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Amal Attar-Guzman: Should Canada become a republic? Casting off the Crown would have consequences

Commentary

Earlier this month, Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, with all their pomp and pageantry, marked the occasion of her 70 years on the throne—longer than any British Monarch in history. Her seven decades of dedication represent the fulfillment of a pledge she made in 1947, when she was 21 years old, to serve the Commonwealth and its people for the whole of her life, no matter how long or short it was.

While millions watched in awe, dazzled by the festivities, not all were so captivated. There have been murmurings about the relevance of the Crown here in Canada since our country’s inception. Mostly, Canadians are apathetic at best towards the institution.

Anti-monarchist sentiment has come in waves over the years, and at present seems to be getting stronger, thanks in no small part to recent high-profile royal scandals. Despite the large majority (63 percent) of Canadians having favourable views of Queen Elizabeth II, 51 percent of Canadian say that Canada should not continue as a constitutional monarchy in future generations, according to an Angus Reid Institute poll back in April. 

Given that Queen Elizabeth II has just recently turned 96 years old, we must begin to more seriously discuss the role of the monarchy in our country and what the alternative is: constitutional monarchy versus Canadian republicanism.

The Monarchist League of Canada is the staunchest pro-monarchist voice in the country, arguing that the continued presence of the Crown in Canada strengthens national identity and stability and enables the protection of democracy. 

Regarding national identity, the argument goes that due to our close proximity with the United States and its overwhelming social and cultural influence, having a distinct political system ensures Canada remains distinct in North America; it is a bulwark against simply becoming a smaller, less impressive clone of our southern neighbour. This may be the weakest argument for constitutional monarchy. It is quite dated in a digitally-connected, globalized world where social and cultural influences from every single society can impact our own, and vice versa. 

However, when it comes to democracy and stability, monarchists may have the upper hand. In a republican system like America’s, partisan politics have had a heavy influence on its institutions. The presence of an all-powerful president as its head of state only exacerbates and accelerates the problem of polarization.

Canada, being a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, has evolved and gone through many transitions over the years since Confederation, particularly in terms of demographics, society, and culture. And polarization is a problem here too. Yet the Crown, at least, remains a stable, and stabilizing, force.

Given that the role of the Crown is to remain non-partisan under the Constitution, it stays above our political fray and acts as a safeguard of democratic institutions and processes with the Governor General, as the representative of the Crown, remaining an independent figure from the prime minister. 

No matter who is in government, whether it be the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, or any other, a non-political and non-partisan head of state is, if nothing else, a unifying figure capable of representing each individual citizen, regardless of their political leanings.

Arguments pointing to the neutered nature of the Crown miss the point. Canada has evolved into the country it has become today where any direct interference of the monarchy is absent from our affairs. Nonetheless, the mere presence of the monarchy should not be taken for granted. Symbolic is not a synonym for useless.

But, regardless of its strengths, the monarchist movement is facing two major challenges: cultural relevance and historical wrongs.

According to a poll from the Angus Reid Institute, half of Canadians (50 percent) don’t see the relevance of the monarchy at all and almost half (49 percent) say that the monarchy represents outdated values that they do not subscribe to. 

We cannot talk about constitutional monarchy without addressing historical wrongs the British Crown and its empire perpetrated against not only Indigenous Peoples, Black Canadians, and other communities here in Canada, but against millions of people around the world. And while those occurred in the past, it’s still at the forefront of many communities’ minds as these negative consequences persist to this day. 

These sentiments only worsened in the eyes of many when Meghan Markle’s allegations of racism in the Royal Family aired in an interview with Oprah back in March 2021. While some dismissed the interview as insubstantial, many others were not impressed, especially given that 60 to 70 percent of the Commonwealth are people of colour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barbados cut ties to the monarchy in the fall of 2021, becoming a parliamentary republic, and Jamaica, following a very unsuccessful tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is moving towards severing its ties to the monarchy as well—moves that a majority of Canadians support. In fact, three-in-five Canadians say that it is the right decision for countries such as Barbados and Jamaica to free themselves from their colonial roots.

The Canadian republican movement seeks to do the same. Citizens for a Canadian Republic states that its main objective is to instill a direct democratic process in choosing a truly Canadian head of state, one who is relevant, is more representative of Canadian society, and is free from our colonial roots. 

Yet this movement has some major structural obstacles before it. The Crown is entrenched in our democratic system and institutions. For it to be abolished from the Constitution, it would require the agreement of the House of Commons, the Senate, and the unanimous agreement of each province. Furthermore, a referendum may have to be called, similar to the 1999 republic referendum in Australia

Also at stake are treaty relations with Indigenous peoples. It is important to recall that treaty relationships are not fulfilled by the elected government but by the Crown. For instance, under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, unceded lands belonged to Indigenous peoples and could not be occupied by non-Indigenous peoples unless bought by the Crown and sold to the general population. This proclamation is the main foundation of Indigenous land rights and the right to self-determination. Treaty rights in Canada were renewed in the Constitution Act of 1982

Some Indigenous communities are not too keen to remove the Crown from the system, and with good reason. Elected governments come and go. The Crown is constant. While it is a fact that historically treaties and Indigenous rights have not always been respected, it is still a legal foundation that many communities can refer to when it comes to land and cultural rights and claims. If the Crown were to be abolished, the legal status of treaty rights would be up in the air. 

Now, some can make the argument that treaties are subjected to international law based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But international law lacks executive power. The government of Canada is not obligated to legally comply with it. 

All told, if Canada wishes to become a republic it will be an uphill battle. Yet many are up for the fight. Amongst Canadians who do want to abolish constitutional monarchy in the country, 92 percent are willing to try to change the constitution to cut ties with the monarchy even if it is difficult. 

