was February 1901 and the news spread through Ottawa with the fading winter light: The Queen is dead.

Within hours an empire lurched into mourning. In Canada, city halls and pubs were draped in black bunting, statues wrapped in black and purple crepe. Militias fired 101 guns across nine cities in a salute that lasted over an hour. In Montreal, Victoria Square was piled five feet high in wreaths and flowers. Hundreds of thousands of portraits of the dead Queen were handed out, filling the windows of homes and shops. In Victoria, fire and church bells tolled for two hours, and, in Vancouver, social and public events were cancelled for a month.

We have met under the shadow of a death, which has caused more universal mourning than has ever been recorded in the pages of history,” said then-Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to parliament.

Over a century later, the current Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II, has outlasted 12 Canadian prime ministers, six popes and the Cold War. But unlike Queen Victoria, she’s witnessed her empire crumble and the monarch’s role in government decline. Now, as the Queen ages, plans for her death have matured. And while her subjects don’t mourn like they used to, most institutions in the United Kingdom have elaborate plans that will bring the nation to a halt.

In Canada, the plans are murky. The Privy Council Office has refused a freedom of information request to obtain the government’s plans following the death of the Queen, and government houses in Ottawa and the provincial capitals declined OpenCanada’s requests to share preparations for the death of their boss. As Julie Payette takes over from David Johnston as governor general on Oct. 2, prompting a wave of public reflection from Johnston on his time in the role and the value of the monarchy, little has been said publicly about what comes next.

We do know there will be a national day of mourning. CBC has a plan, and will likely cancel its regular broadcasting, automatically reverting to wall-to-wall coverage as part of its policy for a “Broadcast of National Importance.” Military bases across the country will fire long volleys — likely one shot a minute for every year of the Queen’s reign. Flags will be lowered to half-mast, and civil servants will begin an enormous list of paperwork, replacing “Queen” and “Her Majesty” with “King” and “His Majesty” in government, court documents and the first page of your passport.

Once the mourning has ended and Prince Charles is sworn in, what happens next has real policy consequences beyond the celebrity appeal of the next monarch. After a long march away from imperial rule, Canadian public opinion has turned against the monarchy — a 2015 Forum Research poll suggested nearly three-quarters of Canadians support ushering in a Canadian-born head of state, and, last December, an Ipsos/Global News poll found 53 percent of Canadians believe Canada should end its formal ties to the British monarchy following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.  

For monarchists, the royal link personifies good governance, providing a symbolic reminder that Canada’s past, present and future are linked by a shared identity. For advocates of a republican-style government, a foreign-born head of state only serves the status quo, a royal hangover at a time when Canadian institutions must evolve to bolster diplomatic efforts abroad and better reflect the country’s diversity. In between, large swaths of Canadians remain indifferent to the Crown. For others still, the question is more complicated: Indigenous communities across Canada are divided on what the monarchy means for nation-to-nation negotiations and reconciliation. 

Under her rule, Queen Elizabeth II reigned over the dissolution of the largest empire the world has ever known. In that time, many of the 53 countries that make up the Commonwealth have removed the monarch as head of state. Of the remaining 16 realms, several — including Australia, Jamaica and Barbados — have seriously considered a similar royal abolition.

Now 91, the Queen has cut back her public events, cancelled foreign trips and even stopped breeding her beloved corgis. As she nears the end of her life, will the Canadian monarchy fade with her?

A royal blind spot

If there’s one thing monarchists and republicans can agree on, it’s the threat of public ignorance. Most Canadians have no idea what role the monarchy plays in Canada, or don’t care. One 2008 poll reported that only 24 percent of Canadians could correctly name their head of state.

“When there’s no longer a significant understanding of the monarchy, then down the road it’s easy to say, ‘why do we bother even having this thing, if we’re not doing anything with it anyway?’” said Robert Finch, Dominion Chairman of the Monarchy League of Canada.

Part of the reason for our royal blind spot is we rarely catch a glimpse of the reserve powers of the Queen. Through her representatives — the governor general and 10 lieutenant governors — the Queen is meant to act as a constitutional referee, stepping in during those rare situations when an apolitical voice is needed to settle constitutional matters. Should a government be defeated in a confidence vote, she decides whether to dissolve parliament and trigger a new election or give the opposition a chance to form a government.

