Canada and the North American Triangle
January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Twice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans. These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada. Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil. Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.
For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada. They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people. The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen. Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation. It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents. I was dumbfounded.
I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians. Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then. I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer. Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money? And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now. I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it. The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc. In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.
But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government. Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister. This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected. Full stop. And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.
Now I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial. I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal. From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence. I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament. I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.
There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation. And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation. I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument. It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries. The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement. Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation. Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.
So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors. I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy. Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy. It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy. At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case. In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada. But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian. Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends. But it’s not that simple. That is an American argument. American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy. And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.
To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda. Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights. That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling. Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities. In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities. That is what democracy is.
And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is. And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less. The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics. Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister. Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.
And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico. Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy. The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own. It WAS a British colony. And today, it is by and large an American colony. I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do. And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.