Creeping Republicanism In Retreat

Go to the Governor General’s website, look at the main page introducing the Governor General, and you see a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with someone whose back is turned to the camera. That someone is David Johnston, the Governor General.

I know what you’re thinking. “So what?” I understand that reaction. But it’s a mistake. Because that little photo is indicative of a big change: The Crown is back.

Just a few years ago, the Governor General’s website was festooned with glorious colour photographs of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean CC CMM COM CD FRCPSC AD NAUSEUM. But the Queen? There wasn’t a single photograph of the Queen on the website of the Queen’s representative. In fact, there were almost no references to the Queen at all, and one could easily get the impression that the esteemed Michaëlle Jean was, in all but name, Canada’s head of state.

This was in keeping with much else that Jean had done during her tenure. And in keeping with much that Jean’s immediate predecessors did, along with many politicians and officials. Step by step, with an airbrushing here, a change of protocol there, republicans erased the monarchy from public consciousness. Bruce Beatty, the legendary designer of Canada’s medals and honours, was a proud monarchist who always tried to include the traditional symbols of Canada’s constitutional order in his designs – “but sometimes politics got in the way,” his colleague Major Carl Gauthier told the Globe and Mail in May, when Beatty died, “and he was pressured to delete the Queen’s effigy, cipher, or crown from designs.”

That’s the way the game was played. Slowly erase the visible presence of the monarchy. Quietly shuffle the Queen offstage. In her place: the governor general. The idea was to effect constitutional change by the tiniest of increments so that it could ultimately be presented as a fait accompli.

Canadians would shrug, wouldn’t they? After all, that’s how the name of our national holiday for more than a century was changed from Dominion Day to Canada Day. No debate and reflection. Just a few officials quietly fixing things when no one is looking and Bob’s your uncle. Apathy can be very useful.

In 2009, I wrote a column about creeping republicanism. “The idea behind all this is to ease the Queen out of the country’s consciousness and Constitution. When we have forgotten that we have a monarch, and the Queen has been rendered a constitutional dead letter, the Governor General will cease to act as head of state in the Queen’s absence. She will simply be head of state.”

Michaëlle Jean’s office responded with a letter to the editor. Superficially, it took issue with the column. But read carefully, it did not. Indeed, it concluded by saying that the website had information about the Governor General’s role – “a role that, like our country, continues to evolve.”

I posted the letter on my blog and concluded with this: “I cannot see how that can be read as anything but confirmation that the Governor General sees her role ‘evolving’ to become the actual head of state.”

Rideau Hall didn’t respond to that. And nine months later, shortly before Prince Charles was to visit Canada, in an official speech in France, Michaëlle Jean repeatedly referred to herself as “Canada’s head of state.”

I took some grim satisfaction in that. QED, indeed.

But then something remarkable happened: The head of government rebuked the head of state’s understudy. “Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada and head of state and the Governor General represents the Crown in Canada,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters.

Don’t mistake the current royal tour, wonderful as it was, for the watershed moment. It was that knuckle-rapping. Ever since then, creeping republicanism has been in retreat.

The website of the new Governor General looks like the website of the Queen’s representative, not a wannabe president, and the Crown has a prominence in the speeches of politicians that hasn’t been seen in years. It’s clear that at least some of Her Majesty’s ministers have a genuine feeling for Canada’s monarchy. (Republicans are advised not to diss the Queen within earshot of Jason Kenney unless they’re prepared for pistols at dawn.)

And after decades of being dropped and painted over, the symbol of the Royal Crown is making a modest return to the nation’s iconography. The Canada Border Services Agency, for example, has a new badge that restores what should never have been taken away.

Yes, I know. This is all trivia, right? Only people who collect commemorative plates with toothy royals on them could possibly care.

Wrong. For three reasons.

First, as we should have learned in 2008, obscure and seemingly trivial constitutional matters can very suddenly become urgent matters of national concern. Constitutional clarity is important.

Second, creeping republicanism promotes ignorance of our history, heritage, and constitution. In a 2008 poll Ipsos-Reid poll, only 24 per cent of Canadians correctly identified Canada’s head of state. (42 per cent thought it was the prime minister; 33 per cent, the governor general.) However you feel about the monarchy, that’s appalling – and it’s inevitable when officials sweep the symbols of Canada’s Crown under a Rideau Hall rug.

Third, we’re a mature democracy. Important changes should never be driven by a manipulative few relying on the ignorance and apathy of the many.

It is simply a fact that this nation is a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. Those who wish to change that should not deny it, distort it, paper it over, or cover it up. They should make their case.

And those of us who think the monarchy is a great Canadian institution will make ours.