Take the December 2008 prorogation of parliament, when, in an effort to avoid a non-confidence vote, then-prime minister Stephen Harper visited Governor General Michaëlle Jean and asked her to end the parliamentary session early. Cutting a trip to Europe short, Jean hurried back to Ottawa as political pundits clamoured to predict the fate of the government.

“I can’t imagine how much newsprint was wasted on, ‘What’s the governor general going to do? Is she going to exert her will as the constitutional referee or is she going to simply base her opinion on precedent or convention?’” said Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic. “I didn’t have any doubt about which way it would go: there would be no rocking of the constitutional boat — precedent and convention would be applied, and the prime minister would get his way.” 

A few days later, amid the financial crisis, Stephen Harper walked onto the governor general’s sprawling 79-acre urban estate, and, according to convention, sought a private audience with the Queen’s representative. Jean agreed to prorogue parliament, giving the Harper government enough time to regroup and lead one of the most pro-monarchist cabinets in decades.

For critics of the Crown, this lack of transparency around how the governor general makes decisions is not only emblematic of an era of institutionalized elitism, it’s anti-democratic. “It shouldn’t be an issue of debate,” said Freda. “It should be a constitutionally codified rule that when a certain situation arises, then this is what the head of state should do.”

Instead of balancing a democratically elected government with an institution based on inherited wealth and power, his organization proposes ejecting the monarchy as the Canadian head of state and swapping the governor general and lieutenant governors for elected officials. It’s the same path parliamentary republics like Malta and Ireland have taken. In these island nations, Freda pointed out, the governor general has been replaced with a president who has codified responsibilities in the event of a parliamentary deadlock or when a government tries to exercise powers beyond its reach.

“We could continue to call our head of state the governor general or the Grand Poo-Bah. It doesn’t matter,” he told OpenCanada. “What matters is that our official head of state is a Canadian person who we select.”

But several constitutional experts say the secrecy that shrouds conversations with the governor general shields her from direct criticism in the same way we don’t hear the deliberations of Supreme Court judges. Without those off-the-record deliberations, supporters argue, both the Queen’s representatives and Supreme Court judges would be hesitant to speak frankly.

“It’s a mirroring of British practice. The Queen is no more transparent in the UK than the governor general here,” said Westminster expert Philippe Lagassé. “The idea being that you wouldn’t have a candid governor general if they knew that what they said would come out.”

Part of what stabilizes the relationship between the Queen and the government, say proponents of the current system, can be traced to the fact that the Queen’s representatives are reluctant to use their powers. If the governor general suddenly gets her own electoral mandate that’s even more direct than the prime minister’s, that creates a very odd situation: she would likely expect to be consulted more, exercise more power, and, formally, she would be able to use it.

Some monarchists also worry that an elected head of state would lose the widespread appeal enjoyed by the Queen’s representatives. “They have this aura, this light that shines behind them through this refracted glare of the Crown,” said Canadian royal commentator Richard Berthelsen. “If you think that people like Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean are going to run for election, I wish you luck on that.”

At a practical level, monarchists argue that there’s no appetite among Canadians to re-open the constitution, and that even if a government could bring the removal of the monarch to a vote, it would require approval from all 10 provinces.

“Opening up the constitution has always been the monarchists’ kryptonite against us,” said Freda. “[They] say that the Crown is at the core of the Canadian state, and you just can’t tamper with it. Well, it’s been done. It’s been done in Ireland, Trinidad and Tobago, and many other countries within the Commonwealth.”

In fact, of the 16 Commonwealth countries which have dropped their royal head of state, about two-thirds have opted for a presidential-style republic similar to the American system. The other third has reshaped their governments into parliamentary republics — picture the fully-elected Westminster system envisioned by Freda and his organization.  

As the largest republican lobby group in Canada, members from Citizens for a Canadian Republic regularly interact with MPs and party organizers. Now, said Freda, as Payette takes over as governor general, the conversation around a post-Queen Elizabeth II era has already begun behind closed doors.

“When the Queen shows signs that her reign is coming to an end, I believe that all of those discussions will become public,” he said. It’s the Queen’s death that will pivot this into a crisis mode.”

Independence, of sorts

The barometer of Canadian independence has rarely been measured through crisis; there was no revolution, no defining war that soured Anglo-Canadians to their British heritage. As a dominion, Britain effectively formed the vanguard of Canada’s foreign policy for the first half of its history.

“Being under the imperial crown at the outset, Canada’s status as an independent nation wasn’t really clear,” Lagassé told OpenCanada.