The Royal Family is fully aware of their tenuous position here in Canada. When Prince Charles visited Canada in May, he acknowledged the importance of reconciliation and emphasized the importance of listening and learning from Canadians directly.

As Canadians, we cannot deny that Queen Elizabeth II’s decades of service did benefit us over the past 70 years, both domestically and internationally. We should not lightly discard the institution that gave us her dutiful service and must reflect on all the monarchy has to offer us, too. We cannot afford to make any drastic changes or decisions without a clear view of all potential consequences.

J.L. Granatstein: HMCS Uganda: The Royal Canadian Navy ship that voted itself out of a war

Commentary

Conscription was the most divisive issue in Canada during the Second World War. In 1942, the Mackenzie King governmentWilliam Lyon Mackenzie King https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/william-lyon-mackenzie-king held a plebiscite asking Canadians to release it from its promises not to impose conscription for overseas service.Canadian conscription plebiscite, 1942 https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Canadian_conscription_plebiscite,_1942 The nation agreed although an angry Quebec voted 72.9 percent no. In November 1944, shortages of infantry reinforcements overseas forced King to order 16,000 conscripted home defence soldiers to Europe; again Quebec was furious. Five months later with the war in Europe clearly drawing to an end and with a federal election to be held in June, the King Cabinet again considered conscription.

This time, the subject was whether to send conscripts to fight against Japan. The Progressive Conservative leader in the House of Commons, Gordon Graydon, had said in December 1944 that this was his party’s policy, and many Tories wanted this to be a major plank in the coming election. Aware of this, the prime minister and his ministers thrashed through the question, some ministers favouring compulsory service for the Pacific War.

But Mackenzie King would have none of this: “I took strongly the position that to create a conscription issue over Japan before a general election would be just suicidal and absolutely wrong…. It was finally decided… in light of the discussion, [to make] clear that whatever was done for the Japanese war would be on a voluntary basis….” This decision was communicated to the House of Commons on April 4, and King added this: “The men to make up whatever military force is to be employed against Japan will be chosen from those who elect to serve in the Pacific theatre.” In addition, volunteers were to get 30 days leave in Canada. 

The difficulty was soon evident. The Royal Navy had transferred HMCS Uganda to the Royal Canadian Navy in October 1944Transfer to Canada https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Uganda_(66) and, without its name Canadianized, the ship was soon despatched to serve in the British Pacific Fleet in the war against Japan. All members of the Royal Canadian Navy were volunteers, including the 907 officers and ratings serving aboard the 8700-ton cruiser. Did Uganda’s crew now need to elect to continue to serve in the Pacific theatre? In Parliament, the Navy minister, Angus L. Macdonald, responded to a query by saying “I should think very sympathetic consideration would be given [to] any man on the Uganda who, having put in a year of service on that ship, and the European war being over, wished to return to civilian life. I think such a request would be very carefully and sympathetically dealt with.” Naval Headquarters in Ottawa soon directed the ship’s commander to ask its officers and ratings to sign an undertaking that “I hereby volunteer for service in the war against Japan and agree to serve in the Pacific Theatre and/or any other theatre for the duration of hostilities should my services be so required.” 

Uganda’s Captain, Rollo Mainguy, was puzzled by all this. As he said years later, “we got this signal. We couldn’t understand what it meant. And after great exchange of signals, we were given orders finally that we had to vote. Everybody on board votes secretly as to whether or not they volunteered to fight against the Japanese. If they said yes, they’d get 30 days leave. Well, that sounded a bit improbable as we were already fighting. So the way this signal and exchange of the signal was received annoyed everybody, every single soul on board.” 

Some sailors, at sea without pause for seven months, were unhappy because Uganda had not been designed for service in a tropical climate and was infested with rats and cockroaches, short of drinking water, and ordinarily only had rations of canned meat and dehydrated vegetables. Others had been away from home for years and wanted to see their families and find a civvy job. Nor were matters helped when Mainguy in effect called those who might vote against volunteering again “quitters.” That comment did it, and the vote was decisive, with 576 sailors and 29 officers declining to volunteer. As one sailor recalled, “I was one of the ones who did not volunteer. I was prepared to stay there, but if they were going through this nonsense of volunteering (which was all it was) I wasn’t going to volunteer again.” 

Now the problem became clear. Without returning to Canada, it was impossible to get more than 600 men onto the cruiser to replace those who refused to volunteer. Even then it would take weeks to make the ship fit to fight as a team. On July 27, Uganda left the Royal Navy flotilla, the best estimates being that it could return with an all-volunteer crew sometime in September. In fact, Uganda did not return to Japanese waters. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had forced Japan to capitulate, five days after the cruiser made it to port in Esquimalt on August 10. 

The federal election on June 11 had returned the Liberals to power with the barest of majorities.1945 Canadian federal election https://dbpedia.org/page/1945_Canadian_federal_election Unfortunately for Conservative election hopes, the media did not learn of the Uganda affair until six weeks after the election, and the newspapers were furious. The Globe and Mail was outraged: “When was there ever a more shameful slander on so splendid a career?” while the Liberal-leaning Halifax Chronicle acidly editorialized that “The Government’s policy regarding conscription for the Army has aroused enough ribaldry at home and abroad for any reasonable people to bear. Now, it appears that indecision and weak-kneed policy has created another demarche which threatens to hold the Canadian Navy up to unparalleled ridicule.” 

The criticism was wholly justified. The government’s decision had led to Uganda voting itself out of the war. This was shameful policy, as the media said, but it was also appalling that Canadian servicemen had decided to withdraw from combat operations in the final stages of a war. Their absence mattered little militarily, but without doubt it was also shameful.