This past weekend, there was a widely broadcast interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, hosted by Oprah Winfrey. The interview accused the institution of the British monarchy of being mentally and emotionally toxic, racist, and a form of imprisonment. I won’t go into a full breakdown of the interview–frankly, the idea that the British royal family has issues shouldn’t be news to anyone, and both Meghan and Oprah demonstrated lack of understanding of royal protocols and British legal precedent that would have added some nuance to the discussion.
What I am going to focus on, specifically from the Canadian context, is the questions that invariably arise at times like these: Why do we keep the monarchy? Can’t we just get rid of them? And if we do, what would that look like?
Current Role of the Monarchy
First, we’ll need a brief introduction to some basics of Canadian politics, and political science. We have three branches of government: judicial, legislative and executive. In the USA, these three branches are completely separate. In Canada, things are a little more complicated. The judicial branch stands alone in the form of the Supreme Court of Canada, but the Prime Minister has many of the executive powers as well as being the head of the legislative branch. The Prime Minister is considered the “Head of Government”.
However, constitutionally we are a monarchy and the Head of State is the Queen or King of Canada. At this time, the Queen of Canada is Elizabeth II (as a quick aside, I had a political science prof in university who included the question of what Elizabeth II’s title was in a second year Canadian politics midterm exam and included the Queen of England and the Queen of Canada as possible answers—a distressing number of students fell for the trick and selected Queen of England, which is definitely one of Elizabeth II’s titles, but emphatically not her title in our Constitution). Since the Queen of Canada generally resides across the Atlantic Ocean, her representative at the federal level is the Governor General.
The Head of State in Canada largely holds ceremonial and symbolic power, though there are a few key decisions made every now and then around issues like proroguing Parliament and allowing a coalition of opposition parties to form the government. Most of the time, the Governor General plays it safe, but occasionally some of the decision have caused controversy.
Can We Get Rid Of The Monarchy?
In theory, we can in fact get rid of the monarchy in fairly short order–all it would require is a constitutional amendment. The issue is complicated, however, that due to Canada being a federation, the provinces have certain inviolable rights–and to make a change to the Constitution consent by many of the provinces is necessary. Due to legal precedent and some quite clever work on behalf of constitutional lawyers, Quebec has an effective veto, so if Quebec doesn’t agree then an amendment doesn’t fly. Whether the necessary provincial assent could be secured probably depends on what the proposed alternative to monarchy was.
The Cast-Off Alternative
The first alternative to monarchy is…nothing. This is a situation where we amend the Constitution so that there is no monarch and no equivalent Head of State. I personally consider this the least likely alternative because it would give the Prime Minister even more power and given the extent to which our legislature and executive branches are combined, and the degree of party whipping allowed, I don’t see opposition parties going for this. On the provincial level, this would also mean that Lieutenant Governors would cease to exist, and Premiers would have increased power–which again, might appeal to the Premiers in question but the provincial legislatures would not find it quite so appealing.
The Other Monarch Alternative
The second alternative to the current monarchy is to simply create our own “homegrown” monarchy. This has the benefit of keeping things largely the same in terms of division of powers–but the tax costs for a Canadian Royal Family would be immense, and choosing a family to become royalty would probably be a lot more trouble than it was worth.
The Presidential Alternative
The final alternative to our current system is to create an elected Presidential position. This is the route many European countries have taken upon getting fed up with their respective royal families and actually tends to work quite well. Quite simply, a President is elected for a fixed term to serve as “Head of State” which basically means doing everything our current Governor General does–largely ceremonial with occasional judgment calls in limited areas. Everything else stays the same–ie. we still keep our Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister maintains most of the real power in such an arrangement. This is probably the most realistic alternative though certain questions would have to be answered for the Canadian context.
As mentioned above, because we’re a federation we’d have to address the Lieutenant Governor roles at the provincial level–whether there would be elected Presidents there too, or whether there would be delegates appointed by the elected federal President. Another issue would be around partisanship–a President who was at the beck and call of a political party could very well become a major problem–so how to elect an official who wouldn’t be partisan would have to be addressed. All the same, if we DID decide to cast off our current monarchy, replacing the Head of State with a President would probably be the most likely alternative and the easiest to gain assent and support for.
Whether any of this will ever happen is, of course, a matter of perennial debate–but it’s good to have a picture of what it could look like so that we can be prepared if this does come to pass.