But as the twentieth century wore on, the country’s slow passage to independence was consistently pitched forward by its actions abroad. Instead of fighting under the Queen, Canadian soldiers increasingly fought alongside British forces.

You could point to the over 60,000 Canadian dead in World War I or myth-building battles like Vimy Ridge; each played its part in jolting forward a growing Canadian independence movement. But it was really the interwar period when independence came to a head: by 1931 the Statute of Westminster gave all dominions the right to legislate their own laws, and in 1939, when war once again consumed Europe, Canada took a symbolic stand, waiting seven days before declaring its own war on Germany.

“In the past, the King didn’t even need to declare war for Canada, it was taken for granted,” said Lagassé. “By saying the declaration of war only applies to Canada when it’s done for Canada by the King, we were no longer under the British Crown.”

Two years after World War II ended, the Citizenship Act transformed Canadians from subjects of the British Crown to full-fledged citizens. But even as Britain pulled back from the world, Canadians continued to sing the royal anthem in school gymnasiums and swear allegiance to the Queen in public offices and citizenship ceremonies.

Eleven years after the Allied victory, in its last gasp as empire, the UK launched a joint attack on the Suez Canal, then the largest military complex in the world. 

After backing British wars for over 50 years, Canadian soldiers now found themselves actively restraining their traditional ally. Those sent to keep the peace between the British and Egyptians soon found the Red Ensign flag — a symbolic link to the Canada’s British roots — a liability.

“Here our flag was flying with the Union Jack in one corner. To [the Egyptians] it looked like we were still a colony of Britain. How could we be impartial in keeping the peace?” questioned Freda.

The Canadian response to the Suez Crisis would win Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson a Nobel prize, help catalyze the birth of a new Canadian flag and even spur a Cold War run of peacekeeping and international diplomacy. 


While the Canadian foreign service has changed over the years, in the world of diplomatic relations, the appearance of control over Canada’s government still matters.

“[The monarch is] a confusion in our foreign relationships,” said Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian high commissioner in London. “Certainly not an influence-builder.”

For all her quiet opposition to Brexit, the Queen’s work abroad remains quintessentially British. She will never visit Brazil or China as the Queen of Canada, and no foreign government will recognize her as such.

“A few Harper monarchist ministers pressed the monarchy issue in travel abroad, insisting on toasts to the Queen at official dinners,” Kinsman told OpenCanada. “These episodes were sort of silly and never altered the view held around the world that Queen Elizabeth II is seen as the Head of State of the UK — her formal role vis-à-vis Canada is just sort of a mysterious and irrelevant vestige of history.”

When Kinsman was high commissioner in the early 2000s, the future of the monarchy in Canada was shakier than usual. It was not long after the sudden death of Princess Diana and the crisis in public opinion that followed the royal family’s mismanagement of the funeral arrangements. In that volatile moment, Kinsman tried to clarify the future of the monarchy with top British officials. But political pressure was ramping up at home — it was right around the time of the last referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty and the Chrétien government was not willing to fight a battle on two fronts. So after pushback from Ottawa, he gave up.

While the Queen’s death will not likely be as shocking as Diana’s, the event will be most significant to the UK, a country now reeling from a series of political upheavals. It is also there in Britain where the real danger to Canada’s constitutional monarchy lies, according to Lagassé. By passing the 2013 Succession to the Throne Act, the Harper government effectively scuttled the legal idea of the Queen of Canada and bound the fate of the Canadian monarchy to decisions made in British parliament.

“If we had an independent Queen of Canada, then whatever they did in the UK shouldn’t make a difference. But we now know that’s not the case. We now know that if the UK got rid of the Queen, we would no longer have a Queen,” said Lagassé “That’s what I keep telling republicans. If they want to do away with the monarchy, don’t bother going through 11 parliaments here, just go straight to Britain.”

In the 150 years since Confederation, the royal thread linking sovereign and subject has frayed. There is an overwhelming sense that “Britishness” does not define the average Canadian. A rising majority of Anglo-Canadians and 91 percent of Quebecers now support a Canadian-born head of state who lives in Canada. Even new Canadians are speaking out against the royal status quo.

A problematic oath

On a crisp morning in March, Azfar Zaheer rose in front of a citizenship judge at the Scarborough Civic Centre and swore allegiance to the Queen of Canada.

