Monday, November 22, 2010

Some responses to Citizens for a Canadian Republic

Unpublished remarks I wrote on Citizens for a Canadian republic as expressed in its statements.

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Inherited rights in government, symbolic or otherwise, is a concept incompatible with Canadian values of egalitarianism.

A Canadianized head of state should be the embodiment of Canadian sovereignty, diversity and pride - a position to which all Canadians could aspire.


This seems to be the crux of most opposition to monarchy and it rests on a misunderstanding of what a head of state is and does. The Queen has not inherited a position of privilege or any “special” rights. Under our constitution she fulfils certain roles as head of state - roles that would have to be filled by someone anyway. Historical providence has provided us with a means of selecting a politically-neutral “referee” who can uphold the constitution without having to bend to political pressure. Being head of state should not be the end of a political career ladder, nor is the nature of the office such that it is something that in principle must be open to all applicants. It is more important that the function be done than who does it.

It should also be said that the “Canadian values of egalitarianism” are enshrined in laws which the Queen herself has signed into law. This reflects the nature of the Canadian Crown, which does not act unilaterally but only to give force to the will of the people, and thus enacts the laws that we ourselves have mandated our elected representatives to pass. Likewise, while vested with the authority to appoint the prime minister, the sovereign uses this power to designate the leader of the party that has won the election rather than to parachute in her own preferred candidate.

Our head of state should be a true representative of the People of Canada. Presently, the Queen does not represent Canada when she travels abroad and we think that’s not in our best interest...

The act of attaining full-fledged status as a democratic republic within the Commonwealth would be the completion of a process of independence that began over a century ago.

Canada became fully independent in 1931 except by request with respect to constitutional amendment (until 1982) and the judiciary (1949). Because our Dominion and provincial governments could not agree on a formula for amending the constitution, Canada retained the rubber-stamp of the British Parliament for constitutional amendments. This was resolved in 1982, since which time our independence has been “complete.” Transition to a republic would not make us any more “full-fledged” a member of the Commonwealth - if anything the opposite!

That several other countries, including the United Kingdom and Jamaica, have the same relationship with the Queen that we do is a matter of historical circumstance. It is thus understandable that she cannot always be representing any one country. Each realm’s Governor General acts as her full-time delegate for that country and Canadians are hardly deprived of executive representation abroad.

Canada’s head of state should be a Canadian citizen and not be above our laws. Presently, the Act of Settlement of 1701 constitutionally binds Canada to only heads of state who are not Roman Catholics. They must also be required to hold the position of Supreme Governor of The Church of England, thereby also preventing, Jews, Hindus, Muslims or anyone not a member of that Protestant denomination from becoming Canada’s head of state. Section 15(1) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms expressly forbids discrimination on the basis of "race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability".

First, the assumption that “Canada’s head of state should be a Canadian citizen” is a confusion. The Queen is not a citizen because she is head of state, but that does not mean she is not Canadian. She does not hold a Canadian (or British) passport; they are issued in her name. She does not share our citizenship because she is the fount from which it flows.

The historical factors that led to the passage of the Act of Settlement are varied and complex, and only incidentally about religion. Ironically and presumably unbeknownst to the republicans who attack it, it was in its day a victory for the forces of parliamentary democracy over absolute monarchy. Requiring the monarch to be a member of the national churches was just one way of ensuring Britain’s independence from foreign interference at a time when the Papacy was much more like a monarchy itself. Although the Act of Settlement is itself a part of our Canadian constitutional law, some would argue that it has outlived its usefulness. In the Church of England itself, there is increasing support for disestablishment and the end of a governmental role in church affairs. In any case, the Act of Settlement can be amended without abolishing our system of constitutional monarchy.

Canadians increasingly want to address the so-called "democratic deficit" that’s prevalent in Canada’s political system. In every good democracy, there’s a solid framework of checks and balances to ensure against the proliferation of abuses. One way to address that would be to have an elected head of state (either by the public, parliament or other such body), not an appointed Governor General who is simply the deputy of a distant monarch, chosen personally by the Prime Minister.

