Canada’s Queen brings greetings from Britain

Since 1957, it has been customary for Her Majesty the Queen to give an annual, televised Christmas greeting. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the tradition, and, more importantly, it was also the first time her message was posted on YouTube.

And it was nice. I’m not contrarian to the point where I would deny that. One thing I always admire is how the Queen is probably among the last heads of state on Earth who can still get away with offering an explicit Christmas greeting from an unabashedly Christian perspective. It’s always refreshing in these politically correct “Happy Holidays” times of ours.

But, as usual, the Queen’s message was also very British centric, despite being ostensibly directed to “the Commonwealth.” We got to watch some British soldiers in Afghanistan under the Union Jack, and saw footage of the dedication of Britain’s new National Memorial Arboretum—both sights which are not terribly relevant or moving unless you happen to be a resident of the British isles.

A better speech would have thrown in some footage of the various things Her Maj did around the Commonwealth this year, such as when she dedicated the restored Canadian Vimy Ridge monument in April, or visited Uganda in November. But this is the one speech a year that the Queen writes entirely herself, and she seems to know that her audience consists of mostly elderly British BBC viewers.

Take a look at that header on the YouTube channel too, by the way. Official channel of the British Monarchy, not the Commonwealth monarchy or Canadian monarchy or Jamaican monarchy or anything else.

I remember this great quote by Richard Nixon where he said that it didn’t matter if the domino theory was wrong, because the dominoes themselves believed it. The supposed Commonwealth monarchy embodied by Queen Elizabeth may no longer be a solely British institution, but the institution itself seems to believe otherwise.

The Beginning of the End of the Elizabethian Era

Queen Elizabeth II formally became the oldest person to ever serve as monarch of the United Kingdom today. Until now, Queen Victoria held the record at 81 years and 243 days, but the present Queen is now officially one day older.

All commemorations of the Queen’s achievement beg an uncomfortable, underlying question. How much longer until she dies? It’s a very morbid matter to ponder, but the monarchy is by definition a rather morbid institution, and death is a routine part of its proper functioning. The Queen’s eventual death will undoubtedly trigger enormous constitutional controversy—and possibly even crisis—across the Commonwealth, and will likely usher in an intense wave of debate on the future of the Crown. It’s therefore a perfectly reasonable eventuality to speculate about, and so speculate I will.

It’s worth noting that of course I do not eagerly anticipate the Queen’s death, and I don’t bear the Queen any personal ill will. On the contrary, I think any reasonable person, be they republican or monarchist, liberal or conservative, will readily acknowledge that Elizabeth II is one of the great figures of the 20th Century, and an enormously important symbolic persona of our era, even if her political relevance was limited and flawed. I also think, however, that history will almost certainly record her as the “last great monarch” of England, and a fitting bookend to Britain’s long era of Empire and monarchy. The Queen’s death will thus not be an orderly, formulaic, or unspectacular affair, the way the deaths of her father and grandfather were. It will instead be an enormously emotional episode, in which it will be brazenly obvious to all that a definitive era has concluded, and we are now entering an uncertain twilight period.

The irony of the Queen’s success as a constitutional monarch is that she has actually done a disservice to the long-term survival of the Crown by so successfully centralizing the entire institution in her own person. All of the royal poise, dignity, formality, and aloofness that monarchists love so much and claim are inherent values of the monarchy are really just the values that Elizabeth the individual have brought to the job. They will likely die with her. The Queen’s family, as we all know, is a highly dysfunctional and decidedly undignified brood, and in the modern era embarrassed monarchists have largely cut them out of the equation in detailing “what the monarchy is,” in favor of exclusively focusing on the elderly and delightfully out-of-touch Queen.  But as Elizabeth ages, it is Charles, Camilla, and the two playboy princes who are poised to inherit the Queen’s world, and will be thoroughly incapable of sustaining it, either on a personal or institutional level. The present Queen does not give interviews, has kept her political views largely hidden, and enjoys the admiration of a deferential media that does not dare gossip about her eccentricities, intellect, or sex life. This cannot be said of any of her successors.

