How I learned to like the monarchy

As a ten-year-old, I was eager to see Princess Elizabeth when she visited Edmonton in 1951; a year before she became Queen. My parents and I lined the street along with hundreds of other Edmontonians to catch a glimpse of her, only a few blocks from where I lived.

  photo: Yousuf Karsh (1951)

I didn’t know anything about the monarchy. I probably would have been as enthused if she was a Disney princess. My parents probably understood the celebratory mood better. The pretty young princess and heir-apparent to the throne embodied both celebrity and power.

Older, I admired countries that had shed monarchies like the Republic of France with their evocative motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” I wanted Canada to be more like The Republic of the United States, our exuberant neighbour to the south.

Despite reservations about the monarchy, I liked the fact that Canada is part of a club: the Commonwealth of Nations of which Elizabeth is head. The motto of “free and equal” suited my sensibilities. In my twenties, I fancied myself as a citizen of the world. Since the Commonwealth spans the globe with 52 member states and one-third of the world’s population, it was a club worth exploring.

So in 1964, I quit work and spent a year traveling around the globe by ship visiting some countries in my Commonwealth: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, India, and the United Kingdom. Looking back, I marvel at how easy it was to visit and find work in those countries.

I’m less thrilled with the Commonwealth now but more comfortable with the monarchy. The queen represents stability at a time when countries are rocked by politics.

When a crisis arises, such as in B.C. when former Premier Clark clung to power, the Queen’s representative in B.C. plays a critical role. After the BC Liberals were defeated in a confidence vote, Clark wanted to call another election -something no one else wanted. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon sensibly refused the request and invited John Horgan to form an NDP minority government. Guichon’s decision was not arbitrary: it was the result of deliberation and consultation with others of the Queen’s representatives in Canada and in the Commonwealth club.

Now I’m less envious of the United States where government is mired in politics, a maniacal president runs amuck, and constitutional crisis looms. I’d be happy to lend them our Governor General to settle things.

The Queen is remotely located but locally represented by Lieutenant and Governors Generals. They represent a kind of glue that holds the Canada and the Commonwealth together in turbulent times. When their duties are not required, they sit on a stately ceremonial shelf; descending only to lend gravitas to public events, awards, and ceremonies.

The selection of the Queen’s representatives generates pride in Canadians. Julie Payette is just such a person. As an astronaut, she saw the entire Commonwealth in 90 minutes –something that took me a year to do and I only saw a faction of it. As a scientist she is an ideal role model for kids who look for inspiration from a remarkable Canadian.

Now I think that a constitutional monarchy makes eminent sense.

 Governor General fulfills important role, performs it well.  

After their success in bringing down privacy commissioner George Radwanski, the House of Commons Committee on Spending is looking for its next target.  Their attention is now shifted to Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.  But the committee will soon find out that the governor general is good value.

  Crest of the Governor General

Spending on Clarkson’s office is modest and in line with other countries.  We spend about 59 cents a year each on Clarkson’s budget.  Australia spends 56 cents, and Ireland 92 cents.

If it does its job, the Commons Committee will also find out that the role of the governor general should be strengthened, not weakened through self-serving witch hunts.  The governor general is an important ambassador of Canada’s  arts industry.

It wasn’t always so.

Former Canadian ambassador Fred Bild explains.  “It used to be that I had to dutifully attend visits by the Queen to foreign countries where I served.  We were expected to pay our respects to the Queen as Canada’s head of state.  What shocked me was that she was quite clearly traveling as the head of state of Great Britain.  She was promoting British projects, not Canadian.  After that realization, changes were made in the role of the governor general in which he or she became a quasi-head of state,” Bild told CBC radio.

Out of necessity, the governor general is evolving into Canada’s head of state on occasions when the Queen can’t or won’t.

Adrienne Clarkson is doing a good job.  Ex-ambassador Bild considers her to be the best.  Paul Wells, reporter for Macleans Magazine, became a believer after he saw Clarkson in action.  He used to think that the governor general and her entourage were a lot of snobs swilling at the public trough.  After Wells covered her trip to Germany in 2001, he was impressed by her intellect, stamina, and the quality of people that surrounded  her. “Foreign audiences are blown away that something this intellectual intense can come from Canada,” said Wells.

Russian President Vladimir Putin considered Clarkson to be an important representative of Canada.  He rolled out the red carpet when Clarkson came to call in Moscow.  It was the kind of reception that the president of the U.S. would get.  Putin and Clarkson discussed federalism, aboriginal issues and terrorism.  The meeting was “a landmark in the development of co-operation between Russia and Canada,” Putin said.

Unlike Australians, Canadians have an attachment to the governor general.  Professor David E. Smith of the University of Saskatchewan studied that attachment in his book, The Republican Option in Canada.  He found that the office of the governor general is connected to the people, our cultural mosaic, and bilingualism.  The g-g’s role is connected the land -Canada’s vast landscape and our north.  Australia has more republican sentiments because they were badly treated by Great Britain as a penal colony.  Canada was settled by immigrants who never looked at our monarch as part of a colonizing power.

The popularity of the g-g has even rubbed off on the provinces.  Provincial Lieutenants Governor have gaining  popularity as a vital connection to common people in a way that politicians can’t.  The only Canadians not happy with the governor general are those minority who prefer a republic, where the head of state and the head of government are one.  However, when you look for a good examples of  a republic, they are hard to find.  The U.S. is a republic but few American presidents exemplify the dignity and values that Canadians would want in a head of state.

The Commons Committee will back off from the governor general.  Not just because she is doing a good job, or because the good publicity that she generates worth much more than what she costs us.  Not just because the promotion of our arts industry abroad create jobs at home, or because the office of the governor general is a constitutional fact of Canada’s parliamentary monarchy.

The Commons Committee will back off because they could stir up discord in their respective parties.  Some federal Liberals would like the governor general to be the head of state instead of the Queen.  Some in the Alliance party would like Canada to be a republic like the U.S.  Monarchists in both parties support the governor general as representative of the Queen.  For their own sake, committee members will let sleeping dogs lie.