JJ McCullough questions some of the gushing over our apparently monarchist Prime Minister.
Upon meeting Queen Elizabeth for the first time in 1999, Opposition Leader Harper said he enjoyed the experience, but nevertheless felt the need to preface his comments by warning that “I’m not a strong monarchist, I’m really not.” In his wonderfully cynical 1997 US speech on the Canadian system of government, all he could likewise muster about the role of the Crown was a dryly comic observation that “our executive is the Queen, who doesn’t live here.” At his first throne speech, Harper similarly ditched the longstanding practice of wearing a full Victorian “morning suit” with striped pants and vest, outraging some monarchists at the time for his sartorial casualness on a royal occasion.
As far as I can tell, dismissive gestures like these are every bit as relevant to Harper’s understanding of the monarchy as his other, more cloying noises of support. Like most members of the Canadian political class, Harper politely respects the monarchy to the extent he is supposed to. He has no desire to change the status quo, but is not unaware of its absurdities and ironies, either. This is a position of pragmatism and institutional conservatism, and the republican in me doesn’t care much for it. But robust monarchism it is certainly not.
That first quote from Mr. Harper is actually from a 2002 interview, in which the leader of the opposition pronounced his meeting with the Queen to be the highlight of his year.
“I’m not a strong monarchist, I’m really not, but it was a real enjoyable meeting,” Harper told Sun Media. “It was really fun and it’s really something I’m going to remember.”
As the leader of the official opposition, Harper was invited to a private audience with Queen Elizabeth while she was in Ottawa over Thanksgiving. Harper said he spoke to the Queen for about 30 minutes and said they had a “very interesting” conversation. “Afterwards, the significance of it kept growing on me … she’s very bright and very well informed, and actually, very easy to talk to.”
Six months after he became Prime Minister, Harper travelled to England and delivered what Graham Fraser called “one of the most monarchist speeches a Canadian prime minister has given since John Diefenbaker.” Fraser noted that the Prime Minister’s staff had rehung a picture of the Queen on a wall of the PMO and he linked the monarchist rhetoric to an appeal to Progressive Conservatives and traditional Toryism.
Two years ago there was the public correcting of Michaelle Jean after she suggested the Governor General was Canada’s head of state. You could, if perhaps indirectly, add the insistence of some within the Harper government to celebrate July 1 as “Dominion Day.” And Jason Kenney’s speech at last Friday’s citizenship ceremony is probably also of note.
In addition to McCullough’s theory that it’s much ado about nothing and Fraser’s theory that it’s an appeal to Toryism, it might be suggested that the monarchy fits with the “patriotic vocabulary” the Harper Conservatives have tried to associate themselves with. That rhetoric tends to appeal to classic symbols of Canadiana—the military, the Arctic, hockey—and the monarchy would seem to fit in among those.