The Crown is one of the best safeguards against abuses of power in our constituonal arsenal, and the checks and balances it provides would, on the contrary, be threatened by a republic. A private citizen who became head of state would bring her own political biases to bear. She might exercise the power of veto to prevent bills with which she disagreed from becoming law. Because the Queen’s powers are to be used only to defend the people’s democratic will, she does not override laws passed by our elected representatives. In Canada, for example, Conservative politicans have campaigned against same-sex marriage. In the United Kingdom, the Queen signed the Civil Partnership Act 2004 into law though she is said to be quite conservative on the subject in private. Would Stephen Harper have done the same thing? Canadians can be confident that no matter what their background or station in life, the Queen is a head of state of all of us, and not just those of her race or economic class.

To take another example from the current government, a great deal of controversy arose over the prime minister’s use of prorogation to avoid a finding of contempt of parliament. While the Governor General’s failure to intervene in this case is regrettable, it is an illustration of what the Crown is there to do for Canadians. An apolitical head of state chosen purely by historical and genetic accident can refuse a request for prorogation if it is deemed to be an attempt to thwart the will of the people.

New Canadians should not be subjected to swearing an oath to a monarch who not only isn’t a Canadian citizen herself, but also, in some cases, represents many aspects of what prospective citizens are trying to leave behind. They’re coming to Canada to embrace a way of life that emphasizes equality and the rights of the individual, not peerage, royalty and classism.

The oath to the Queen is sworn because she is the ceremonial embodiment of Canada. We do not pledge to till her fields as vassals. Republics have to find other “personifications” such as the quasi-idolatrous “Pledge of Allegiance” to the American flag. Despite her relative (and often overstated) affluence, the Queen is not an enemy of the working class or a drain on the wallets of Canadians. The cost of her maintenance is less than that of many other heads of state and pales in comparison to the revenue her estates create for public benefit.

The Canadian way of life to which CCR refers is one that we have managed to establish quite successfully within our current system. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the most important expression of our values of individual rights and equality, is without parallel in the republic south of our border. The burden of proof is on republicans to show how those achievements are detracted by the monarchy or could be improved by an elected president.

... one thing that unites republicans throughout the Commonwealth is the belief that the transition will most easily be done by evolving the present Westminster-style parliamentary monarchies into Westminster-style parliamentary republics. This would retain a largely ceremonial, politically-neutral and symbolic head of state as president (with some reserve powers for special circumstances) and a prime minister as head of government.

... with the exception of being the representative of the People of Canada rather than the Crown, it's possible - perhaps even likely - that the functional change will barely be noticeable to most Canadians.

In other words, CCR doesn’t have a problem with what the Queen does per se; they just think it should be done by someone elected, but don’t really want to change the nature of the office itself By their own admission, the years of constitutional overhaul they propose would not change very much. It is unclear then how our society would be more free or just simply by changing the means of selecting the head of state. If anything, an elected head of state would be less effective as a democratic “referee” since he would be accountable only to that portion of the populace to which he owes his election.

1 comment:

Ed Doerksen said...

I stumbled upon your blog and found the writing of this article very interesting.

Some parts I agree with and others I don't. I am not sure if I would support the Republic of Canada, even though that would be the final fulfillment of the BNA Act of 1867.

The beauty of the "Crown" is a good safe guard, unlike other republics where that safe guard is gone. It would be difficult to maintain that safe guard as a republic.

As a republic though would we not need to develop a new constitution?

The BNA Act begins with an already established government(s) as being supported by the Monarchy or Britain. Would we not need to change that direction to be more specific to something like "We the People" and that power to rule comes from the people.

That is something that the Fathers of Confederation deliberately wanted to avoid. That is why the BNA was written the way it was.

Government was already established, therefore the people were and are secondary to the development and establishment of power and authority to rule.

With the party system as we have it now, does not truly represent the people in Ottawa. The reality is that the people elect a representative of a party to represent the party to that constituency.

This was brought out quite bluntly by Jean Chretien who told his party members that they do not represent the people, but rather they represent the party to the people.

That in itself shows that government and the established forms of government are over and above the people. Therefore the people are only secondary in the provisions of the authority to rule.

Anyways, I like you blog. Take care and cheers.