Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thoughts on a Canadian republic

Even though it’s a reality I’ve lived with for years, sometimes, I admit, it seems hard for me to believe that, technically, I live in a kingdom. That seems like a storybook idea, or something from centuries ago. I suppose it’s because kings and queens seem so remote from real life and politics, where once they held centre stage. But it’s a fact. Canada is a constitutional monarchy.

My history of monarchist sentiment

Coming by this reality was kind of a shock for me. When I was very young, just starting school, my Saturdays were spent watching cartoons coming up out of the States. As this was the early 70s, Schoolhouse Rock was like mother’s milk for me, and part of that was the lead-up to the bicentennial. All those songs about the formation of the US and the revolution were knit into my bones like calcium and strontium. I thought those songs were about me. I guess I knew I lived in Canada, but I didn’t have an idea of what a country was, as separate from another. So I didn’t see a contradiction. I remember I had a friend named John, a kid from England, and I teased him (bordered on picking on him) about what his country did to “mine”. At some point, my mother straightened me out. No, the USA was not our country. And, in fact, the evil guys in red in those cartoons? They were our guys. Do you remember that scene in The Omen II when Damien realizes he’s the antichrist? Well, I can relate. But, like him, I got over it. I learned to go with it.

So I went kind of hard the other way. I was still trying to figure out what our place was relative to other countries. When I was in grade nine, I remember our history teacher having to disabuse several of us in the class (including me) of the notion that, at some time during World War II, Winston Churchill had come over to be the prime minister of Canada... I don’t know where I got that idea, but I was surprised to find out it wasn’t true. That, and that we were no longer members of the British Empire, because it had effectively ceased to exist as such when our parents were still in school. Such were the vagaries of my understanding of Canada’s place in the world well into my teens.

But I did learn that Canada had, at least in part, forged itself in opposition to the US, and in loyalty to the UK. That we’d fought two wars against the States to maintain our independence, and narrowly avoided a third; the threat of which led to the creation of the modern federal state that is Canada. I became intensely interested in politics. For a while I was a member of a federal political party. I dug the monarchy, the ties it gave us to countries like ours, and I went for anything with a Union Jack on it. And that’s where I was for a long time. It cooled, slowly, but it lingered. Still does, I guess. Probably always will.

Lately, though, I’ve been considering the status of the monarchy in Canada. I’ve had to admit that it’s a justifiable sore spot with French Canadians, for whom having a British monarch as their head of state is a constant reminder of an extremely unhappy moment in their history. To be honest, when I think of it now, I have to credit them with a lot of patience. Likewise, I’ve had to recognize that most new Canadians, from different lands, could not possibly be expected to hold the monarchy in the same reverence as Canadians of British heritage like me. They might like it, they might even support it, but I can’t honestly demand they should feel it in their bones. It must make them feel like imperial step children... yes, fully and officially Canadian, but somehow, second class. I know I’m not speaking for everyone, but I suspect that must be a common sentiment where the monarchy is concerned.

And I’ve had to face a kind of embarrassing political oddity about Canada. Now, I wasn’t born in Ireland; my grandmother was. But that entitled me to become an Irish citizen by foreign birth registration, and I finally got off my ass and did it not quite ten years ago now. As such, I’m technically eligible to hold the office of President of Ireland, should I meet the other constitutional requirements. What I mean to say is, there’s nothing to stop me. But here, in the country where I was born and raised, and whose citizenship I have always held, I can never be the head of state. Nor can any other Canadian. Our head of state lives in another country, chosen from among a small number of people in one family, according to the laws of another land that we never had a hand in drafting. I mean, it’s kind of neat to have a queen and all in the Space Age, but the realities of Canada’s constitutional situation are, frankly, faintly humiliating for a country that’s existed for nearly 150 years, and has ostensibly been a peer to the UK on the international stage for just about 80.

And I finally decided yesterday, while laying it all out over a few beers with my friend P-Doug, that it’s time for that to change. Sitting there in a faux British pub in a faux British kingdom, I came to the realization that I’d gone over to “the dark side”. I went into the pub a jaded monarchist, and walked out a hopeful republican.

Peculiarities of the Canadian Constitution with regard to the Monarchy

Canada was established as a constitutional monarchy in 1867, in the British North America Act, which served as our constitution (in part) and still does. Because it was an act of the British Parliament, only Britain could amend it. Whenever we wanted to change our constitution, we had to ask another country to do it for us. And that was the way of things right up to 1982. That year, we patriated the BNA Act from Britain and renamed it the Constitution Act, 1867. It was immediately amended by the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not much changed about the BNA Act in all this; the new sections simply clarified how we would go about amending our own constitution from then on, and read in the other various statutes and documents that also form part of the Canadian Constitution.

One of those statutes is the Act of Settlement, 1701. This is also an act of the British Parliament, and designates the person of the monarch, and the conditions for acceding to the throne. This is a part of Canada’s constitution, but we can’t amend it. It’s someone else’s law to change. Technically, the Statute of Westminster, 1931, pledges the British not to change the Act without the unanimous consent of the other countries that share the Queen as head of state (the sixteen countries that are today called the Commonwealth Realms, of which Canada is one). The Act of Settlement is what decrees that Prince Charles will be the next King of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc. All but one of those countries are not able to change the nature of that law. As stated, Britain has promised not to change the Act without the agreement of the other countries, but the fact remains that they could.