Once this gang takes over, the post-Elizabeth monarchy will thus become a mundane, uninspiring, born-and-bred creature of Tabloid culture, headed by people who are depressingly ordinary and unsettlingly human. King Charles or William or whoever will be constantly compared unfavorably to the Last Great Queen, and everyone will be unhappy and worse off. The Commonwealth realms will wonder why we are bothering to enshrine a boring British man as our Head of State, and the Brits will ask the same. The late 2010’s or 20’s could see the Crown die an undignified death at its lowest moment. 

One has to resist the urge for schadenfreude. It would be nice for all involved if there could be some sort of negotiated, polite end to the British monarchy in both Britain and the Commonwealth, in which the institution could be calmly dissoveled upon the passing (or, ideally, abdication) of Elizabeth II. It could be an agreement reached by negotiation and consensus, preserving the pride of all affected parties.

She’s been around for 81 years, but Queen Elizabeth show can’t continue forever. The sooner we prepare for the post-Elizabeth period, the sooner we can ensure that the greatness of the woman is honored by a dignified conclusion to her era, rather than an arduous and muddled  mess.

I advise you to obey

I’ve often fought with monarchist editors on Wikipedia over the accuracy of certain statements regarding the political role of the crown in Canada. They (or more specifically, he, since it tends to largely just be a single overzealous person) insist that every mention of a political appointment in Canada be phrased something like this:

So-and-so was appointed by Governor General Romeo LeBlanc in 1994 on the advice of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Only in the most rigidly legalistic sense is this statement even remotely true, however. When a normal person thinks of “advice” one thinks of a sort of negotiation of ideas and opinions, as in, say, giving a friend advice on redecorating. You’d express your opinion to your friend, he would respond, either by rejecting, agreeing, or compromising.

If your advice was accepted 100% of the time, and was never questioned, you wouldn’t really be giving advice at all, however. You’d simply be bossing a subservient person around, which is a fairly good description of the dynamic between the Prime Minister of Canada and the Governor General.

Since no empirical test will ever prove otherwise, I think there’s nothing wrong with stating in sites like Wikipedia that “the Prime Minister appoints the Senate” or “the Prime Minister appoints the Supreme Court.” Indeed, to state otherwise is actually far more deceptive, since it implies that the GG and PM are somehow both important figures in the decision-making process, when really only the latter is. But monarchists prefer fantasy to reality, and will mention the Crown as constantly as possible to create the illusion of relevance and hide the fact that they lack the real thing.  

 Anyway, the only reason I mention all this is because of an amusing little editorial in today’s National Post. Detailing an “irreverent history of the Senate,” Larry Zolf proudly mentions that he himself has never solicited a Senate seat from a Prime Minister, except once:

In the 1980s, Senator Andrew Thompson was hiding in Mexico while being paid handsomely by the Canadian taxpayer. Senator Thompson’s poor attendance record soon became a front-page news story.

At the retirement party of governor-general Romeo LeBlanc, I saw prime minister Jean Chretien alone at the pastry table. I walked up and said: “Prime Minister, put me in the Senate and I will solve your Senator Thompson attendance problem.” “How will you do that?” Chretien asked quietly. “Simple, Prime Minister, I’ll live, eat and sleep in the red chamber and never leave the place.”

Chretien shrugged. He never put me in the Senate. 

Ho ho. Anyway, I just found this anecdote quite amusing for unintentional reasons. Zolf is at a party where both the Governor General and Prime Minister are in attendance, yet when he wants a Senate seat, who does he dash straight for?

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.

Queen as unifier watch

According to monarchist logic, a monarch is supposed to be superior to a president because while the later is an elected, and therefore divisive figure, the former is “above politics” and therefore a figure of unity.

This is almost never true in practice, however. Indeed, it is hard to think of a head of state who has been more consistently controversial, polarizing and divisive than Elizabeth II. The Queen was once head of state in 33 countries. Today, only 15 remain, and the question is when, not if, that number will further decrease. In her 56-year reign, the Queen has consistently bred an ever-increasing climate of division within her realms, giving her a track record of “fostering unity” that is rather shoddy at best. Though to be fair, it’s not really Elizabeth‘s fault. She’s not unpopular because of anything she, you know, actually says or does, but simply because she exists.

The very fact that people self-identify as “republicans” and “monarchists” today is evidence of the crown’s failure to unify. Indeed, only in a monarchy is the very legitimacy of the office of the head of state itself so thoroughly contested. One does not speak of the pro and anti “presidentialists” in a republic, mostly because a presidency is a flexible and democratic institution. In a monarchy, you’re pretty much stuck with the royal family you’ve got, and woe if that particular royal family happens to rub you the wrong way. Which it does to a great many.

