A few days before the coronation of King Charles III, I decided to translate the article I wrote in French in 2022 if Canada should will one day become a republic.
One year later, I think it is still relevant to ask this question.
On December 2021, Barbados has officially become a republic and is killing two birds with one stone by no longer being part of the Commonwealth.
A country like Barbados, whose slavery is associated with colonization, probably had a much stronger desire to become a republic than a country like Canada. Although there was also slavery and exploitation of Black people in Canada, a good proportion of Canadians are descendants of British settlers and not descendants of Black slaves. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that we also have French and Aboriginal descendants with less attachment to the British monarchy than British descendants.
Between April 6, 2022 and May 6, 2023, there was the continued Russian breakout in Ukraine, the 3rd year fighting a deadly pandemic, the recession, numerous shootings in the United States, many deadly conflicts in Haiti, Sudan, Syrie, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
In March 2022, I had the chance to discuss with two experts in Canadian constitutional politics in order to inspire me to write a follow-up to my article of March 7, 2021.
Simon Dabin, Doctor of Political Science specializing in Aboriginal studies and Quebec and Canadian politics and Martin Papillon, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Montreal.
Is it possible to become a republic?
I return with the example of Barbados, which is a smaller country (without provinces or territories) than Canada and which was able to achieve an amicable divorce with the British kingdom.
Could Canada one day decide to become a republic and leave the Commonwealth?
I don’t think it could be that simple for a number of reasons, and both our experts agree.
Let’s just say that there are many issues at stake, including:
- The Canadian constitution;
- The presence of several royalist provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia;
- The unanimity of all the provinces for Canada to become a republic. This seems impossible (remember the Meech Lake Accord);
- If all the provinces could ever agree (I’m playing the lottery), each of them will come up with a long grocery list with many conditions.
Simon Dabin: In itself, officially, Canada is already independent. In a way, it’s clear that it’s still in the Commonwealth. But officially, it is independent. And in fact, all the Commonwealth countries have been independent since 1930.
And there, for example, Canada took an extremely long time to get a constitution, or rather more specifically to change its constitution, to amend its constitution, since it took until 1982 for that. In absolute terms, Canada could very well become a republic, although there are extremely important institutional and constitutional issues to discuss. Indeed, it would require a constitutional amendment that would require the unanimous agreement of all the provinces on this issue.
Reading this paragraph, it seems almost a like mission impossible.
Simon Dabin: In a utopian world, it is clear that in the absolute, it is possible for Canada (to become a republic). But it’s true that there is a historical and sociological attachment in English Canada that is very important, and particularly historical.
Martin Papillon: I think you have a bit of an answer. In fact, the three elements that you gave are elements that allow us to answer.
In fact, would that be a possibility?
Yes, in theory, but in practice, pragmatically, there would have to be a strong enough political will to make it happen. A political will that I don’t really see in Canada right now.
That could change, of course, but for the moment, there is no such political will.
I must admit that it is true that, at the moment, there is no political will. On the other hand, once in a while, a bit of political will can be present (we only have to think of the controversy around Governor General Julie Payette and the crazy expenses of Governor General Michaëlle Jean).
Martin Papillon: With the controversy surrounding Governor General Julie Payette, there was a small debate, but it didn’t last very long. And when the new Governor General, Mary Simon, was appointed in Quebec, there was still a small debate. Because she doesn’t speak French, but basically, these debates come and go.
I don’t see what the point would be for a federal politician to launch a campaign to make Canada a republic, to withdraw from the Commonwealth in the current context, particularly because politically, it is not very popular, but also because, as you say, there are many obstacles, there are obstacles at the constitutional level.
And if I were an advisor to a prime minister or even a party leader, I would say don’t touch this. Other priorities? There are other things that affect people more than this. This is not something that is important.
Our two experts have the same conclusion at the end of the day. It’s not an impossible mission, but it’s not worth it right now to get into this battle when there are other more pressing concerns.
If we wanted to make Canada a republic, here are the steps to take:
The constitution must be opened;
I don’t even dare to list the other steps.
As I write this sentence, I am already staring at my extra-strength Tylenol.
This leads me to ask this question:
Can we change the constitution?
Is this possible?
Simon Dabin: It is almost impossible. Or it would be a real opportunity to reopen the Constitution and have a great debate. We could very well have a Prime Minister who decides to have a great constitutional debate on Canada, where it would be an opportunity to finally have Aboriginal self-determination on one side, Quebec’s aspirations on the other, and the aspirations of Western Canada on the other. And there, indeed, it would be a great opportunity to redefine this Canada and its institutions.
An important point that Simon Dabin adds is that we are hearing more and more Aboriginal voices in our society.
This is what is very difficult in our country, consensus.
Honestly, if we decide to stay in the Commonwealth, what advantage do we have?
For Simon Dabin, the answer was very, very short: Well, not much.
