History Should Count For Something

A few years ago, in a dusty little Ottawa Valley antique store, I found a portrait of the Queen dating from the coronation. The frame was handmade from roughhewed cedar planks. The portrait was newsprint – a page taken from the Toronto Star of June 2, 1953.

Of course I don’t know who made this little icon but there’s a good chance it was a farmer, or at least someone who had more skill in his hands than money in his pocket. I can see him carefully folding the page to size, cutting the cedar, staining the wood, nailing the pieces together. He hangs the portrait of the beautiful young Queen on the wall and smiles. He is satisfied with his work. And satisfied that the order he has always known, that his parents knew, and grandparents, will continue, with a new monarch as its symbolic head.

That was 60 years ago. He is likely long dead.

Does any of this matter in current debates about the monarchy? Does age count? Is there inherent value in an institution, or tradition, that has survived through decades and centuries?

Does that long-forgotten man and his small act of citizenship matter?

It often seems not. Most of those who call for the abolition of the monarchy that is the cornerstone of the Canadian constitutional order, and has been for as long as anything that looks remotely like Canada has existed, don’t even mention history.

Yes, they say, Queen Elizabeth is lovely. But when she dies, let’s junk the whole business and replace it with something or other. Make the governor general head of state. Whatever. People who talk this way seldom think carefully about the implications of what they’re proposing, which are far more profound than they realize, nor do they give any weight to history. All that has been, all that would be severed and discarded, goes unmentioned, or is dismissed casually, with a shrug.

So it’s old. Who cares?

We’ve seen that attitude expressed at other times, in other ways.

There was a period, after the Second World War, when “new” meant plastic, Formica and all things shiny and wonderful. “Old” was simply in the way. The result was a wave of destruction as old buildings were reduced to rubble and replaced without the slightest consideration for what would be lost. We have regretted that mania ever since.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that mentality, at least in our built environment. We protect heritage architecture. We know that age has inherent value.

Anyone can see that by taking a careful look at the Stanley Cup. Donated by an English nobleman to the winner of the “Dominion Hockey Challenge,” everything about it is archaic, right down to its curlicue decorations, but its very visible age doesn’t diminish its value. It is its value. Its age makes it a symbol of continuity, stitching together decades and generations. It is the history of hockey in one object.

Of course age alone does not place venerable things or institutions beyond all other considerations. Old trees are still cut, old buildings torn down. Change continues, as it must, always. The Stanley Cup has been reshaped and altered countless times. The monarchy itself is the product of a thousand years of constant revision.

But today we only make these changes after careful consideration of what would be gained and lost – with history weighing heavily on the latter side of the scales.

That’s what’s missing in glib calls to junk Canada’s monarchy. There’s no appreciation that the monarchy is this nation’s oldest institution, no weight given to history, no respect for age.

For me, this year’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee brought back vivid memories of the Silver Jubilee. It was 1977. I was a nine-year-old boy growing up in a tiny town in northern Ontario. At school, Mrs. Gillett led us in the singing of God Save the Queen.

Even way back then, the Queen had reigned for more years than a little boy can fathom. A quartercentury earlier, when that farmer was framing a page from the Toronto Star, Queen Elizabeth’s first Canadian prime minister was Louis St. Laurent. Her first British prime minister was Winston Churchill.

These were names buried deep in the history books, but the lady on the stamps and coins knew them well, and connected us all to them.

And the Queen is herself just one ring in the old tree’s trunk.

At my cottage, I have a framed portrait of the Queen’s great-great grandmother, Victoria. The fine print at the bottom reads “Published with The Montreal Witness by John Dougall & Son, Year of Jubilee, 1867.” The painting is a classic, the same one that appears on bottles of Bombay Sapphire gin. I got it at an antique store in Eastern Ontario. The owner had recently moved from Montreal. She bought it at a Westmount estate sale. Judging by the layers of grime that came off the glass, it hadn’t been cleaned since the 19th century.

Aside from giving posterity the image that would adorn gin bottles forever, Victoria reigned over the evolution of responsible government, signed Canada into existence, made Ottawa the capital, and had her name scattered across the landscape from sea unto sea. Her birthday is one of this country’s oldest traditions, having been officially celebrated as Victoria Day, on the 24th of May, since 1845.

The combined reign of Victoria and her great-great granddaughter covers 94 of this country’s 145 years of existence – so far – making Canada one of the only countries in the world that can say its head of state has been a woman for most of its history.

It’s hard to imagine anything more Canadian than the portrait in my cottage. John Dougall & Son even had the good sense to decorate it with maple leaves.

I think this is all worth something. And I think its value will only grow.

We live very long lives in a world that changes with astonishing speed. Even now, little of what we know as children survives as long as we do, and even less remains to stitch together decades, generations, and centuries. If the pace of change continues to accelerate, and lifespans continue to lengthen, that will steadily become all the more true. And the threads that remain will become all the more precious.

Of course, as I said, there’s much more to the debate about monarchy than history and tradition. But surely it’s incumbent on those who would do away with the Crown to acknowledge what we would lose and explain why we should suffer that loss.

Previous post: