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Why Canadian liberals cling on to monarchy Republicanism has become a conservative cause

“Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister… for making me feel so old” (CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP via Getty Images)

“Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister… for making me feel so old” (CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP via Getty Images)


September 15, 2022   5 mins

Will there be a Commonwealth left for King Charles III to rule over? In the week since his mother’s death, officials in Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda have publicly questioned whether their countries should join the ranks of Barbados, which became a republic last year. In the former settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand, Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese and Jacinda Ardern (both professed republicans) have paid their respects to Elizabeth II — yet it appears that emboldened republican movements could gain momentum in their time in office.

There is one Commonwealth realm, however, where republicanism is anathema — at least among the establishment. Canada’s dominant political culture descends in large part from loyalist exiles who fled the American Revolution in the late 18th century, and so it is no surprise to see their contemporary heirs, the present political establishment, expressing support for the monarchy. (It is a different story for the general population who usually lie somewhere between lukewarm and “unaffected”.)

This runs contrary to the widespread image of Canada’s elites as post-modern cosmopolitans who despise their own history and traditions. But the recent outpouring of personal homages paired with pro-monarchy sentiment led by the likes of Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet, former Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, and the editorial board at the national newspaper of record, is indicative of where the Canadian ruling class stands.

Unlike in other parts of the Commonwealth (and discounting the special case of Québécois separatism), there has never been a properly pan-Canadian republican movement of any significance, much less a prime minister who avowed republicanism (the closest was a high-ranking cabinet minister in the 2000s, but his was an isolated case). More than a convenient way to distinguish Canadians from Americans, the monarchy has become an unlikely object of affection for those who govern Canada.

Trudeau himself is, of course, a hereditary monarch who would have never risen to the top were it not for his surname. In fact, Trudeau first met the Queen as a child in 1977 when his father was prime minister. Their personal history became the subject of a humorous exchange in 2015, when the Queen remarked: “Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister … for making me feel so old.”

Historically, the Trudeau Liberals have often been regarded as either indifferent or outright hostile to Canada’s imperial heritage. It was this party, after all, that retired the Union Jack and Red Ensign in favour of the Maple Leaf Flag in 1965, while one of the most iconic images of Trudeau Sr. is of him doing a pirouette behind the Queen, noted as a gesture of irreverence. More recently, a Liberal government dropped the adjective “Royal” in the name of Canada’s navy and air force, only for it to be restored by the succeeding Conservative government.

Yet such stylistic changes belie the fidelity maintained by Canada’s liberal establishment towards the Crown. Trudeau Sr. and the Queen, by all accounts, actually had a warm and fruitful relationship, which is exhibited in two more iconic photos: one in which the prime minister is peeking under the monarch’s umbrella, and another featuring the two presiding over the “patriation” of the constitution, in which Canada severed the last colonial links with London and became a fully sovereign state. For the final act in this constitutional saga, in 1982, the Queen came to Ottawa to personally grant royal assent to what had been the elder Trudeau’s life’s work: the pillars of today’s progressive Canada — the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, official bilingualism, multiculturalism — were codified.

Against charges that Pierre Trudeau discarded the history and values of the Old Canada, the Queen’s presence at this pivotal moment in the country’s evolution highlights not the disjuncture but rather the continuity between the Old Canada and the New. For the nation-building project begun in 1867 with declarations of fealty to Queen Victoria reached its maturation under the gaze of her great-great-granddaughter. The motto of the province of Ontario is thus an apt descriptor for Canada as a whole, no less under its current liberal and multicultural Trudeauvian regime: Ut Incepit Fidelis Sic Permanet. (“Loyal she began, so she remains.”)

So perhaps it is understandable that Canada is not as eager as its Commonwealth cousins to leave the royal embrace. When a newly-elected Justin Trudeau was asked by the BBC if he was sympathetic to republicanism, he replied: “We’re perfectly happy with our Queen of Canada.” No doubt he will be just as happy with the new King of Canada. As Jacobin correctly pointed out in its denunciation of this modern-day liberal monarchism inherited from the nation’s counterrevolutionary forebears: “Canada’s elites and its governing class admire the royals and evidently want their legacies to endure … [they] see in the monarchy a reliable ‘last resort’ to maintain ‘stability’ and prevent potential major upsets resulting from popular will.”

