How to Think About the Canadian Crown

From our archives. Geoffroy Boulanger explains why the Monarchy is central to who we are as Canadians — and how it became entrenched in the 1982 Constitution. A Primer for sceptics and, we suspect, for many monarchists too.


ON SEPT. 15, 2020 the Government of Barbados announced that the country would switch from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. The change, as the Governor General, Dame Sandra Mason, a former senior judge, said in a throne speech written by and for the Government of Barbados, would coincide with the celebration of the 55th anniversary of independence in November 2021. Republican status — in the words of Prime Minister Mia Mottley — would enable Barbados to “fully leave our colonial past behind.” Although there has been one previous statement of such intent in the recent past, it was never acted upon. Given that Barbados has become one of the most stable and well-regarded democracies in the Caribbean —and it is no accident that this occurred under a stable constitutional monarchy — the plan to become a republic raised some eyebrows. There are claims that Beijing has been exerting anti-monarchical influence behind the scenes to undercut a traditional institution (cf. "Barbados’ New Republic: A Win for China?" The Diplomat, Jan. 27, 2022).

While the degree of public support remains unclear, the official response from Buckingham Palace was (as one might expect) measured and carefully worded. In essence, the Palace said that this was a matter to be decided upon by the people of Barbados. Such an approach is entirely consistent with that taken in 1999 when the Commonwealth of Australia undertook a national referendum on the future status of the Australian Crown. The result was that the citizens of that realm decided to retain the status quo and remain a constitutional monarchy with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, Queen of Australia.

It is safe to assume that the Palace’s position would be precisely the same in all fifteen realms (in addition to the United Kingdom) where she is head of state, including Canada. But are there, in fact, any repercussions here in Canada? Specifically, might the advent of the Barbadian Republic, if implemented, serve as a catalyst for the small, yet often vocal, “republican” movement here at home?

It should be no surprise that Canadians who support constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system as the best form of government for Canada, would concur completely with the Palace: the matter should and must be decided by Canadians alone should the question ever formally be put. Such would be the most democratic and rational way to seek any such resolution.


YET HEREIN LIES a dilemma. From recent public opinion polling, it is quite clear that a large majority of Canadians have absolutely no idea — or, at best, very little understanding — of the role of the Crown in Canada and our system of government. It is perhaps not so surprising when put into context. The teaching of history and civics has long ago been abandoned by provincial governments in our public schools as part of any mandatory curriculum. How then could we ask Canadians to pass well-informed judgement on an integral part of our political system if they know little or nothing about it?

In celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as Queen of Canada in 2012, the federal government (Department of Canadian Heritage) issued a splendid production called A Crown of Maples (La Couronne canadienne). This 65-page illustrated booklet presents an accessible, succinct, and comprehensive overview of the history and daily functioning of the Crown both in the federal and provincial jurisdictions. At least until recently, copies were still available at no cost to the public and Canadians, especially educators, would be well advised to take advantage of this valuable resource.


BEFORE DELVING into constitutional monarchy as a central institution of our political system, it should be acknowledged that the Crown has long served as a powerful symbol of this country and its sovereignty. One sees its visual representation on currency and coinage, in courtrooms, on passports, medals, coats of arms, in our legislatures and a broad range of still other items and places across our society. Indeed, in a North American context, it is a powerful part of our identity that sets us apart from our American neighbours to the south. In the context of numerous controversies that dominate the American political landscape at present, it is interesting to take note of one of the principal differences between us.

While we in Canada have a head of state (the Queen, with her eleven representatives) and a head of government (the Prime Minister), the American president is both head of state and head of government. The immense powers and profile of the presidency have attracted a great deal of attention of late as he signs numerous executive orders, as have his predecessors.