He adds: It is indeed a diplomatic alliance that brings these countries together at the major Commonwealth meetings.
But what do we gain, when Canada’s greatest ally is the United States?
The role of the double G
Ah yes, the scandal of Governor General Julie Payette and, in the past, the exuberant spending of Governor General Michaëlle Jean.
We agree that the role of the Governor General is limited to calling elections and representing the Queen during various ceremonies.
Simon Dabin: But at the time of Julie Payette’s resignation, we realized that the person who replaces her, before the appointment of a new Governor General, is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It’s like a head of state with judicial power. Anyway, it’s a total confusion, even if it’s an extremely symbolic role that doesn’t really serve much purpose.
Martin Papillon: We saw this with the choice of Mary Simon, which is an important symbolic choice. And it’s not just a figure who steps aside and signs decrees, who signs laws and who receives the Prime Minister when there is a need to call elections, and who takes care of protocol ceremonies, etc.
There is obviously that in the role of the Governor General. But here, we see that there is also a role of embodying the nation, somewhat like elsewhere, as the president does in presidential systems or, in monarchical systems, the king or queen.
There is a desire to give a little more symbolic substance to this role. It’s not uninteresting, it’s not. A bad idea. Obviously, it’s controversial because you can’t please everyone. When you’re trying to embody the nation, you leave out certain points of view.
As we saw with Mary Simon, we sent a strong message to the Aboriginal people and to people who are sensitive to this cause.
God Saves the Queen or should we say God Saves the King
Speaking of stability, in our lifetime and I include my parents’, we have known the Queen. There is a sense of stability for some with this longevity. With stability comes the word attachment. These feelings are even more present for countries like Canada for reasons I listed earlier in this article. Why, for example, did Barbados say thank you to the British Royal Family?
I ventured to ask Simon and Martin this question.
Simon Dabin: There are debates on the subject, even in England. I’ve read British constitutionalists, for example, who believe that what keeps the monarchy together even in the United Kingdom today is the Queen. It is that this character is almost iconic and historical. There is a sense that she has always been there and will always be there. Some British constitutionalists think that the monarchy is only popular because of her.
Especially since Prince Charles is much less popular than his mother. The feeling of belonging to the British monarchy could drop when Prince Charles becomes king. But what’s really fascinating about Canada is that, as far as I know, there’s been very little debate about this (republic). Yes, brought by Quebec, of course, by the Patriots in their time and also by a number of English Canadians in the early 20th century.
It is true that we must never forget that historically, apart from the Francophones, Canada was created by the Loyalists. This is what changes a lot of things historically and sociologically. Canada, at least for the Anglophones, was created by people who refused the American revolution.
Martin Papillon shares Simon’s opinion:
Martin Papillon: It’s not a problem. There is not this feeling of insecurity about the British Crown in Canada, as there was in the past. it’s not a political issue that I think is making waves, except with people who want to defend the monarchy.
There is still an attachment to the British monarchy in Canada, including in Quebec, although not as strong, but it is still there. And so, on the contrary, I would say that the most mobilized people will defend the monarchy rather than defend a vague idea of a Republic which is not very well defined in the end.
Especially since if we replace the British monarchy, we would have to replace it with something else. There would have to be a governor general or a president of the republic. Here the question arises: would it be someone with political power or not? Or would it simply be, as in some parliamentary regimes, someone who would have a regalian function, a bit like the queen in the end.
So, finally, we would change, we would change “four quarters for a dollar”.
But what is the point of questioning?
For some time now, more people have been asking questions following the disaster of the Cambridge’s Caribbean tour, the Prince Andrew’s sexual scandal that the British media doesn’t seem to cover a lot, the way The Firm treated the Sussex and made an invisible contract with the tabloids to feed them to the wolves for obvious reasons, a king fussing about a fountain pen, a family of 5 living in I don’t know how many houses while British taxpayers are trying to support themselves and their families during a precarious time.
The list could go on and on.
King Charles is less popular than Queen Elizabeth. On the other hand, in some environmental issues, he is a little more pragmatic than his mother. Young people today are a little less attached to the monarchy. That could perhaps raise other questions.
Martin Papillon: For this to change anything, there would have to be either a real political advantage or the future monarch would have to start doing stupid things.
When there is a change of monarch, there is always a debate.
A bit like here, every time there is a change of generation, there is a questioning that takes place. Of course, I’m sure that in the United Kingdom, it’s a bit the same thing.
The popularity of the Royal Family fluctuates and this debate will undoubtedly take place in Canada as well. But again, I think that for there to be a real questioning of our attachment to the Commonwealth, the next monarch would have to play his cards very badly and alienate the public.
In 2023, does the picture you see still have a place in our society?
Does demonstrating a spirit of colonization still have a place in our society?
I have my personal answer to these two questions.
What is your answer?