Another eccentric oddball republican has stumbled into the media spotlight this week, and with him comes more bad press for Canada’s legitimate republicans.
I distinguish between the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” on the following basis. The legitimate republican is one who seeks to get rid of the Queen because he understands constitutional monarchy to be a poor and ineffective system of government, and desires something better for his nation and its people. An illegitimate republican, by contrast, pursues the goal soley to satisfy his own narrow obsessions and hang-ups. He hates the monarchy because he feels personally slighted in some way by it, and he fights a republican crusade that is entirely about himself.
Charles Roach is an idividual of the latter category. A black man from Trinidad and Tobago, Roach immigrated to Canada way back in 1955, and has lived in the country continually since then, under permanent resident status. Roach does not want to become a citizen of Canada because that entails taking an oath to Elizabeth II, something Mr. Roach, with his outspoken black-nationalist anti-imperial credentials is not willing to tolerate.
In a snarky editorialon the matter, Mark Steyn quotes Mr. Roach as declaring:
[we blacks] were colonized as a people by the British throne, and we were enslaved as a people by the British throne and, to me, taking an oath to the monarch of Great Britain, without any disrespect to the Queen herself as a person, is like asking a Holocaust survivor to take an oath to a descendant of Hitler.
So he never did take the oath, and has recently tried to lawsuit his way out of it, suing the government of Canada on the basis that their oath violates his Charter right to freedom of conscience. The case was thrown out by a Federal Court in 1994, but Mr. Roach evidently tried again many years later, and yesterday his case was heard and accepted by the Court of Appeals of Ontario (I don’t quite understand the exact legal process Mr. Roach has gone through to get to this point. Media stories have glossed over the details, and the Court of Appeals has not yet published their judgement). The government of Canada fought vigorously to have the hearing dismissed, but with yesterday’s ruling Mr. Roach’s Charter challenge will now be heard. The hope is that the court will proceed to rule the oath invalid, presumably setting the stage to allow Mr. Roach to become a citizen through some other less-offensive formality.
I guess I am somewhat sympathetic to the main thrust of Mr. Roach’s argument, namely that the monarchy is a symbolically ugly institution to a lot of people, possessing unpleasant history and baggage that transcends Canada’s fresh new world identity. And the sneering opposition that Mr. Roach has faced from monarchists continues to show just how nativist and ethnocentric the other side can be.
But the fact remains that this case is really about Roach himself, and Mr. Roach is not an ordinary guy. The National Post summarizes:
Represented by his lawyer and daughter Kikelola Roach, Mr. Roach, 74, is an unusual plaintiff, and not just because he is a lawyer himself. A prominent black activist and founder of Toronto’s Caribana festival, he has in the past sued police for false arrest and won $512 in damages. He sued a local politician and NOW Magazine, a free Toronto weekly, for libelling him as anti-Semitic. He successfully defended his friend and fellow activist Dudley Laws on a sexual-assault charge and led the campaign to label former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae a racist for bringing the Barnes Exhibit to Toronto in 1994, because Dr. Albert Barnes’ significant collection of African art was not included in the popular show. [ed note- the Post has since printed a retraction claiming the bit about seeking to label Mr. Rae a racist was untrue.]
So he’s clearly something of a professional activist-type. And ultrasensitive to boot. The man has motivations and agendas which are clearly all his own, and his latest venture seems to be more of the same. The monarchy is bad because I don’t like it, and I am the most important person in this story.
Citizens for a Canadian Republic, an organization I hold titular office in, often frustrates me for its willingness to embrace republicans of Mr. Roach’s stripe rather unquestioningly. Every dude to emerge from the woodwork who is willing to sue the Queen one some ridiculous charge or another gets his moment in the sun, and is held up as the movement’s new poster boy de jure.
It’s entirely understandable on the one hand. Canadian republicanism is still searching for its “breakthrough” moment after all, and affixing oneself to a high-profile personality can be a great boon to the cause. But riding coattails has its downside as well. If the individual in question is a kook of whatever sort, then the entire republican movement becomes tainted by association. We cease to become a legitimate movement to establish a republic for all the right reasons, and instead transform into a mere soapbox for various loud individuals to stand upon when they need to add some official gloss to their largely one-man crusades.
Monarchist pundits, like Mr. Steyn, are then able to hold up these men as case studies and legitimately ask if the overzealous, attention-seeking antics of folks like Mr. Roach represent the sort of principles that Canadians really want to see in their constitution. It plays into the age old cliche of nutty republicans versus sensible, dignified royalists.
Republicanism is already the option favored by most Canadians, few of whom are motivated by agendas or rhetoric as extreme as Mr. Roach’s, or Captain Mac Giolla Chainnigh, whom I blogged about earlier. A republican movement will only be successful when it is able to present itself as the most moderate, common-sense alternative, not when it tries to out-crazy the crazies.