What is notable these days is not so much how Canada’s centre-left elites have lent their support to monarchy, but how the Right-wing opposition to those elites has increasingly drifted into anti-monarchist territory, almost seeming to converge at times with voices on the Left. The opposition Conservative Party is officially devoted to the monarchy; indeed, the mood at the election of their new leader last Saturday, the pro-trucker populist Pierre Poilievre, was subdued in the wake of the Queen’s death. Poilievre opened his speech with a tribute to the late sovereign and expressed allegiance to her successor with the words “God Save the King”. However, the highly online Right-wing base that bolstered Poilievre has begun to see things differently.

Scrolling through the Twitter replies to coverage of the King’s first speech by the conservative site True North Centre reveals how its Right-wing audiences view the new monarch: “An irresponsible globalist”; “Please don’t put his face on our money”; “All hail King Klaus”. As these responses suggest, Charles III’s record of speaking up on climate issues or taking the stage with Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum has not endeared him to the Freedom Convoy.

It is also notable that one of the most active media supporters of the convoy had previously come out in support of abolishing the monarchy in the conservative National Post, while revolutionary republican imagery of the 1776 variety was a very prominent feature in those demonstrations. Aside from the Stars and Stripes and the Gadsden flag, the truckers and their sympathisers waved the Patriote flag of the 1837 Lower Canada rebellion against the Crown, and the Eureka flag beloved of Australian republicans (and lately used by anti-lockdown protesters in that country).

Meanwhile, across Canada’s Western provinces, particularly in oil-rich Alberta, a new kind of separatism has reared its head in response to the perceived abuses of the same Central Canadian liberal elites. The intellectual currents fuelling this movement have long-harboured the fantasy of seceding from “the bureaucratic despotism of Ottawa” and carving out a libertarian republic in the prairies. Even with the potential elevation of a premier running on a platform of de facto secessionism, this is admittedly a distant possibility but one that nonetheless highlights the synergy between Right-wing populism and the republican ideal.

As the Trudeaus and the Carneys can attest, the monarchy has stood as a symbol of order, stability and continuity in Canada, as it has in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth. But it remains to be seen if this ancient inheritance can continue to resist the hyper-politicisation of institutions that has become so ubiquitous in this era of culture war and populist ferment.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.
1TrueCuencoism

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Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

What’s missing from this excellent thought-provoking analysis is the tension between those who perceive the universe to be a god-ordered space in which individuals may seek to serve God’s purpose, and those who perceive it be a space that people can collectively shape at their will, with our destiny resting entirely on whether we can co-operate to “solve” the tragedy of the horizon and other collective action problems. (Of course this is a false binary with fuzzy edges but I think it is a useful analytical concept nonetheless.)

Queen Elizabeth II was firmly in the former camp, along with a large part of the US Republican Party, a smattering of backbench UK Tories, and large parts of the mass population of the West. The late Queen’s son, along with your Trudeaus and your Carneys and your Robespierres and the mainstream of the US Democrats and most of the mainstream parliamentary parties in the UK and its advanced world daughter democracies, are in the latter. Both camps include people who might have no common bond other than their perspective on this question, although the average age of the more idealistic latter camp might be lower than that of the former.

The big question is whether our liberal democracies can create stable alliances within each of these groups, and also then create an orderly spaces in which representatives can forge some kind of political compromise between the and within the groups. The context of a belligerent Russia and Chinese Communist Party, high and increasing income inequalities, and a shrinking, ageing population (amongst other macro issues) makes the challenge very hard indeed.

The hyper-politicisation of institutions – and the attendant invasion of the social and the personal by the political – is indeed is a dire threat. The first thing that the institutions need to do is to realise that they may have been hyper-politicised, hold their hands up, and refocus themselves back on to their core purposes. Covid, climate, social justice – all pose profoundly political, complex questions that need space to be politically debated, deliberated, and carefully considered. They are not things that can be outsourced to a single unified army of technocrats to “solve” – but of course the debate on them needs careful, impartial, analytical technocratic advice from a wide range of academic and other expert sources. Not least because there is clearly not political consensus on the nature of the universe and our ultimate end goal – is the aim to serve a godly purpose, or is it to try create something as close as possible to a heaven on earth for everyone? The technocrats can’t answer that.

People pursuing each of these ends have in the past caused immense suffering and destruction. It’s pointless debating whether the Inquisiton was “worse” than the gulags; whether a stifling patriarchy is “worse” than unthinking wokism. It’s better simply to find the humility to accept, depending on your perspective, that one will never be able perfectly to serve God’s purpose, or that there will never be a fully just and equal society on earth (or, indeed, both).

Similarly, the idea that political problems can be solved be redefining or changing the specific polity to which a given territory (Alberta, or anywhere else) belongs won’t resolve the underlying tensions within that territory; and mass population movements are obviously a very bad and impractical idea.

Rather, if we are to have any hope of getting anywhere, we have to put our blinking phones down, switch the TV off, and start talking to each other again about the core substance of the political matters at hand. not the constitutional process or the personality-based flotsam on surface. And to do so with humility, courage, grace, and an acceptance that we are not always going to agree but that we have a shared endeavour to forge a better common understanding. Most important in all of this is a dogged determination not to get own points across but to really try and listen to and understand what others have to say to us – and maybe even to change our own minds, including about some of most fundamental beliefs or pre-conceptions.

Our politicians need to step up and lead from front on this. What better way to honour Queen Elizabeth II, who spent a long lifetime listening but very rarely speaking?

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Big hopes! Andrew. How we govern ourselves as individuals provides some guidance of our capacity to govern those societies we live in. German legal texts from 1225’ish reveal an intent of the law to “mirror back to citizens the values they most prize in themselves.” Bit like our late Queen Elizabeth.

Emre 0
Emre 0
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I think the late Queen managed to occupy a unique position by being the person she was. Firstly, she was a dedicated Protestant, a religion which enabled today’s liberalism that is now morphing into Wokeism (the successor ideology) – very much also within the CoE. With that it meant a lot that she was the Supreme Governor of CoE continuing a tradition of Britain’s first Brexit from Europe 500 years ago embodying that distinct British identity. Also she was a woman holding what’s probably been the top political position women have been able to hold for the past 450 years or so. It’s no surprise she was a uniting force for all the slices and layers of British society, but it’s also not a surprise it’s hard to fill the space she leaves behind.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emre 0
Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
1 year ago

For what it’s worth, the membership of my mother’s senior citizens’ centre in British Columbia voted yesterday to remove the portraits of the Queen and Prince Phillip that hang above the reception desk. I should add that this was the result of a longstanding debate within the membership and not directly linked to the Queen’s passing.
I get the general sense that most Canadians aren’t hostile to the monarchy, merely indifferent. However, the author shouldn’t underestimate its symbolic value to Canadians in their core, never-ending identity battle: to differentiate themselves from the Americans. Having the monarch on much of the currency is a pretty direct expression of that.

Last edited 1 year ago by Derek Bryce
Gary Cruse
Gary Cruse
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

The identity battle, weakened by the anti-national concept of the country being a salad bowl as opposed to the American melting pot, co-exists with the observation people and cultures across and adjacent to the western US border line, have more in common with each other than their compatriots in Eastern Canada.
Alberta’s sotto voce libertarian desire is to become an American state, freed from Ottawa’s involvement with the province’s massive natural resources. The breakup of Canada might go like this.
British Columbia becomes a state. Alberta and Saskatchewan, and Manitoba become states. Ontario would become Canada. Quebec and her wholly dependent eastern provinces, become French Canada. Nova Scotia and PEI, distanced from French Canada and financial drains would be basket cases neither the US or Canada want. The territories would incorporate, but without subsidies from either Canada or French Canada would be at risk and a source of stress.
None if this is likely to happen. Until it does.

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
1 year ago
Reply to  Gary Cruse

Whatever happens and whenever, it’ll always be 30 minutes later in Newfoundland.