Moments later, in his first act as a Canadian, Zaheer walked over to the law clerk and disavowed the words he had just spoken.

“The notion of affirming allegiance to a monarch under a democratic form of government is completely absurd,” he wrote in a letter to the judge, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two MPs.

Zaheer is part of a growing list of Canadians who are openly renouncing their oath to the Queen while recommitting themselves to Canada and its laws. But it’s a bitter choice for those who claim it violates their rights to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The British monarchy has been involved in a lot of atrocities around the world,” Zaheer told OpenCanada. “Pakistan is still reeling with the after-effects of those things. For my family back home, it’s still a matter of survival every day.”

“Then to come here and swear allegiance to the Queen?” he added. “For a lot of people it might just be an oath, but for me, this was a principle I needed to adhere to.”

In 2014, the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that swearing an oath to the Queen doesn’t violate freedom of expression. In the decision, the judges decided the Queen as a person and the Queen as a legal entity aren’t the same thing. Three years later, the decision continues to force new Canadians like Zaheer to swear allegiance to the Queen as a Canadian institution. Only after the oath, can they renounce its literal meaning.

Critics say the fact new Canadians are the only ones forced to swear a citizenship oath to the Queen amounts to legal extortion, forcing those who dissent to lie to themselves in their very first act as citizens.

With migration projected to account for nearly 100 percent of the country’s population growth within the next 20 years, the percentage of Canadians forced to swear allegiance to the monarchy — most without a historical or cultural connection to the British Crown — will then also grow.

New Canadians aren’t the only ones refusing to swear oaths of allegiance to the monarchy. In 2014, newly-elected Victoria mayor Lisa Helps declined to pledge allegiance to the Queen, stating the outdated oath unduly placed emphasis on the monarchy without recognizing the fact that the city stands on the unceded territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.  

“One of the things we need to do in the City of Victoria is not to do things the same way [just] because that’s the way we’ve always done them,” she told the media after the ceremony. “Otherwise we’re not going to have change.”

Others, like former government lawyer Thomas McMahon, disavowed their oath to the Queen after a career in public service. McMahon told OpenCanada that after years of working for Indigenous rights — including as director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — Canada’s continued connection to the monarchy remains a major symbolic roadblock on the path to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“When we tell new immigrants you are forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, an oath that we would never, ever ask Indigenous people to swear,” said McMahon, “I think that you are telling new immigrants they have to acknowledge that the English claim to own Canada is more important than any Indigenous claims.”

Since McMahon’s comments, proposed text for an overhauled citizenship oath has been released, balancing the commitment to the Queen with one to “faithfully observe the laws of Canada including treaties with Indigenous Peoples,” an action in line with the 94th and last recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

Reconciling the Crown

Challenging national symbols is rarely easy, but it’s also a symptom of a country ready to face its ugly side.

Take the reverberations from the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August. A week later, far-right protestors in Vancouver organized a rally against immigration, Muslims and the Trudeau government’s policies on multiculturalism. News of the Vancouver protests quickly spread on social media. On August 19, a diverse collection of over 4,000 counter-protestors gathered in the shadow of City Hall’s 12-story art-deco tower.

As police escorted a handful of knife-wielding, Nazi-saluting protestors past their checkpoints, Bob Chamberlain of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation spoke to the crowd, calling on Canadians to denounce systemic racism in all its forms.

“The monarchy and the whole government of Canada has been established upon the denial of our people as human beings of equal value,” Chamberlain later told OpenCanada. “If Canada goes down the road of really embracing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canadians will have to face some really uncomfortable truths about Canada.”

As vice-president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, Chamberlain is part of an increasingly powerful generation of Indigenous leaders spearheading a shift in the way Indigenous peoples exercise their political power. By challenging the legitimacy of the Crown, they are questioning the idea that all sovereignty flows from the monarch.

It all started back in the early 1980s when the constitution was repatriated — Indigenous leaders were quick to take advantage of the opportunity to codify Indigenous rights and title. Back then it was Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s father who sat across the table from Trudeau senior. Today, Wilson-Raybould is working from the inside to push the reconciliation agenda.

“She’s got the whole of Ottawa turned upside down,” said Chamberlain. “It’s rightful and it’s just, but it’s brushing the hair backwards consistently in every department.”

“Right now, we have become very in tune with opportunities at the international level to move our people forward,” added Chamberlain. “Perhaps the transition to the King of England will offer an opportunity that we can exploit.” 