These days the monarchy is sustained in the Commonwealth realms largely by keeping Her Majesty out of the spotlight as much as possible. The less visible the crown, the less controversial and divisive its continued existence will be, or so the logic seems to go. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising to hear that the Queen was evidently not invited to Quebec’s 400th birthday celebrations, set to kick-off in July of 2008. Her Majesty has never been terribly popular in Quebec, where the monarchy has come to be seen as an embarrassing reminder of French Canada’s historic subservience to English power. She has visited the province exactly twice in her reign, once in 1964, where she was greeted by mass protests and riots led by French-Canadian nationalists, and once in 1987, in a decidedly more modest and brief affair. As the 2008 events will likely be a celebration of French Canadian nationalism and pride unparalleled in recent history, the federal and provincial governments appear eager to avoid stirring up a potential hornet’s nest by inviting a divisive symbol associated with Quebec‘s hated “old order.”One can certainly criticize the often insular nature of French Canadian nationalism, but honestly, are there any countries outside of the Commonwealth in which inviting the head of the state—the supposed supreme symbolic leader of your country—to a public celebration would be such a worrisome and awkward occasion?

Monarchists like to criticize the so-called phenomenon of “republicanism by stealth” in which references to the Crown are quietly removed from public life without much notice or fanfare. But really, such stealthy moves may do far more to perpetuate the monarchy than weaken it. After all, the bureaucrats and politicians who favor shuffling the Queen off  Quebec‘s guest list likely are motivated by a genuine desire to protect Her Majesty from embarrassment, and thus protect the institution. A true republican would welcome the Queen’s participation, and let everyone witness the wonderful things our present head of state can do for Canadian unity.

The Governor General, Poodle of the Bureaucracy

I do pity the Governor General at times. There is an enormous amount of public ignorance surrounding her office, which gives rise to all manner of unrealistic expectations about what she can and can’t do. Then, when the GG fails to meet those expectations, she becomes a lightning rod for criticism. It’s all tremendously unfair, because in most cases the Governor General is a hapless figure, thoroughly irresponsible and ignorant of the many decisions which are made in her name.

Take for example, the present petty scandal over the case of the late Constable Christopher Garrett, a police officer from Cobourg, Ontario.  

In May of 2004 Garrett was dispatched to respond to what turned out to be a bogus robbery tip, set up by a deranged teenager named Troy Davey. Having lured him into his trap, Davey proceeded to slit the officer’s throat . Before bleeding to death, Garrett managed to shoot Davey in the leg, badly wounding the teen, who was later arrested after checking into an emergency room.  

Garrett was celebrated as a town hero in the aftermath of his death. It was later revealed that Davey had been planning to go on a massive cop-killing spree that day, including a stopover to bomb the police station. By giving his own life, Garrett was heralded as having nipped a potential massacre in the bud.

The community figured that Garrett should get some sort of posthumous medal for his actions, namely the Governor General’s Cross of Valour, which is Canada’s highest decoration for bravery. According to the GG’s website, it recognizes “acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.”

Rideau Hall does not just hand these things out, however. First the relevant police department (in this case) is expected to do a thorough investigation of the nominee, to verify all the facts of the case, and determine if the individual in question meets their criteria for being sufficiently “brave”. Problem is, this takes time, and the Canadian legal system does not always make all the facts of a case readily available for public consumption.

So there is inevitable conflict with Rideau Hall’s rather odd demand that all medal applications be verified and awarded within “two years” of the incident. Considering that Mr. Davey was only convicted in February of 2007, it was therefore impossible to gather the necessary information in time for Constable Garrett to be able to receive his posthumous award.

His supporters submitted a late application anyway, but it was promptly rejected by Rideau Hall earlier this month. The rejection has proceeded to trigger a tidal wave of indignation and protest, including petitions from police officers and letters from politicians, all directed at Governor General Michaelle Jean personally.

And of course, the punditocracy has hardly  been silent either:

Says Don Martin of the National Post:

“…our ‘hot’ Governor General has become a bit of a ‘not’ recently, and this procedural inflexibility won’t polish her once-glowing aura. […] If Ms. Jean continues to dig in her heels on a stuffy point of protocol, might I suggest our law-and-order Prime Minister demand she bend the rules so that Const. Garrett can receive his well-deserved medal posthumously.”