Last edited 1 year ago by Derek Bryce
R S Foster
R S Foster
1 year ago

Interesting that support for Constitutional Monarchy is greatest next door to an English-speaking republic with a president holding executive power. The Canadians can see how that works…so possibly they prefer the current arrangements to either an executive president of their own…who would be C-in-C of a scout troop by comparison with his next door neighbor…or a ceremonial one who would struggle even to achieve that status.

As it is, in extremis…the POTUS would probably take a call from King Charles III. As I believe he already has…

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

There’s actually some substance to these issues beyond how people ‘feel’ about the monarchy and the current monarch. For the most part the Queen stayed out of politics in the UK but there is some comfort taken that she was still there, part of the process, signing laws into existence and authorizing the formation of governments. In Canada that role is delegated to the Governor General, but the Governor General is selected by the Prime Minister. The Governor General does not take orders from the Queen (in practice) but simply rubber stamps and goes through the motions. As of late they tend to be selected for their celebrity status and not as senior statesmen who might exercise independent thought. There is no comparison whatsoever between the stature and weight of the hereditary and beloved monarch versus the clown show of our usual Governors General. Thus there is no check and balance whatsoever provided by the monarch (or anyone else) in our version of democracy. The real reason why Canada needs to become a republic is to check the power of the Prime Minister and separate the executive from the legislative branch. But much like the Tolkien ring of power, once political parties get their hands on the all-powerful prime minister’s office, the last thing they want to do is restrain that power in any way. Hence proposals to elect the senate (our version of the House of Lords) also go nowhere. Not even MPs can speak against their leader without immediate ejection from the party. Canada is a monarchy, but in practice its the prime minister who reigns supreme for his or her term.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim R
Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 year ago

I appreciate Andrew Horsman’s thought provocative comments. Well thought out and presented.
In life, one person’s voiced comment seems to override the thoughts of others. Until one holds a vote, you have no idea.
I’ve lived 33 years in the United States. That republic is presently in shambles, ready to ignite with the first spark. Like no other country in the world, Canada, whose early history is American history, same language and principles, has fought two campaigns, the Battle of Quebec of 1775 and the War 0f 1812, to drive American invasion and aggression off our lands. Lincoln’s threats to invade Canada finally led to the confederation.
Freedom House (freedomhouse.org) lists Canada in third place for freedom. The United States may be found in the 62nd slot. They have similar backgrounds, a similar mother country, and similar ideals. Yet, we are different.
The answer may be found in my short letter to the Toronto Star newspaper.
The monarchy was real, and she was real. They protected usTue., Sept. 13, 2022
Grief. The realization of the importance of this one person in our lives.
Her death cuts me deeply. And sensing how our Commonwealth nations are grieving together, I come to realize how close we are.
The monarchy was real, and she was real.
Trump has demonstrated the critical weakness of republicanism. The elected head of state will have a bias along party lines.
The monarchy is a watchdog to ensure that the privy council and the government respect and maintain the constitution and the people are served wisely.
https://tinyurl.com/mu32uamt

Last edited 1 year ago by Fred Paul
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

“What is notable these days is not so much how Canada’s centre-left elites have lent their support to monarchy, but how the Right-wing opposition to those elites has increasingly drifted into anti-monarchist territory, almost seeming to converge at times with voices on the Left.”
Very well observed.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago

Part of this is, frankly, that a segment of the right of Canada have become associated with a pro-US sentiment. A lot of this was because of the Cold War, and a sense that Canadian identity, kept in aspic, is part of an elite plot to subsidise a lot of subpar entertainment, artistic products and industrial products with a ‘made in Canada’ badge. The Conservative party in the 80s deliberately sought free trade with the US whilst the Liberal party denounced it as treason to Canadas principles. The Liberal party is highly associated with billigualism and the myth of the two nations as the basis for Canadian identity – that and the fact that Quebecois nationalism was largely left wing (though not so much now) meant that many Canadian Conservatives looked to the US as a model. Now it’s true that the old British identity does hold up with some branches of the Conservatives – see the dispute over Empire day being renamed to Canada day – but increasingly this seems to be less and less relevant to younger Conservative voters, whereas much of what the US right is saying is.