Canadians Deserve to Vote on Breaking With the Monarchy

New polling suggests that a majority of Canadians want a vote on maintaining their country’s link to the British Crown. Imagine that: a long-overdue, democratic debate on cutting ties with a wildly undemocratic institution.

Charles III waves goodbye before departing Yellowknife, Canada, after a Platinum Jubilee Royal Tour of Canada on May 19, 2022. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images)

The Canadian response in the days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II might best be characterized as one of ambivalence. Which is to say: as political elites have engaged in a rather strained, week-long official mourning, average citizens have mostly responded with something resembling a collective shrug. Unlike Australia, which in 1999 held a referendum that only narrowly voted to maintain ties with the monarchy, Canada has never had a strong republican movement. On the other hand, aside from a few particularly embarrassing characters on social media and a weird monarchist strain running through the Conservative Party, the opposing position isn’t passionately held either — the result being that the issue has rarely been discussed or debated.

That debate, to put it mildly, is long overdue. And, as newly published polling would seem to suggest, Canadians’ general ambivalence may in fact be crystallizing into something a bit more clearly defined. Like most public opinion polls, the data freshly released by Ipsos has its share of ambiguity. Eight in ten respondents, for example, believe that Queen Elizabeth II “did a good job in her role as monarch” while a much narrower majority of 56 percent expressed their confidence that “King Charles III will do a good job in his role as monarch.” The study’s top-line finding, however, is still striking:

Roughly half (54%) agree (20% strongly/33% somewhat) that now that Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has ended, Canada should end its formal ties to the British monarchy. This sentiment is down 5 points from 2021, but up from 44% in 2011.

Moreover, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed want a referendum on the future of the monarchy in Canada — up five points since the Queen’s death earlier this month.

For many political elites, the issue will be considered a nonstarter regardless of what the polling says. In an interview set to air this Sunday, for example, Justin Trudeau will reportedly dismiss the idea of a referendum and declare it a low priority. Constitutionally speaking, there’s little doubt that the actual business of abolishing the monarchy would be incredibly complicated. At the best of times, Canadian federalism is impossibly intricate, and constitutional change is a difficult feat to pull off (any change would also need to take into account important realities like existing treaties between the Crown and Indigenous peoples). Still, a referendum — in the form of a single question or possibly in several stages — could give such a process a democratic mandate and, if nothing else, would represent an occasion to seriously debate the issue.

For what it’s worth, the republican side of such a debate would have plenty of persuasive arguments at its disposal and, aside from bland appeals to tradition or “continuity,” it’s uncertain what monarchists could really offer in reply. Republicans, on the other hand, could make the case that breaking ties with the British Crown is the natural next stage of Canada’s development into a modern multicultural democracy.

Trudeau, for what it’s worth, has offered a basically small-c conservative defense of forgoing a referendum (“We are able to have all the strength of debates that we need to have in Canada without worrying about the overarching stability of institutions because they are embodied by structures that have been in place for hundreds of years.”) If anything, the authentically small-c conservative case in the tradition of Michael Oakeshott or even Edmund Burke is one tending toward severing ties rather than maintaining them: for all intents and purposes, Canada is already a pluralist democracy and, insofar as there was ever an argument for constitutional monarchy, it’s long been an anachronistic one.

As for the fine institutional details of how a prospective Canadian republic might be fashioned, those would require a still more complicated, and likely far more protracted, debate. Australia’s referendum question of 1999, for what it’s worth, straightforwardly proposed replacing the Queen and governor-general with a president appointed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament — which is certainly not a bad place to start. Regardless, now more than ever Canadians deserve a real debate about the future of constitutional monarchy. And, in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, it seems probable that the desire for one will only continue to grow.