Abolishing the monarchy in Canada would be ‘enormously difficult,’ experts say

Calls for Canada to rethink its relationship to the monarchy have been mounting after an explosive interview between Prince Harry, Meghan and Oprah Winfrey on Sunday.

In a damning tell-all, Meghan revealed living with the royals left her feeling suicidal and unsupported, prompting her and her husband’s royal departure in January of last year. She also indicated there were racist undertones in Buckingham Palace, claiming there were discussions where concerns were expressed over how dark the colour of her son’s skin would be.

“I think it’s clear. I’ve said it in the past: I don’t see the benefit of the monarchy in Canadians’ lives,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday.

“There’s no benefit to them and now even more so with concerns about racism in the institution that were raised, and pressures that were placed on Meghan Markle.”

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Canada first became part of the British Commonwealth in 1931 as an independent state, and remains one of 54 Commonwealth nations to this day. The country is considered a constitutional monarchy, a system which allows the monarch — in this case, Queen Elizabeth II — to exercise power in accordance with Canada’s Constitution.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to comment directly on the interview. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, he said he wouldn’t comment on “what’s going on over in the U.K., but I will continue to endeavour to fight against racism and intolerance every single day in Canada.”

“There are many institutions that we have in this country, including that big building right across the street from us, parliament, that has and is built around a system of colonialism, of discrimination, of systemic racism in all of our institutions,” he said.

“But the answer is not to suddenly toss out all the institutions and start over.”

But even if it were, experts say it would be a near-futile effort for the federal government to extricate itself from the monarchy, and a process that could take years to complete.

The monarchy versus the Royal Family

First and foremost, what the Royal Family does differs greatly from the monarchy’s role in Canada.

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“Most often, people will just associate the fact of Canada’s status as a monarchy with the queen and with the rest of the royals, but they actually play almost no role whatsoever in Canadian governance,” Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor with the University of Waterloo, told Global News.

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“Even the Queen herself, almost all of her duties are actually accomplished in practice by the Governor-General as her representative in Canada.”

What does the monarchy do for Canada?

The monarchy plays two roles in Canada: constitutional and ceremonial.

Much of Canada’s Constitution is based on unwritten customs and traditions. The Queen possesses emergency powers that are there to be used by the Crown if need be, such as refusing royal assent or dismissing a government.

“Our constitution vests executive power in the Queen. Not Parliament, not the people; it’s vested in the Queen. Of course, that doesn’t mean she actually governs,” Robert Finch, dominion chairman and president of the Monarchist League of Canada, told Global News.

The Queen acts solely on the advice of elected politicians.

“The notion that the prime minister and cabinet governs by using power that belongs to a non-partisan monarch is a fundamental feature of Canada’s system of government,” he said.

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The monarchy also acts as a symbol. Finch said the Queen and the Crown can be a “wonderful force” for national unity and Canadian identity, which is why awards such as the Order of Canada are given in the name of the Queen, for instance.

A good example of this is the Royal Tour, he added.

“Look at the crowds that come out to see the Queen or a member of the Royal Family when they are in Canada,” said Finch.

“Nobody else can garner such a crowd — diverse in age, ethnicity, politics, language, social-economic background, etc. — as they can. That’s the ceremonial role of the Crown.”

Abolishing the monarchy could prove a royal pain

According to Section 41 of the Constitution Act, the full abolition of the “office of the Queen” would require Parliament, the House of Commons, the Senate and all 10 provinces to unanimously agree to amend the Constitution.
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Macfarlane said this process could take years, and there would also need to be “intensive consultations with Canada’s Indigenous populations,” given the historical connections between the Crown and Indigenous peoples as part of the treaty system.

“Politicians are enormously reluctant, even unwilling to touch the Constitution because it’s automatically seen as a national unity issue,” Macfarlane said.

“It would be an enormously difficult undertaking, especially in the case of full abolition.”

In fact, it would be easier to get rid of the monarchy in the U.K. than it would be in Canada, as Britain’s governing structure requires fewer permissions before making fundamental changes.

What would replace it?

If Canada were to abolish the monarchy, Macfarlane said the next natural step would be from a constitutional monarchy to a republic, like that of the United States.

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In a republic, the head of state is elected separately from the legislature in what is known as a “diffusion of power.”

According to Macfarlane, this is the core distinction between a parliamentary constitutional monarchy and a republic.

“By having a separate elected head of state, you have another locus of power separate from the legislative branch, where(as) in our system, traditionally the legislature or the elected parliament is the supreme locus of power in that it is what determines who serves in government,” he said.

However, Macfarlane noted that republics don’t always produce good governance. He said interactions between the White House and Congress can be “unhealthy” and “divisive,” and make it harder to get things done.

An example of this is the use of executive orders, which political leaders use to issue directives without having to put them to a vote of any kind.

“We saw Trump initiate basically a ban on immigration or travel from certain countries. We saw him reallocate funds designed for other purposes to be put towards the border wall. Many of these things were done with legislation in mind,” he said.

“Through executive orders and when you have elected actors (or even unelected actors), there’s always a threat in state governance for expanding that locus of power beyond its its proper limits.”


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