What is perhaps not as well known is how this came to be. In their fervent desire to rid themselves of monarchy following the American revolution, the Founding Fathers created the office of President with powers precisely based on those of His Majesty King George III. Many of these powers have long since been removed from the Sovereign in the British system, as we and others evolved a system of constitutional monarchy with limited powers. Such presidential powers that remain include the right to choose his own cabinet, to veto legislation from the legislature (Parliament/Congress) and to conduct covert war — as the King had done centuries before. These powers remain with the president and the statement is often made in jest that citizens of the United States elect George III every four years.

As Canadians, we have adopted and adapted a system of constitutional monarchy that best suits our own particular requirements as a federated state. We can claim, with some considerable pride, that our system stretches unbroken back through history to Magna Carta and beyond. The Canadian Crown is indeed much more than a mere symbol; it is not only central to our identity but also remains a keystone of our system of governance that is perhaps one of the finest in the world, though no system is flawless.

As previously noted, the Crown is much more than a symbol; it is a political institution that is at the very heart of our democratic system of government - a constitutional monarchy with responsible government and a parliamentary structure. Students in political science 101 classes are taught the principles of both politics and political power. In a constitutional monarchy, power does not reside with any one person. Power rests with an institution that serves to safeguard it in the interests of all citizens. That institution is the Crown.

A key feature of our system is the principle that governments exercise power but never “own” it. Rather, power resides with the Crown and is only entrusted to governments to be used on behalf of all citizenry. Power remains with a non-partisan institution that is removed from the daily slings and arrows of politics. To use terms that may resonate: governments rule while the Crown reigns. As the eminent Canadian political scientist Frank McKinnon wrote, somewhat poetically: “In the one system, the soul of the nation is emphasized; in the other, merely the fact of a government.”


SOME MAY SAY that this is all just so much theory, word play or simply whimsical conjecture. While it is true that the reserve/prerogative powers of the Crown are few, they remain very real and are there to be used in extraordinary circumstances as may be required to safeguard our democratic principles - our peace, order and good government.

In this regard, it may be useful to remind ourselves of the issue of prorogation that arose during the term of office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. When first raised, many Canadians, including some scholars, ran to political dictionaries and text books to seek clarification. It was the Crown (Her Excellency the Governor General) who, only after careful reflection and due consultation with constitutional advisors, granted the Prime Minister’s request in the interest of ensuring the continuation of effective government. Make no mistake: the powers of the Crown may be few but are real and for good reason.

One could spend many hours and fill many pages, as have numerous scholars, by delving deep into the constitutionalities of the actual powers of the Canadian Crown (the Queen, Governor-General and Lieutenant-Governors), be they seldom exercised or not. However, because we live in a very “visual culture”, the words of Dr. McKinnon once again resonate with a very pertinent fact about the Crown in contemporary society:


The offices of Governor General and Lieutenant Governors are constitutional fire extinguishers with a potent mixture of powers for use in great emergencies. Like fire extinguishers, they appear in bright colours and are strategically located but everyone hopes that their emergency powers will never be used; the fact that they are not used does not render them useless.

Indeed, the reality that they are seldom “called into play” is a clear indication and validation of the strength of our existing institutions.


There are those who may still question the relevance of some of these views if not question the relevance of the Crown itself. Therefore, it is always critically important to remind ourselves of the nature of the Canadian federation and the structures put in place at the time of Confederation to ensure that the new nation would indeed flourish and prosper with peace, order, and good government. The Crown was then and is today central to how we govern ourselves, albeit quietly, discreetly and largely behind the scenes. In this regard, a principal strength of the Crown turns out to be one of its principal weaknesses. It works so well, both in the federal and provincial jurisdictions, that many people are not fully aware or appreciative of its ongoing daily role.

It is an interesting footnote of our history that, within five years of Confederation, legal judgements were made in this country that clarified the position of the provincial Lieutenant Governors. It was ruled that these individuals were not subservient to the Governor General but, rather, were as much direct representatives of the Sovereign in their provinces as was the Governor General at the federal level. Thus, Her Majesty The Queen has eleven direct representatives in Canada, each exercising key powers, roles and duties in her name as Queen of Canada. Many of us noted with great interest and gratitude that, during the tenure of office of David Johnston, the Governor General frequently referred to a coming together of equals when meeting with the Lieutenant Governors.


