Canada likely stuck with new king, old monarchy
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There was plenty of pomp surrounding King Charles’ coronation ceremony.
The aftermath brings the circumstance, which for Canada, is at a political crossroads. In one direction lies a well-worn path the country has travelled since Confederation in 1867, with Canada’s head of state being the British monarch, which King Charles became last September after the death of his predecessor and mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
The constitutional monarchy model, with a governor general representing the sitting monarch in Canada, has been mostly a quiet undercurrent to the nation’s political system, whether the governor general was a British lord, or since Vincent Massey’s appointment in 1952, a Canadian citizen with no regal background.
This model has, for more than 150 years, served countries such as Canada and Australia through the tumult of world geopolitics and economic turmoil, and allowed us to remain stable and generally prosperous democracies.
And while this system remains unchanged with King Charles on the throne, Canadians’ relationship with the Crown continues to evolve.
A March poll by Research Co. found only 19 per cent of Canadians would prefer the country to remain a monarchy. Only 32 per cent of Canadians had a favourable opinion of King Charles and 22 per cent for his wife, Queen Camilla.
We don’t know what the respondents’ reaction will be once King Charles’ likeness appears on the $20 bill and on Canadian coins, as the Bank of Canada announced following the king’s coronation on May 6. No doubt it will be a jarring first impression because most Canadians have never known life without Queen Elizabeth, who served more than 70 years as monarch and was held in far greater regard than her son.
The respondents also weren’t asked how Canada would replace the constitutional monarchy should ties be severed with the Crown. That’s Canada’s other option at the constitutional crossroads, and it’s a trail that leads to the political unknown.
It’s also adorned with heavy roadblocks, with one being the Constitution itself, which was patriated in 1982 amid much fanfare but not without years of rancour between the nation’s premiers and the federal government during public and private negotiations.
The ordeal proved to be so onerous — Quebec refused to sign the agreement that led to the patriated Constitution — it created a general unwillingness for change. Two proposed amendments, the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, failed.
The Meech Lake Accord crashed in 1990, owing largely to the legislative efforts of Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper, an Oji-Cree politician who said First Nations weren’t included in the Constitution.
Almost 55 per cent of voters turned down the Charlottetown Accord in a 1992 national referendum.
Even if there was some political will in this country to reopen the Constitution, legal and constitutional experts have asserted such a move to be practically impossible.
As the Toronto Star reported a year ago, the Canadian constitution sets a very high bar for making fundamental changes to the monarchy, including its abolishment. To do so, you would need to have agreement from the House of Commons, the Senate and all 10 provincial legislatures — a higher standard than the general procedure required for most other constitutional amendments, including the aforementioned accords.
And without doubt, any attempt to remove the monarchy from Canada’s constitution would also require consultation with Indigenous peoples in this country. That, too, is a significant barrier, as the Crown signed treaties with Indigenous nations in Canada — treaties such as Treaty 1, which was signed in 1871 between the British monarchy and the Anishinaabe and Swampy Cree nations, and relates to a large portion of southern Manitoba.
While many First Nations people harbour bitter feelings over decades of unfulfilled treaty promises and the harm caused in the monarchy’s name, there remains an attachment and respect because First Nations signed those treaties with the Crown, not the Canadian government.
New or renegotiated treaties, with the federal government being the signatory instead of the Crown, hold the possibility of political reconciliation between Ottawa and First Nations, but it remains to be seen whether there is the political will to enter what would undoubtedly be difficult talks.
No recent federal government has wanted to risk reopening the Constitution and thereby trigger a national unity debate — not after the mess that former prime minister Brian Mulroney stepped into.
While talks about abolishing the monarchy from Canadian politics will continue to make the daily news headlines, for the time being at least we should expect the federal government to continue following the path of least political resistance.
» Winnipeg Free Press and The Brandon Sun