In 1949, eight countries united to form the modern Commonwealth. Canada was one of the original eight, and a leader in the formation of this voluntary association, for which Toronto’s Arnold Smith would serve as the first Secretary-General.
Our roots in the Commonwealth are deep, and are celebrated on Commonwealth Day in March of each year. But is our membership really something to celebrate? And in 2022, does it justify the time and investment we put into it?
Judging the Commonwealth by its own aims, the answer is a resounding no.
Today this international club is home to 54 countries, pursuing a vision of “a Commonwealth that is mutually respectful, resilient, peaceful and prosperous and that cherishes equality, diversity and shared values.” One of its leading goals is moral instruction and development – to “promote tolerance, respect, understanding” and help members become upstanding members of the international community.
So how is this well-intentioned club doing in its pursuit of principle?
It is currently home to many of the world’s leading human rights abusers. Amnesty International reports are filled with violations committed by Commonwealth members, and most member countries, covering 90 percent of the Commonwealth population, still criminalize homosexuality. Twenty-four members are not even classified as free countries by Freedom House’s global freedom scores, and this includes every member that has joined within the last 25 years.
While it may be argued that these are exactly the countries which could benefit from the moral guidance the Commonwealth strives to offer, what it really demonstrates is the association’s inability to make a difference, even with the countries it has had decades to work with.
Lacking enforcement mechanisms for its ethical dictates and prescribed governing practices, and with little demonstrated capacity to transform the attitudes of member countries, the Commonwealth is engaged in a futile moral mission which only a handful of its members endorse.
Since our tenure as a moral instructor is not proving so fruitful, what about the economic benefits of membership?
The economic profiles of Commonwealth members vary widely, and our economic interests are often mismatched as a result.
Only a tiny portion of Canada’s trade, less than five percent, is done with member countries, and our top Commonwealth trading partner, the United Kingdom, is responsible for just two percent of our total trade. Like most member countries, Canada’s situation makes regional integration outside the Commonwealth umbrella more effective, and our deep economic relationship with the United States accounts for the vast majority of our trade, with China being our next biggest trading partner.
Even if there were greater upsides to building our economic ties with other members, developing these relationships would not require us to be part of the Commonwealth, which has no free trade agreement or formal economic perks for members.
Finally, what about tradition? Does the Commonwealth have redeeming value as a body which provides continuity between the past and present, embodying aspects of history Canadians want to keep alive?
Simply put, no.
That something has been done, does not mean it should continue, nor does appreciating our past require Commonwealth membership. Arguments based on tradition are also losing currency with Canadians more generally. Seventy-two percent have no attachment to the monarchy, and only 25 percent would vote to keep it in a referendum, with support shrinking each year.
This is hardly surprising given the monarchy’s shrinking influence and the growing acceptance of values at odds with a system of hereditary privilege—which we deride in everyday life but have long made an exemption for when it comes to kings and queens, princes and princesses.
These shifting attitudes show a willingness to rethink our traditions, the assumptions they are based on, as well as our participation in activities and associations borne out of them.
Canada has much thinking to do about what we want out of these relationships, and whether any of that is being achieved.
When it comes to the Commonwealth, the tens of millions of dollars Canada contributes each year to keep this ineffective, increasingly irrelevant club afloat could instead be spent improving the lives of Canadians in a time of great need.
Now that would be something to celebrate.