Quebec’s Defence

THE STATUS OF Lieutenant Governors is raised here in order to both recount an interesting moment in Canadian history and to make another salient point. During the 1980-81 discussions between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the provincial premiers that would eventually lead to constitutional patriation in April 1982, the issue of the Crown was raised. But it was Premier René Lévesque of Quebec who was one of the strongest defenders of the office of Lieutenant Governor. Why? He was not necessarily known to be the greatest monarchist around the table. Perhaps it was because he had an appreciation of the constitutional status of the provinces within confederation and viewed the safeguarding of the office of Lieutenant Governor as a further institutional guarantor of sovereign provincial status.

Levesque certainly was not alone in mounting such a defence. One of the key developments that flowed from patriation, beyond the creation of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was a clause that stated that any change to the Canadian Crown (the Queen, the Governor General, the Lieutenant Governors) would require the approval of the Parliament of Canada and all ten provincial legislatures. In short, it must be unanimous. It is a fundamental truth that, when the Queen signed the proclamation on Parliament Hill, the Canadian Crown was only further entrenched as a central feature of our system of government.


THOSE WHO suggest that we can quite easily do away with monarchy by simply replacing the Governor General with an appointed or elected individual, do not understand or simply choose to ignore the true nature of our federation, the realities of our current institutions and the processes that are constitutionally in place and required to preserve our democratic system of government. It is evident that such critics fundamentally do not appreciate the degree to which the Crown is woven deep into the very fabric of our society as well as system of governance, and the degree to which provinces view the Crown in a very special way that is not easily altered.

Beyond the faulty reasoning of what can only be considered to be a facile and somewhat spurious argument for the abolition of the Crown, the institution has manifestly evolved to meet the realities of our country. Those who clamor for a “Canadian head of state” conveniently overlook the fact that the Crown’s eleven representatives (Governor General and Lieutenant Governors) are all Canadians drawn from every walk of life, profession, racial, religious and linguistic group and have been for some time. Indeed, the Canadian Crown is, or can be, a bright reflection of who we are as a rich multicultural society and, through their chosen themes of office, can serve to profile and advance matters of concern to us all in the communities where we live. With Her Majesty as Queen and eleven eminent persons executing duties in her name, we have a collective institution that mirrors, or always has the potential to mirror, who we are and continues to be well-suited to our contemporary requirements.

In 1994, a year before his death, Robertson Davies made the following observation on the Canadian political system:


In a government like ours, the Crown is the abiding and unshakable element in government; politicians may come and go but the Crown remains and certain aspects of our system pertain to it which are not dependent upon any political party. In this sense, the Crown is the consecrated spirit of Canada.


Continuity and stability are perhaps the most distinguishable features of constitutional monarchy. In 1987, the thirty-fifth year of her reign, Queen Elizabeth II addressed Canadians in a speech delivered in Regina. She spoke from the heart when she stated:


The Crown represents the basic political ideals that all Canadians share. It stands for the idea that individual people matter more than theories; that we are all subject to the rule of law. These ideals are guaranteed by a common loyalty through the Sovereign, to community and country.


These are profound words indeed from the gracious and most remarkable woman who we are fortunate to have reign over us as Queen of Canada.


Geoffroy Boulanger is a retired civil servant. This article first appeared in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Autumn-Winter 2020, pp. 90-93. This article was also previously posted as "The Crown: A Primer."

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  • Sally Cunliffe on

    Canada and the Commonwealth has been interregnum for some time… as there is “the elephant in the room” which is the claim of Joseph Gregory Hallett King John III needs to be explored and discussed and acknowledged in 2023.

  • Gerry Gagnon on

    The idea that there is a ‘separation of powers’ is ludicrous when the Governor General is simply another Prime Ministerial appointment, without even any Parliamentary hearings. The GG is ‘independent’ only in theory, not fact, and has not provided any counter-balance to the growing powers of the PMO.

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