As Canadians slowly reckon with their own bloody history and work to reconcile the country’s dark legacy of Indigenous oppression, some Indigenous groups are taking another, less hostile approach to the monarchy.

“We basically just pick up [one of two] views of this: the soulless corporate body, or the view that the Crown is just a marauder that runs across the land taking everything as she goes,” said Indigenous law expert John Borrows. That’s a problem because many Indigenous groups see the monarch as a respected leader that was accepted into their lives.

From an Indigenous point of view, the early treaties with the British and French were done with the understanding that if you want to bind someone to you in a good way, you would bring them into your family.

“Picture a field of snow. It’s deep,” Borrows told OpenCanada. “There’s a man who is walking across the snow making it easier for his children to follow, to cross that field.” As Borrows explained, it’s this understanding of father and king that guided the adoption of the monarch into the Ojibway nation. But it’s an understanding of familial bonds that reaches across many First Nations, extending across time and space — in 1959, during Queen Elizabeth’s second visit to Canada, 38 Salish tribes welcomed her to a ceremony on Vancouver Island, bestowing her with the name Ar-Oh-Muthl, or the “Great Mother” expected to lift her children up.

Inevitably, Crown representatives abandoned Indigenous interpretations of the original treaties. That ushered in a legacy of cultural genocide as settler colonists systematically liquidated one Indigenous society after another.

“The shape-shifting nature of the Crown became a benefit to the Canadian state and a detriment to the Indigenous people,” said Borrows, who warned moving toward a republic could lead to even more bureaucratic weakening of many treaties’ original intent. “To make the Queen that soulless, anonymous corporation — for some Indigenous people is to disavow from the treaty.”

Not until the 1980s did a constitutional amendment transform Indigenous treaty rights from a moral obligation into justiciable law. Since then, many First Nations have reached back to those early Crown promises when English common law first swept across Canada. But it’s less about reviving a 19th century worldview, said Borrows, than reclaiming an independent and equal voice when it comes to negotiating reconciliation.

By mixing and mingling common law with Indigenous worldviews, the idea is to subvert the over-arching sovereign power of the Crown and expand the beachhead for nation-to-nation negotiations.

“There’s this other way to think about this,” said Borrows. “It’s not just historic. It’s hardwired into the framework of the contemporary courts’ jurisprudence.”


The death of the Queen will likely shock Canadians more than they know.

Compared to Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles has rarely been popular among Canadians — in 2015, fewer than one-third of Canadians supported the Prince of Wales becoming head of state. Some monarchists also worry that transitioning to a king could have unforeseen knock-on effects in a country that has had a Queen for two-thirds of its existence.

“A lot of the sovereign’s role in terms of being a comforter and moral leader are what we see as more feminine qualities. It’s not a decisive action-oriented role,” said Berthelsen, the royal commentator. “That’s going to be a really big challenge for the next three reigns.”

Make no mistake, no side is cheering on the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Yet royal deaths and anniversaries have inevitably brought the question of the monarchy bubbling to the surface. For supporters of a Canadian republic, the passing of the Queen could trigger one of the biggest questions facing Canada in the coming years.

Legally, the clearest path to abolishing the monarch as head of state would require the federal government and the provinces to reopen the constitution, something most governments have lost an appetite for since the constitutional debates of the 1980s and the rise of the sovereignty movement in Quebec.

Peter Donolo, an outspoken republican and communications director during the Chrétien government, has argued that ejecting the monarchy could instead be done by pushing an abolition bill through each provincial and federal legislature. Short of removing the Queen as head of state, another option would be to slowly erode royal symbols through less drastic legislation.  

“You could do it in one fell swoop on a number of things, like the ‘Symbols Modernization Act,’ or whatever you want to call it,” said Lagassé, who points to the citizenship oath as the most likely candidate for reform.

Such a topic has fallen to the wayside, with Indigenous reconciliation and refugee integration consuming the national conversation — themes that speak to the larger question of what it means to be Canadian. With the death of the Queen on the horizon, the relevance of the monarchy may soon be added back into that fold.

“It’s the end of a life, the end of a reign and the start of a new reign all rolled into one,” said Berthelsen, the royal commentator. “It’s a massive event that has huge significance for the institution, the government, for how we see the head of state — and all of that’s going to play out simultaneously.”

Illustrations by Sami Chouhdary.

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