Thursday, 22 October 2009

Time to revisit the monarchy?

This column appeared in Wednesday's Ottawa Citizen. It is written by Andrew Cohen, who is President of the Historica-Dominion Institute whose mandate is supposedly "to build active and informed citizens through a greater knowledge and appreciation of the history, heritage and stories of Canada."

Our own Nathan Tidridge, the League's Education Coordinator and himself a teacher in Canadian Civics, offers the following rebuke:

It was Adrienne Clarkson who wrote that, concerning Canada’s democratic traditions, “there is an abysmal lack of knowledge about the system.” These words echoed in my mind as I read the letter written by the president of The Historica-Dominion Institute, Andrew Cohen.

As a teacher of Canadian Civics I find myself in complete agreement with our former Governor General: we do not understand how we are governed in this country. Mr. Cohen’s suggestion to simply declare the governor general as Head of State once The Queen of Canada dies displays a lack of knowledge of our parliamentary democracy. If we are going to have the “adult conversation” Mr. Cohen suggests about the Crown in Canada we need to educate ourselves about what eminent political scientist David E. Smith describes in his book, The Invisible Crown: The First Principal of Canadian Government, as the “. . .organizing force behind the executive, legislative, administration, and judiciary on both the federal and provincial spheres of government.”

The fact that only 24 percent of the population know that The Queen is the source of our political and legal authority is deplorable – it speaks to the poor treatment our political institutions have received over the years. Mr. Cohen contends that the end of the Canadian monarchy is simply “a manifestation of maturity.” Cohan forgets that such events as the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 entrenched the Crown in Canada, strengthening its position at the centre of our democracy. A superficial survey of history denies Canadians the depth and richness that centuries of political evolution have given us.

True, Australia did explore the possibility of becoming a republic in 1999. However, this plan was sidelined over the issue of legitimacy and authority of an Australian president. Put simply, the governor general receives their authority from The Queen, and when the monarch is removed there is nothing left to legitimize the existence of the Queen’s Representative. Simply renaming the “governor general” as “president” creates a host of new problems: Who elects the president? If the president is given a mandate by an electorate what is their relationship with the prime minister (the Head of Government)? How do we ensure that a politicized office represents all Canadians? What institution will protect Canadians against an abuse of power?

There are other realities to contend with as well: First Nations’ treaties are with The Crown, not the government of the day; the Crown provides the foundation for Confederation and inter-provincial /federal relations; the Crown provides a unifying force in a country that can be easily divided.

I welcome a national debate. However, Canadians need to educate themselves about what they could potentially loose. The Crown has roots that run deep in this country – it is a defining institution in our political and cultural make-up. By simply labeling Elizabeth II as the “Queen of England” (a title that has not existed since 1603 with the death of Elizabeth I) and a relic is an immature argument. Such a statement denies centuries of cultivation by Canadians of their constitutional monarchy. Let’s get educated about the subject and have a serious debate.

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