Doing republicanism the wrong way

Good PR cannot save a bad idea, but bad PR can very easily cripple a good one. Canada’s republican movement is, as I have previously noted, a minor movement on an obscure issue. It’s thus vital that in this early stage of the game Canadian republicans are able to present themselves, and their cause, as rational, logical, practical, and productive. If they do the opposite, however, and allow the debate to be dominated by unpleasant characters, petty arguments, undemocratic tactics, and strange motivations, then the republican movement will never progress or mature, and will instead languish permanently in the status of the political fringe.

The big monarchy-related story this week is the conclusion of the case of Captain Mac Giolla Chainnigh, a weird and embarrassing story of one man trying to bring down the Crown from within, in the most awkward and poorly-conceived way possible.

To summarize briefly, Mac Giolla Chainnigh was born Harold Kenny, but somewhere along the line he became obsessed with his Irish hetidige and transformed into a born-again radical Irish nationalist, changing his name and learning Gaelic. Like all good Irish nationalists, he likewise became a hardcore republican, opposing the monarchy with great vitriol as a symbol of British oppression. All fine and well, but Mr.  Chainnigh had unfortunately chosen the Canadian army as his career of choice, and the military subculture of Canada is awash in monarchical traditions, rituals, and symbols. Canadian troops routinely salute the Queen in their mess hall, sing God Save the Queen at formal events, hang her portrait in their barracks, and more generally just loudly praise and acknowledge her a great deal.

Chainnigh found all this stuff offensive to his republican and Irish sensibilities, so he filed an official grievance to the military’s assistant deputy minister of human resources, complaining that he was being “institutionally harassed” by being forced to salute the Queen and otherwise engage in any “outward displays of loyalty to an unelected monarch of foreign origin.” Being forced to do such things, he claimed, violated his Charter right to freedom of belief, and freedom of religion too, since he was Catholic and the Queen is constitutionally required not to be.

The ADM in turn rejected his complaint, partially on the procedural grounds that the right to be protected against institutional harassment “did not exist in Canadian Forces policy” and partially because the deputy minister felt that it was perfectly rational and logical for the military to have rituals of allegiance towards the Queen (considering she is the country’s legal head of state and all). The Captain then appealed the decision to the Canadian Forces Grievance Board and the Canadian Defense Staff. Both also rejected his appeal.

According to the Federal Court of Canada’s eventual ruling, the army’s Grievance Board dismissed

Capt. Mac Giolla Chainnigh’s Charter concerns as a reflection of his fundamental lack of understanding of the governance structures of Canada.  The Board appears to have concluded that, in the context of a correct appreciation of the role of the Queen within Canada and the Canadian Forces, Capt. Mac Giolla Chainnigh’s concerns were trivial and did not warrant constitutional protection.  

The Canadian Defense staff agreed, noting “the Queen’s position as Head of State is based in law, not belief, and therefore CF members have a legal obligation to respect the Queen’s lawful authority over them.”

Chainnigh then appealed these rejections to the Federal Court of Canada, where Justice Robert Barnes rather bizarrely agreed to hear the case, even though in his ruling he admits he found Mr. Chainnigh’s precise legal argument “somewhat difficult to follow” and said his “reasons for objecting to the requirement of paying compliments to the Queen are doubtful, unproven or demonstrably wrong”. The judge was willing to patronize the Captain’s plight as a freedom of expression case study, however, and much of his ruling explores the argument as to whether or not mandatory oaths, etc, limit an individual’s right to freedom of belief and expression. After pondering the Charter, Justice Barnes concluded that he could see no effective correlation between symbolic gestures of loyalty and suppression of dissenting political opinions, noting that

Capt. Mac Giolla Chainnigh’s complaints have been treated with respect and concern within the Canadian Forces since the time of his enrollment.  His right to freely express these views is best exemplified by his own evidence that, throughout his career, he has consistently expressed disaffection for the British monarchy.  He makes no allegations that his career has been adversely affected by the views he has expressed.

Since such rituals imposed no identifiable limits on the man’s freedom of speech or belief, the Judge wrote that his “refusal to participate in these practices” would simply “constitute a display of rudeness and disrespect entirely inconsistent with traditional Canadian values and accepted international protocols.” Justice Barnes added that allowing individual soldiers to “opt out” of military traditions and rituals undermines the military’s hierarchical subculture, and could allow for a “chaotic and unworkable situation” that would “entirely undermine the maintenance of good order and discipline that is essential to the effective operation of the Canadian Forces.”

The Judge’s entire ruling can be read online here

So what does it all mean? Put simply, Captain Chainnigh was an eccentric kook who offered up a sloppy and badly-conceived legal case that should never have been treated nearly as seriously as it ultimately was.  Chainnigh seemed to believe if he threw enough random Charter allegations against the Crown, eventually one would stick, and he could possibly opt-out of a few token rituals, which although dumb, were ultimately very benign and unobtrusive.

The Crown is a terrible political institution, functionally and symbolically. However, at the same time it is not an oppressive institution, and I agree with Justice Barnes in his assesement. He also repeats the very important point that has been made in several other lawsuits by anti-monarchists, namely that the monarchy is, “like it or not,” a part of our constitution, and parts of the constitution cannot be ruled unconstitutional, no matter how activist the presiding judge. Abolishment of the monarchy, or any of its trappings, is an effort which remains best achieved through the democratic realm of legislative law-making, not heavy-handed lawsuits. 

Even if this case had gone the other way, Mr. Chainnigh had won his right to op-out, I wouldn’t have been too pleased. Strange as it may sound, I actually favor the presence of monarchical rituals in Canada as long as the country remains a legal monarchy, and think it is counter-productive for Canadian republicans to try and undermine them. After all, one of the main reasons the republican movement falters is due to public apathy, and widespread ignorance of the monarchy’s role in contemporary Canada. When a Canadian is exposed to symbols of the Crown in daily life, through portraits, oaths, speeches, and other rituals, his awareness of Canada’s present status as a monarchy is raised. And with that raised awareness inevitably comes raised dissent with the status quo, as I believe most Canadians are genuinely disturbed and unsettled by deference to foreign royalty in their independent country.

An engaging battle needs a foe that is obvious and prominent, not one that is hidden or ignored. “Republicanism by stealth,” to quote the monarchist term used to describe the tactics of people like Mr. Chainnigh, hides the monarchy’s relevance and leaves us with a monarchy that is still functionally useless and abhorrent, but also difficult for the public to see and oppose. Let the monarchy be on full display, and let republicans oppose the institution in its entirety. Cut down the tree, don’t simply prune the branches.

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3 responses to “Doing republicanism the wrong way

  1. A refreshing attitude – even if lethally at odds with myself – I’m impressed. It’s rather cunning. And also rather grown-up and old-fashioned, which cannot be said for most republicans.

  2. There’s not much i would disagree with you. A very fulsome review and analysis. I object to cutting down the tree of course, but if you are favourably disposed to decorating it while it lives, with all its ornaments, trinkets and baubles, at least people will be aware of what they stand to lose.

  3. Cut down the tree. Off with her head!

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