One of the stipulations of the Act is that no Catholic, and no one married to a Catholic, can accede to the throne. No Catholic can ever be the head of state of Canada, where that denomination is the largest in the country. A few years ago, a man named Tony O’Donohue challenged the constitutionality of that in the Ontario Superior Court. The court ruled that the Constitution cannot contradict itself. Its provisions, where seemingly contradictory, serve to qualify one another. So Canada is nation of freedom of religion, albeit one where there is a religious qualification for the nation’s highest executive office. That’s the law of the land. And because of the Statute of Westminster, even if fifteen of these countries agreed to change that, it would just take one to veto it. Effectively, we’re locked into this and cannot ourselves change it.

Another odious aspect of the Constitution is the amending formula where the Monarchy is concerned. Nearly every other change to the Constitution can be ratified by being passed in both houses of Parliament, and by seven of the ten provincial legislatures representing at least 50% of the population of Canada. But not where the Monarchy is concerned. Changes to Monarchy in Canada require the unanimous consent of Parliament and all ten legislatures. And changes to the section that stipulates that also require unanimity. It’s a padlock on a padlock. All future generations of Canadians were saddled with this provision in 1982 by a group of WASP males born between the wars when the Union Jack was still flying over Parliament Hill. To me, that’s increasingly outrageous, and vastly undemocratic. No matter how many Canadians might like to change it, it would prove nearly impossible to muster that level of agreement. A mere handful of traditionalists could hold back the will of the vast majority of the people if they merely chose to.

That’s what republicans in Canada are up against: a rigged system and foreign law. I’m hardly joking when I say that by far the easiest way for Canada to disestablish the Monarchy would be for Britain to get rid of it.

My preferences for a Canadian head of state

Nevertheless, it’s worth discussing the project and giving some shape to the idea. So here I’d like to propose my own model for a truly Canadian head of state.

The easiest and most natural thing to do would be to simply take the office of the Governor-General, who represents and acts on behalf of the Queen in Canada, and convert it to a Canadian Presidency. In this, it would not resemble the US Presidency. The job is largely ceremonial, and has few real executive powers except to rein in the government. This is a balance that works extremely well, for the most part, for numerous Commonwealth countries; monarchies and republics. Few of them vest much real power in the head of state, be that the Queen or a president.

One of the things valued in the Queen is her experience due to her length of service. When I was discussing this with P-Doug, the matter came up, and to my delight and surprise, we both independently concluded the identical same time frame for a presidential term: 10-12 years. Whether or not the officeholder would be eligible for more than one term is something the country could work out. But such a long term would enable a Canadian president to preside over and work with several Parliaments. At least three, and possibly more, would fall within the span of a 12-year term. Canadians would get used to a certain person representing the country for roughly half a generation, and then it might be someone else’s turn. Aside from the duration of the term, this is very much like the character of the Irish Presidency (7 years, renewable once; so actually, at potentially 14 years, not altogether different from what I’m proposing).

As to the means of selecting the person, I personally favour a process in which a committee draws up a list of suitable candidates, which would then be voted on by the Senate. The nod might go to the candidate with the plurality, or perhaps there might be run-offs until one candidate had a clear majority of the votes. I’m reluctant to suggest direct election, because that would tend to imply a democratic mandate that could have the tendency to expand the powers of the presidency over time (particularly with the example of the US Presidency right next door) and put it at odds with the House of Commons, something I’d strenuously work to avoid.

The candidate for the presidency might be something like the following: a Canadian citizen (of course), having reached a certain age (35? 42? etc.), who, while preferably versed in or experienced in the workings of the Canadian government, should not have been a member of any political party for an appreciable length of time immediately prior to his or her appointment (say, 5 years). The office should be politically neutral, as the office of the Governor-General (not to mention the Queen herself) is currently. When I think of someone who would make an ideal candidate, the late Pierre Burton, popularist historian and raconteur, the author of numerous standards on Canadian history, springs to mind. Others like Desmond Morton, or authors on Canadian themes like Margaret Atwood and Roch Carrier, also strike me as admirable choices. This is something I feel we could do.

I’d like to sum up by saying that I still admire and respect the Queen, our heritage and traditions, our membership in the Commonwealth (which we should, of course, maintain), and that I’m not foaming at the mouth to see this project achieved. But I do believe that the days of Canada as a constitutional monarchy are justifiably numbered, and that we should put some thought into giving the institution a respectful retirement. I do feel that the head of state of this country should be of and from this country. Someone, if not born here, then at least raised here, with a love of Canada and the instinctive understanding of its cultures, politics, and aspirations that come from longtime residency; living and working every day in the land of one’s nationality, one’s home. Dear as she is, that’s something Queen Elizabeth can only ever furnish to Britain, but never to Canada.

I think it’s time for us to take that last, final step to becoming our own country, and no one else’s. Yes; finally, I do agree.

1 comment:

Silas said...

Yes, but keep the title of the head of state that of the Governor-General, just to differentiate.