The death of Queen Elizabeth II has prompted a slightly embarrassing outpouring of grief and praise. In Canada, it has also induced pledges, from Liberal politicians, journalists, and business executives, to continue the monarchic tradition.
The majority of Canadians would prefer to elect the head of state — only one in five express a preference for continued ties to the royals. Yet Thursday’s news gave rise to a cavalcade of politicians, journalists, and business groups eager to ensure that the deceased queen’s legacy endures.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — the son of one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers and head of the same party that has ruled Canada for seventy-two of the past hundred years — announced the royal’s death “with the heaviest of hearts.” Calling the deceased royal “one of my favorite people in the world,” Trudeau went on to celebrate the Queen’s “constant presence in our lives,” as “Her Majesty’s reign spanned so many decades.” Pledging a “national day of mourning,” the prime minister insisted that the Queen’s initiatives — whatever they were — “will forever remain an important part of our country’s history.”
Toronto mayor and former Rogers CEO John Tory praised the Queen as a “beacon of eloquence” and “stability.” He also directed warm and fuzzy feelings toward the now reigning King Charles III “on behalf of the people of Toronto” and with a mind to “the many people throughout the Commonwealth.”
Former Bank of Canada governor and Brookfield investor Mark Carney said he too was “deeply saddened by the passing of Her Majesty. We are all indebted to the Queen for her lifetime of service.”
This outrush of acclamation for the dead monarch represents more than simple sentiment about the Queen. The homages are also a reminder that Canada’s elite has never found justification for the status quo through the light of reason — instead, it has always turned to the feudal mythos that underlies the idea of inherited privilege. The Crown is the vital guiding star for Canada’s antidemocratic political architecture and the legitimizing myth for elite power.
The Crown and Canadian Political Power
The Toronto Star insisted the deceased queen “loved Canada, and Canada loved her back.” Canada’s national paper, the liberal Globe and Mail — founded as an opponent of gentry rule and as an advocate of “responsible government” in the nineteenth century — tells us that the Queen’s reign demonstrated that the rule of an unelected monarch is better than that of an elected head of state. According to the Globe, the Queen, “in her continuity, her dignity and her deep understanding of the machinations of power and the swells of historical movements,” posted “a sterling rebuttal to republican forms of government.” The Globe applauds the unelected head of state for saving Canada from the prospect of “a duly elected rogue” with “the power to ravage simultaneously the prestige of both the executive and ceremonial offices.”
The majority of ordinary Canadian’s feelings for the monarchy range from indifference to contempt. It is difficult to argue that the royal family — an enduring symbol of inequality, tied throughout the past century to coup plots, backroom deals, Nazi holidays, pedophile rings, to violent imperial profiteering, and general creepiness — deserves any better.
Yet Canada’s elites and its governing class admire the royals and evidently want their legacies to endure. These defenses of the monarchy stress that it is a ceremonial role of little political consequence, but in the same breath note that it is a force for maintaining stability. It cannot be both of these things at the same time.
As Andrew Coyne observed several years ago in an article titled “Defending the Royals,” “the Crown, as an institution, is woven into every line of our constitutional order.” Day-to-day governance may take a backseat to the royal family’s hobbies — from poaching to collecting stamps — but the institution and its unelected, unmoving personnel underpin the entirety of Canadian political power. Coyne notes:
The Crown principle is at the root of all executive power. It is the foundation stone of our system of laws (the “Queen on the Bench”), our courts and legislatures: the “Queen in Parliament,” embodying the Crown, Commons and Senate. It is the common fount of federal and provincial sovereignties. It is the basis of our system of land tenure, of the Indian treaties, of an impartial civil service, with a whole body of precedent attached to it.
Under Canada’s constitution, all laws must be approved by the Crown. The Crown is also the “Command-in-Chief of the Land and Naval Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada.” In 2013, Ontario’s Superior Court observed that “even if most of the prerogative powers are today exercised on advise of the prime minister,” it remains the case that “the Queen retains authority over ‘the prerogative of mercy, the grant of honors, the dissolution of Parliament and the appointment of ministers.’”
Simply put the “stability” that the royals maintain over Canada is more than ceremonial. It is, as the National Post put it, “a final defense” of established norms over and above elected governments.
Monarchy: Emblem for Hierarchy
With liberalism in crisis around the world, many of its proponents — from Adam Gopnik to John Ralston Saul — have looked to Canada’s antidemocratic structure as a preferable alternative to majority rule. Prime Minister Trudeau himself, with his celebration of the monarchy’s autocratic “stability” and his long-standing campaign against “polarization,” hints at this same viewpoint, consciously or otherwise.
Even nominal principles of popular sovereignty were absent from the founding of the Canadian state. In an 1865 speech during the confederation debates, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, an explicit opponent of universal suffrage, celebrated Canada’s “connections with England,” whereby “under her protection . . . the perpetual risk of ‘unbridled democracy’ is kept in check.” Canada’s much-celebrated Charlottetown Conference was a series of backroom deals conducted by thirty-six men, largely in private, that ran counter to the will of entire regions of the country in order to establish, in Macdonald’s words, a “different colonial system.”
A better-known instance of naked power usurpation occurred when the Fathers of Confederation safeguarded the class position of Canada’s unelected Senate with property requirements for all members. Macdonald made the case on the grounds that “the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.”
As Gustavus Myerson observed in his landmark study, History of Canadian Wealth, by 1914, fewer than fifty people controlled “more than one third of Canada’s material wealth as expressed in railways, banks, factories, mines, land and other properties and resources.” Today, fewer than five hundred people dominate the boards of Canada’s top 250 firms, and many of those people descend directly from other executives.
While all capitalist states have their legitimizing myths, Canada’s status quo — legal and, by extension, social — is underpinned by unremitting reference to the royals, whose legitimacy is explained in an actual government document by pointing to the “Grace of God.” Canada’s defenders of the status quo see in the monarchy a reliable, “last resort” to maintain “stability” and prevent potential major upsets resulting from popular will.
Canadian elites, in their invocation of and abiding love for the royals, freely admit that the status quo is justifiable not due to reason, purpose, or function, but because of tradition and the supernatural divine right of kings. For these people, the stability that allows the rich to live like feudal lords will endure, in Canadian politics and law, by virtue of feudal mystifications.