Who will be king of Canada?

Now they’re both in waiting. Whoever prevails, there’s never been a better time to renew our royal roots

Highnesses-in-Training greet Monarch of the North" © Charles Pachter 2011

Everything is in readiness for Prince William to receive Catherine Middleton on Friday, April 29, when she takes the long walk down Westminster Abbey’s storied nave and they pledge to each other “to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

The RAF trumpeters will be standing ready for their post-signing fanfare; the princess-to-be managed to get herself confirmed into the Church of England in the nick of time; Prince Harry will be planning some sort of practical joke in the manner of the better sort of best men; and the Middletons, père et mère, have probably worked out what on Earth they will say to the Prince of Wales and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall as they ride together during the carriage ride from the Abbey to Buckingham Palace after the ceremony.

Most of the burning questions of the day will have been answered by the day’s end, from the name of the fashion designer who got to make the Dress of Dresses to whether or not the bride’s over-the-top millionaire uncle (his colourful-sounding residence on the Spanish island of Ibiza is called La Casa de Bang-Bang) behaved himself at the palace. The only real question that can’t be answered, despite all the royalist hoopla, is whether or not William will ever be king. That’s king as in King of Canada.

Up until around the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, not many doubted the sovereign’s inherited right to sit upon the throne. But today the story is no longer about the man who will be king. Now there’s two of them waiting their turn: father and son, Charles and William. Undoubted right, alas, no longer exists. The monarchy, like everything else, has to justify itself.

In Canada, it’s complicated in that the Canadian monarchy looks remarkably like the English one, minus most of the irritating bric-a-brac (like palaces, ladies in waiting, the royal mews, and the divorced duchess of York). We have made constitutional arrangements that pretty well ensure an automatic succession of the Crown of Canada from the reigning monarch, Elizabeth II, to her eldest son, the current Prince of Wales. This irks some; others are reassured, but still worry about the republican spirit of the age.

Among Canadians who resent our lingering connections to the Crown, there is a strong feeling that once Queen Elizabeth II has died, it will be the appropriate time to sever “our last colonial links.” The widespread respect and affection held for the Queen, however, undermines this argument. If she has done such a good job that we wouldn’t want to precipitate anything nasty before she dies, doesn’t that—in effect—make the case for a constitutional monarchy? There are other good reasons to retain the Crown in Canada, not the least being the way it has evolved into a Canadian institution through the viceregal offices of governor general and the 10 lieutenant-governors of the provinces. The Crown also gives us some practical and iconic different from You Know Who south of the border.

On the republican side are two big issues. First is the whole notion of a hereditary monarchy, especially one that favours the male gender and insists that the sovereign be a member of the Church of England. It simply goes against the grain to trust anyone in high office simply because of the circumstances of his or her birth, especially when it’s mostly “his.” Second, there is the question of the Prince of Wales, who is now almost routinely dismissed as a loose cannon, or—to give it some Canadian edge—a wild loon.

Prince Charles is one of the most intriguing human beings alive today. He has accepted that it will still be a long time before he is king, if he ever will be. Early on, he seems to have made a decision that if he was to leave any mark in the world, it wouldn’t be as a short-lived sovereign (his grandmother did live to 101 and his mother, the Queen, looks set to match the record), it would be as Prince of Wales.

Consequently, he has chosen to identify himself with causes that have won him many admirers, but also a wide swath of enemies, from outraged republican journalists, parliamentarians and modernist architects, to those who loathe alternate medicine and holistic religion. This is because he has been a courageous visionary, unafraid of controversy, for what are now crusading issues of deep concern, from massive pollution and other leading ecological battlefronts to working with the poor and disadvantaged. He gets terrible press in Britain, but by almost any measure he is a good man trying to do the best he can with the position fate has given him. He has refused to accept the dictum that because he is unelected, he has to shut up. On many of these issues, in fact, he sounds alarmingly…Canadian.

And then there’s this, which is pertinent right now. One of the nicest things about Prince Charles is the way he has been such a good father, despite screwing up his notoriously mismatched marriage. No broken marriage has ever been subjected to as much scrutiny as his and no one has carried on with as much grace. One of the nicest things about Prince William, too, is the way he clearly loves his father, is proud of his achievements and courage and defends him whenever he gets the chance.

Intellectually, the republican argument is hard to beat in the contemporary world. About the only thing that keeps it in check is experience, practical reality and the one thing the republicans utterly lack: the romance and magic of monarchy that has been worked into both the geography and history of Canada. Or, as Pascal famously pointed out, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

All this works in William’s favour. In addition, the Australian experience still resonates. When the only referendum on the subject was held in 1999, the majority of Australian sentiment, we were repeatedly told, was republican. The subsequent debate, however, became not one of monarchy versus republic, but between federal and state power and a clearly republican population that nevertheless opted to retain the Crown rather than give increased authority to an elected federal system. For Canada, as for Australia, the lesson was that this messy question is left best untouched and the status quo—which has the useful quality of actually working—is best left alone. Now, more than a decade later, republican sentiment in Australia has waned.

Not upsetting the apple cart isn’t much of a support system for a future King Charles III or King William V of Canada. It sounds a bit like, “Lie on your back, shut your eyes and think of Canada,” as the Crown stutters on in its strange, uncharted ways, attacked by leading academics and journalists but tolerated and sometimes loved by the public. Death by neglect and wilful ignorance looked set to be our heritage, and may still be. What was so interesting last summer in the great success of the Queen and Prince Philip’s trip to Canada, however, was not the remarkable enthusiasm of the population, but especially the degree to which the federal government supported the idea of the Crown and the person of the Queen as assets and part of the uniqueness of Canada.

Right now, there has never been a better time to renew our connection to our Crown roots: the wedding of the second-in-line to the throne and the imminent celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II also come at a time when Canada—despite all its issues and problems—seems, to outsiders anyway, the best and most fortunate country in the world. Crown and country: an old notion newly revived? God save the evolving status quo! Long may it reign!

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