Should Canada get rid of the Royal Family? It’s the debate that, like the 95-year-old Queen herself, just keeps on going. Now, after the tiny country of Barbados kicked the monarchy to the curb, Canadians are asking whether we should do the same. According to a recent Angus Reid poll, more than half of us think our status as a constitutional monarchy needs to change at some point, while 25 per cent are happy staying tied to British royalty.
That’s a 15-point drop from 2016, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given how the last few years have gone for the royals. Never mind the damage the Netflix series The Crown has done to their reputation, or the resurgence of interest in Princess Diana and her mistreatment by the House of Windsor. There’s also the racism that ultimately caused Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to abandon their royal duties and move west to California, not to mention the ugly revelations about Prince Andrew and his friendship with the world’s most (in)famous sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. At this point, the only useful function the royals perform is serving as a very visible reminder of what a dysfunctional family really looks like.
That dysfunction will only become more obvious, and more manifest, when the era of Queen Elizabeth II ends. Her enduring personal popularity has helped distract from just how irrelevant and inconsequential the Royal Family is to modern Canadian life, but that distraction won’t last forever. Aside from the small and shrinking clutch of monarchists in Canada, who still pine for the red ensign nearly 60 years after it was replaced with the maple leaf, there won’t be many people left who are loyal to the institution or willing to fight very hard for its preservation.
I can hear those remaining monarchists practically shouting: what about the role the Queen and Crown play in Canada’s political system? Well, it’s basically the political equivalent of an appendix, a once-useful organ that has outlived its purpose and role. Yes, they theoretically possess emergency powers that can be used to refuse royal assent to a piece of legislation or dismiss a government, but the odds of that actually happening are about the same as Barack Obama and Donald Trump teaming up to fight the spread of online misinformation. For all practical intents and purposes, our politics are independent of the Royal Family’s influence, malign or otherwise, and Queen Elizabeth effectively signed off on that when she put her name on the Constitution Act in 1982.
It’s one thing to oppose the monarchy in a survey, though, and a much different one to actually remove it from Canada’s constitutional architecture. As University of Waterloo political science professor Emmett Macfarlane has been telling journalists for years, the cost-benefit analysis on this for Canada’s politicians just doesn’t add up. Removing the monarchy and replacing it with a new system — most likely, a republic — would require the unanimous consent of all 10 provinces, the House of Commons and the Senate, and Canada has never been able to pass a major reform with the so-called 7/50” rule (seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population).
It would also open the door to other constitutional grievances, from Alberta’s long-standing (and ill-informed) complaints about the equalization program to Quebec’s endless demands for more provincial autonomy. “Politicians are enormously reluctant, even unwilling to touch the Constitution because it’s automatically seen as a national unity issue,” Macfarlane told Global earlier this year. “It would be an enormously difficult undertaking, especially in the case of full abolition.”
Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, though. Repatriating the Constitution was seen in a similar light before Pierre Trudeau finally found a way to hammer out a deal with the provinces. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was a centrepiece of that deal, has transformed both Canadian jurisprudence and our shared identity as Canadians in ways that even its supporters could scarcely have imagined at the time. Removing the last vestiges of colonial rule from Canada’s political system — and placing Canada’s Indigenous Peoples at the heart of any potential replacement — could have a similarly transformative influence on our own future. If nothing else, it would spark an important conversation about who we are, and who we want to become, as a country.
Replacing our constitutional monarchy and the Royal Family with a republic isn’t without risk, as the increasingly dysfunctional republic to our south reminds us almost every day. All political systems have their strengths and weaknesses, and we need to be sure that we’re not trading a weakness we can live with — embarrassment, mostly — for one we can’t. But given the monarchy’s declining popularity and relevance, it’s probably time for a more serious exploration of something new. One of Canada’s great strengths has been its ability to adapt and evolve, and we may need to do both again.