History Wars update: Monarchy is a dangerous anachronism
March 16, 2012 – On Wednesday March 14, 2012, Michael Bliss and John Fraser debated the resolution, Monarchy is a dangerous anachronism, with moderator Jack Granatstein at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In case you missed the debate, you can watch it tonight on CPAC at 9 pm or tomorrow, March 17, at 10 am. You can also read Bliss and Fraser’s opening statements published in the Ottawa Citizen below as well as Anthony Furey’s take on the debate in the Ottawa Sun (click here for link to article).
Is the monarchy an anachronism?
By John Fraser, Ottawa Citizen, March 15, 2012
Wednesday night at the Museum of Civilization, in an event presented by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, sponsored by the Citizen, and moderated by Jack Granatstein, historian Michael Bliss and journalist John Fraser debated whether ‘The monarchy is a dangerous anachronism.’ Today, Fraser argues against the resolution. In Friday’s paper, Bliss argues in favour.
Let me try to explain why the resolution is such an irritation and the reasons why I support the continuation of the Crown in our country. Let’s start with the word “monarchy.” I don’t actually think most people in Canada think they live under a monarchy. It just doesn’t sound right. We don’t hear the phrase “Canadian monarchy” said. We don’t read it. We don’t think it. We don’t sense it. At the same time, we also don’t think of ourselves as a republic, or even a de facto republic. The phrase “Republic of Canada” sounds weird and alien, even more weird and alien than “The Monarchy of Canada.”
So what do we have and who are we and what can we call our system? Because we certainly have a Queen who wears a crown and who has an heir who may yet become a king. In Ottawa and Gatineau, in this demi-paradise of civil servants, politicians and saintly ex-governor generals, I humbly offer this convoluted definition of the True North Strong and Free:
Canada is a loose confederation of uptight provinces with strong regional anxieties, united primarily by geography, cold weather, a bifractured cultural history, and a tradition of an evolving parliamentary democracy wrapped around an obscured but undeniable notion of the Crown. It is a notion that riddles our history and constitutional record, but it is nevertheless featured in everything from seemingly half of our place names and schools and streets and theatres, to vice regal appointees and royal assent for legislation, and also through things such as Crown land, Crown attorneys and Crown highways. Outsiders notice this all the time, but we take it mostly for granted. It’s us.
Next up in this motion, I take issue with the word “dangerous.” This is seriously silly stuff. I want to meet the Canadians who woke up shivering with fear in their beds when they realized that Elizabeth the Second was still on the throne. I want to meet the poor sod terrified to drop off to sleep at night by the thought that the governor general might make the prime minister wait two hours before allowing the prorogation of Parliament. I need to meet the aesthete terrorized by the prospect of ever having a conversation with Prince Charles on the subject of genetically modified tomatoes.
The only actual “danger” I can see attached to the Crown in Canada is that we can be made to look like a bunch of immature children for not recognizing its value to us historically, or a bunch of irresponsible meddlers who want to fix something that is not broken.
I also take exception to the word “anachronism,” to the contempt implicit in its use, to the abdication from our own everyday reality that it represents. There have been so many attempts to diminish the role of the Crown in Canada over the past few decades. When Prof. Bliss and I last debated this issue, it was before the current government had started to put in place such changes as returning the royal moniker to two branches of our armed forces. My view is the government has simply returned to regular use symbols that were removed without any real prior consent and were part of the fabric of Canada, and give us some clear delineation between ourselves and our continental chums south of the border.
So let us look at the United States. In a very real sense, it seems to me that they keep reelecting George III. When the Americans had their revolution and set about defining their new head of state, they modelled it on a Hanoverian monarch, except it was to be elected indirectly by a College of Electors.
Many of the powers of the American presidency today – from appointing his own cabinet without reference to a legislature or to declaring a state of war – can be traced to the 18th century. I am not the first to point out that there is rigidity to the office of the president that we have not been afflicted with thanks to the evolving nature of the Crown.
Back in Canada, we have learned some important things about ourselves and about the Crown since I last debated Prof. Bliss in Toronto. One of the things is the resiliency of the notion of the Crown. I think this is partly thanks to the unalloyed pleasure so many people took in the gracious young couple, William and Kate, who so successfully travelled across the country, but also to the clear sense of duty and service of our Queen, which this year’s Diamond Jubilee helps us to focus on.
I am bemused by the vaguely respectful republican argument that the Queen can stay Queen of Canada while she lives, but once she leaves her mortal coil, it will be the appropriate time to replace her as head of state with another system. We won’t do it now because we are polite and she’s done such a good job, but once she has died we can start frothing at the mouth and set about choosing our first elected president, or perhaps appointed president, or perhaps no president at all. But first, let’s have a jolly referendum just like Australia had and check out all the fault lines in the country which we have worked so hard to keep in check lo these many years.
And what about Australia? They did have that referendum in 1999 on whether to abolish the monarchy and it turned out not at all to be about the monarchy but the ugly feelings Australians had about the central government’s desire to dominate regional politics. Better the devil known than the one unknown is not really a stirring argument on behalf of the Crown, but it still operates as a motivating force. If you don’t believe me, hold a referendum.
Instead, I am arguing that we continue along the way that has helped define our country as it has come to all of us. Our Queen is the latest link in a long golden chain that connects the Canadian story. The mystery and magic behind our constitutional arrangements are all tied to a hereditary monarchy. It is our past, which if denied, will confound our future; it is our dignity, which if cast carelessly aside, will make us a crasser people; it is the protection of our rights, which if abandoned, could lead to demagogic manipulation or excess. Most important of all, the Crown defines our uniqueness and is evidence of a mature community than can carry forward its history and heritage and uniqueness with pride.
John Fraser is the master of Massey College in Toronto and author of The Secret of the Crown, out this month from House of Anansi Press.
Is the monarchy an anachronism?
By Michael Bliss, Ottawa Citizen, March 16, 2012
Wednesday night at the Museum of Civilization, in an event presented by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, sponsored by the Citizen, and moderated by Jack Granatstein, historian Michael Bliss and journalist John Fraser debated whether ‘The monarchy is a dangerous anachronism.’ On Thursday, Fraser argued against the resolution. Today, Bliss argues in favour.
God save this Queen. No one would dispute the remarkable service Queen Elizabeth II has given during the long years of her reign. The monarchy is also a fine symbol of Canada’s history and of our progress from British colony to national independence. The crisis of the monarchy in Canada will come when Elizabeth leaves the throne.
It is surely an anachronism that in 21st-century Canada, no Canadian can aspire to be our country’s head of state. The head of state of Canada has to be a member of the hereditary Royal Family of Great Britain. Our head of state will be the person who by accident of birth, not for any other reason, happens to be King or Queen of Great Britain. That person must also be a member of the Church of England. No Catholics, atheists, Confucians, Muslims, Jews, or Canadians need apply. Until the succession law is actually changed, royal women are discriminated against. Afterwards all other women are still excluded.
The utter absurdity of this situation explains why most Canadians are indifferent to the monarchy, notwithstanding the Queen’s successes, dedication, and longevity. Those who care about such matters might take comfort in pointing out that our de facto head of state is really the governor general, and our G-Gs since Vincent Massey have been a group of Canadians of commendable ethnic and religious diversity, also of geographical and intellectual diversity.
Some Canadians believe that the monarchy, through the governor general, is a source of constitutional strength and stability. The governor general is the ultimate defender of Canadians’ freedoms against arbitrary or dictatorial rule. Freedom in Canada wears a crown, at least in theory.
Constitutionally we require the governor general to decide when a prime minister is abusing the powers of the office in its relationship with Parliament. In a real way, Michaëlle Jean exercised awesome power when she chose in 2008 to sustain the Harper government against the opposition’s plan to form a coalition and take power.
Unfortunately, the governor general, and the monarchy itself, are now in a dangerous situation in which indifference by Canadians could easily give way to outright antagonism.
There are three reasons for this. First, because of its hereditarian, anachronistic characteristics, the monarchy has lost whatever unifying role it may or may not have played in our history. Just ask French-Canadians if they feel more Canadian because of the British monarchy. Ask immigrants. Ask the young. Ask virtually any Canadian who is not of British ethnic descent.
Second, a hereditarian monarchy in the age of celebrity and democracy can only be as credible as genetic transmission allows. In this regard the British House of Windsor has had some unfortunate tendencies. Think how near England – and Canada – came to having a Nazi sympathizer as king in the 1930s. In this era few Canadians are inclined to celebrate the prospect of King Charles III of Canada. I predict that there will be somewhat of a political and constitutional crisis in Canada if Charles suddenly succeeds his mother on the throne and the Canadian people are told that the matter is none of their business.
Third and most important, the office of the governor general does not have even the credibility that iron laws of heredity vaguely supply. Our governor general is a political appointee, a creature of the prime minister. No matter how exemplary the process, no matter how excellent the outcome, any governor general would be crippled by the office’s dependence in a confrontation with a prime minister. In the long run it cannot work to have a referee appointed by the home team. In the 21st century we should be concerned that we no longer have what was once a useful check on prime ministerial absolutism.
It’s too bad that the Harper government has tried to buy shortterm popularity by making support for the monarchy a partisan issue. A government seriously in tune with the long-term evolution of the country would be quietly laying the groundwork for a dignified phasing out of the monarchy, the last relic of our colonialism.
We should retire the royals. Let’s free this family from the miseries of celebrity and leave them alone to make something of their lives. We should institute in our Constitution a process of selecting a Canadian head of state, a governor general or a president of the republic of Canada, in whom our people have confidence and respect.
Michael Bliss is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
- The Macdonald-Laurier Institute Presents History Wars: Four Debates on Canada’s History CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR DEBATE #4 THE EVENT History Wars is a series of...
- Update from our latest History Wars debate: Does power corrupt Canadian Prime Ministers? On May 10, 2012, we held the final History Wars debate of the season. In...
- First History Wars debate on the legacy of Pierre Trudeau: Success! September 28, 2011 – Yesterday evening, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted the first History Wars debate at the Canadian...
- First debate of History Wars will air this Saturday Oct. 1st at 8:30am on CPAC If you missed the first debate of History Wars, you can now watch it this Saturday October 1st at...
- The Queen of Canada Visits The Queen of Canada visits. We’re delighted to see her. And then she leaves. It’s...
Please note that the link above was live when posted. Older links may no longer be functional.