Mulroney and Chretien on the monarchy

Over the last couple of weeks I was lucky enough to pick up two signed copies of the memoirs of Canada’s two most recent (substantial) prime ministers, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien.

I’m still working my way though both, but obsessive republican that I am, I could not help but skip ahead to see what the former leaders had to say about the monarchy, and its role in Canada. Unsurprisingly, not a whole lot. Like all of Canada’s prime ministers, both Chretien and Mulroney are monarchists, and thus their commentary on the crown is generally restrained to a few trite pleasantries about how glorious it was to meet the Queen, etc.

That being said, there are still a couple interesting (and provocative) comments in both books.

Mulroney speaks of the fact that as a university student, he helped lead protests against the Queen’s infamous 1964 visit to Quebec. In a Canadian Press story on the episode, he was quoted criticizing the lavish spending of the visit, calling it a gross waste of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

His words generated a lot of angry letters, to which Mulroney quips (probably using some revisionist history here):

I was not in fact an anti-royalist, and I later came to greatly admire and enjoy Her Majesty and appreciate her marvelous contributions to the Commonwealth and country. This episode quickly taught me the cost of any perceived disrespect to the sovereign. It was never to happen again.

So evidently the lesson is “people will defend the monarchy when you criticize it, therefore criticism of the monarchy is illegitimate.” Good advice for a vain politician afraid of controversy, perhaps, but less so for everyone else.

Later on, in talking about his first official meeting with Her Majesty, Mulroney pauses to reflect on the Crown’s role in modern Canada:

Canada’s attachment to the monarchy is one that many in Canada—my Irish-Canadian compatriots, for example—and in the United States and overseas do not understand, and probably never will.

Interesting statement, that. So “many in Canada” “do not understand, and probably never will” the reason why we have the Queen of Great Britain as our head of state. Mulroney evidently does not find this statement odd or problematic.

He goes on, citing the monarchy as an institution that embodies Canada’s “small contradictions and larger contrasts”:

“A Roman Catholic prime minister swears allegiance to a sovereign who is also head of the Church of England and almost no one notices the irony. Fewer still would challenge it, and absolutely no one would consider changing it.”

…which is just flatly untrue. There has been republicanism in Canada as long as there has been a monarchism, and obviously the debate rages on to this day, even if the political elites would prefer things to be otherwise.

In one final note, I’d just like to observe the thoroughly amusing fact, which I just noticed now, that the index of Mulroney’s memoirs refers to “Elizabeth, Queen of England.”

Now for Chretien. In his book he talks about the monarchy even less than Mulroney, which is really saying something.

At the Queen Mother’s 2002 funeral, Chretien was shocked at the protocol:

“… the organizers had chosen to do things in the old imperial way, and according to protocol, the five “colonial” prime ministers were nobodies. First we were told we would be taken to a side door of Westminster Abbey on a bus. After some negotiation, we were permitted to arrive in cars, subject to two conditions: our national flags were not to be flying on the hood, and we were not to enter by the main entrance, which was reserved for real big shots such as the wives of the presidents of France and South Africa. Then we were seated in the row at the back of the church and off to the side, far behind the grand old families of Britain, the royal households of Europe (even those who no longer had a throne to sit on on), and all the republican presidents, no matter how small or new the republic.”

Chretien notes how upset he, Australia’s John Howard, and New Zealand’s Helen Clark were at this second-class treatment (it’s unclear who the other two of “the five colonial prime ministers” he mentioned are. The six original dominions were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, and Newfoundland, but South Africa and Irealand became republics, and Newfoundland joined Canada. Today there are 15 men and women who could be described as “colonial prime ministers” in the old-fashioned, dominion sense, but NZ, Australia, and Canada remain the only white nations in the bunch). Technically speaking, however, the event’s protocol was correct, and not particularly heavy-handed or “imperial” (well, maybe the flag business). International protocol rank always goes monarch, president, prime minister. It’s too bad Canada has no president to represent us at such events, and bump up our rank and profile, but them’s the breaks. Technically “our” head of state was actually front and center of the event anyway, mourning the death of her mother.

Chretien’s most interesting comment comes right after his funeral anecdote, when he discusses the two governor generals he appointed during his term in office, Romeo LeBlanc (1995-1999) and Adrienne Clarkson (1999-2005).  With concern, he notes that:

“….few foreigners understood the constitutional role or colonial title of the governor general of Canada. If the governor general were called the president, everybody would have grasped at once the significance of this person, regardless of the fact that a president in a parliamentary system as in Germany, Italy, Ireland or Israel, has much less authority than a president in  a republican system, as in the United States or France. To get around the confusion, I toyed for a while with the notion of taking the existing title of president of the Privy Council, which is currently held by a member of the Cabinet, and giving it as an extra honour to the governor general. Over time, while all the powers and laws would remain the same, everybody would start referring to the governor general as Mr. or Mme. President, and the problem would disappear gradually. I didn’t push forward with the idea, however, because particularly as a Quebecer, I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest about the fate of the monarchy or the Americanization of Canadian institutions. In many parts of the country, British traditions and symbols were still vitally important. I already had enough troubles on my hands with the separatists in Quebec, and I didn’t want to take on the monarchists in the rest of Canada too.”

Chretien was fond of saying that last line, which although snappy, grossly misstates the relevance of monarchism as a political force in contemporary Canada. More accurately, he, like Mulroney, preferred to believe in the myth of monarchical popularity as an excuse for inaction on the issue.

Regardless, Chretien’s Privy Council idea is a very interesting one, in that it certainly would help smooth the transition to a republic if the title of the governor general was changed. Irrationally, many Canadians seem to believe that “president” is an inherently American term. I remember that when I was in high school, we didn’t even have a student council “president,” but rather a “prime minister,” because apparently it’s too damn American to use the title of president for anything even remotely resembling a government.

Canadians need to get over this hang-up. If even radical anti-American countries like Iran have a “president” without wounding their sensitive egos, then why not Canada? The sooner Canadians get comfortable with the idea of a “President of Canada,” the better. If the governor general was to enjoy this title today, then a future republican referendum asking to make the president head of state would seem far less like a move towards “Americanization,” than if the question asked if we wanted a president rather than a Queen.

Canada has never had a republican prime minister, in contrast to Australia, New Zealand, and most of the Caribbean nations, which have had several. Though neither Chretien nor Mulroney contributed much to the discussion of the crown in Canada, it’s worth noting that both men nevertheless made some subtle reforms to the institution during their terms in office. Mulroney ended the practice of having the governor general refer to the government of Canada as “my government” in throne speeches, while Chretien’s administration passed a law adding a vow to “obey the laws of Canada” to the Canadian oath of citizenship, along with the pledge to the Queen.

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One response to “Mulroney and Chretien on the monarchy

  1. Morning, JJ! Thanks for linking to this – I look forward to many more thought-provoking entries.

    Not that you’re likely to change my mind, of course – but it’s a fascinating issue, and you’re pretty good at revealing all kinds of new facets to the subject.

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