…says Colby Cosh, again in the Post:

“One can’t help feeling that this is what comes of trying to fit a liberal, someone of inherently republican sentiments and instincts, into an office that symbolizes monarchical tradition.”

…and even harsher words from Joe Warmington in the Toronto Sun:

“[If I ever] get within earshot of Her Majesty, I will ask her to relieve Michaelle Jean from her duties immediately and send her back to the CBC where she can find out how frustrating it is to cover the lack of logic and pure stupidity of the likes of her.”

Amid all the hubbub and whining about the Governor General, one huge fact goes unmentioned. The Governor General does not award medals.

Medals in Canada, from the Order of Canada on down, are actually awarded by various secret boards of shadowy figures. In the case of medals for bravery, such as the Cross of Valour, the medals are doled out by something known as the “Canadian Decorations Advisory Committee.” Their board consists of:

The Clerk of the Privy Council
-The Secretary to the Governor General
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of Canadian Heritage
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defense
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of Transportation
-The Commissioner of the RCMP
-“up to four additional members” (it is unclear who any of these are at present)

It’s quite remarkable how bureaucratic-dominated these boards are. Nary a single elected representative to be found on most of them. But that’s another issue.  The bigger story this mini-scandal should highlight is just how useless the Governor General really is, even from a monarchist perspective.

We generally accept that the Governor General is a figurehead, in the sense that most of her powers are non-political and ceremonial. But what’s less well-known is that even her figurehead duties are largely delegated to other people. Duties such as granting pardons, giving royal assent, and handing out medals are all jobs which are outsourced to other individuals, who then make decisions in the GG’s name.

The Governor General has no medals which she can award unilaterally; it’s all done by committees which she does not even sit on. Contrast that to say, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States, which is awarded “at the sole discretion of the President.”

The problem with constitutional monarchy is that the monarch, and by extension, her representatives, have no real public legitimacy or mandate to do anything. Because the Governor General and Queen are unelected and unaccountable, they are constitutionally distrusted and given virtually no independent powers of their own. At best, they can only meekly obey the orders given by agents of the political class.

Of course, this breeds new problems, because the institutions that arise to boss the Governor General around are often not terribly accountable to the public either (who the hell knows who the Deputy Minister of Transportation is? And why is he in charge of deciding who our country’s greatest heroes are?).

At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is the simple fact that we don’t really have a head of state in Canada, in any serious sense. We have a person who prances around and acts as a head of state for photo-op purposes, but all powers of the office (even the seemingly insignificant ones) are exercised by either politicians or bureaucrats.

When Canada ditches the monarchy and gets a republican head of state, one hopes he or she will be far less of a poodle of the bureaucracy, and more trusted to exercise powers and discretion in an independent manner. I suspect this would indeed be the case, because, as mentioned, at present the “institutional distrust” of the Governor General—ie, the fact that we have all these bureaucratic structures built up to prevent the GG from being involved in any sort of decision-making process—is largely a predictable result of having a head of state who is not selected democratically. Since we live in a democratic society an elected head of state would enjoy public legitimacy in making decisions, even if they were the wrong ones. And if she did make the wrong ones, we could at least vote her out or impeach her, rather than having to fantasize about lobbying the Queen to do so.

It will interesting to see how medal-gate eventually plays out. Someone may step in to make a decision and see that the late Constable Garrett receives his Cross of Valour somehow. But I can assure you, no matter what eventually happens, it won’t be our powerless Governor General who makes the decision.

 

Greetings

My name is J.J. Among other things, I am now the Vancouver head of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, a Canadian movement which champions the novel idea that Canada should be a republic with an elected Canadian serving as our country’s head of state, rather than a monarchy with the British Queen as head of state, as we are at present.

I have a lot to say about the topic of republicanism in Canada, yet I’ve lacked a good forum in which to do it. I don’t want to clog my other site with it, because I know the issue can get tiresome for the disinterested. Taking inspiration from my good pal Lewis, who leads the republican movement in his country of New Zealand, I thus decided to create this, a new blog in which I can comment on contemporary issues involving crown and country as they relate to Canada.