Canada and the Crown: John Fraser on Canada's affair with Royalty

Queen Elizabeth turns 86 on Saturday, an occasion no doubt for some Canadians to question the value of the monarchy. Writer John Fraser won't be one of them.

As Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Diamond Jubilee — and her 86th birthday on Saturday, April 21 —some Canadians may mark the occasion by questioning the future of the country's relationship with the Royal Family. John Fraser won't be one of them.

For years, he has been an ardent proponent and debater in defence of the Crown, which he carries forward in his newest book The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty. 

Fraser is a well-known journalist, the author of nine books and master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

CBC News interviewed Fraser about his new book, and his experiences with the Royal Family.


CBC News: The book's title is The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty. Why Crown and not monarchy?

John Fraser: I don't think monarchy works here. No one talks about the Canadian monarchy and you never hear it, you don't see it. But the Crown's all over the place, on all sorts of things, so that seemed to me appropriate.

Also, we don't really have a monarchy here. If we do I'd call it 'monarchy lite.' We're not weighed down with the burden of court officers and that sort of thing.

We have a constitutional system that seems to work quite well. It doesn't weigh heavily on our shoulders.

In the book, you refer to France's François I as the first King of Canada. Of all the Canadian monarchs since then, who's your favourite?

Queen Elizabeth leaves after attending a service for the Order of the British Empire, at St Paul's Cathedral in London, U.K., March 7. Of all the monarchs to reign over Canada, she is John Fraser's favourite. Olivia Harris/Reuters

The current one, because she's had the hardest time. She's the one that actually tried to make the transition from the sovereign of the empire and the Commonwealth.

She's done it in a dutiful, stoical way through endurance. In a way she's triumphed just by being her innate self, which is not a flashy Hollywood-type character, despite what Hello magazine tries to do to her.

She's just the old lady of the House of Windsor, very faithful and loyal to the mandate and the burden she's been given.

Have kings or queens been more effective for Canada?

Queens, for sure! The two diamond jubilee Queens. Victoria who never came here. She actually thought a lot about Canada.

One of the bits of fun about doing the book was looking at what I call the secret history because Canadian historians don't like acknowledging the sovereigns. And there's a whole realm of history of Queen Victoria.

It's not just that she chose Ottawa [to be the capital], it's that she got deeply involved in the beginning of her reign in the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada and was constantly asking questions of her leading ministers about what was going on.

What do your think of the Harper government's efforts at raising the profile of the monarchy?

Two things. On the one hand, the monarchy will die if the government doesn't support it. That's what was happening, it was dying slowly through unbenign neglect. So the fact that the Harper government respects the monarchy and the Crown and has made sure that it had the right sort of outlets, I think is great.

In terms of identification of one party with the Crown, that's a problem, on several fronts.

In his new book, author and journalist John Fraser makes the case for Canada keeping the Crown. (Massey College)

Inevitably, there will be a non-Tory government and it's important that none of the parties see the Crown as the creature of the Tories. So that is something for serious consideration.

On the other hand, if anyone thinks the heir to the throne's politics is the same as Mr. Harper's, they're living in cloud cuckooland. That, in a way, is a kind of corrective to thinking that the Crown is completely identified with the Tory party.

The Prince of Wales is a tree hugger and Mr. Harper is a tree-feller, if I can use that phraseology.

What's the best thing to happen to the monarchy in recent years?

William and Kate. That's a fairly regular thing. Young people tend to revive all families.

And what's the worst thing to happen to the monarchy or the Royal Family?

The worst thing was Diana.

But also one of the best things. She woke them up and she also nearly destroyed them.

She rattled them from their long-term complacency that they're doing their duty, which they were doing. She shook them into some greater sense of contemporary style. Her biggest bequest is those two boys, who are recognizable, contemporary human beings.

I should tell you that I am a former student of Michael Bliss...

Who I'm having fun debating right across this great country of ours. We've done two debates so far and there are two more to come.

Bliss makes the argument, "There's an anachronism that in 21st-century Canada, no Canadian can aspire to be our country's head of state." Why is it important that the monarchy be hereditary?

It solves a lot of problems for a country like Canada. It removes it from being an issue .

Some of the detritus of history — the monarch in Britain couldn't be succeeded by a Roman Catholic, or the sovereign-to-be couldn't marry a Roman Catholic, that it was the first-born male — that's being addressed. But it took a long time to do it and that was a key argument in republican circles.

It's very useful to a fractious country to have succession of the formal head of state, which is under a notion of the Crown, solved for us. We don't have to elect it or whatever.

The control over the headship of the country is actually the prime minister. Because they nominate who's going to be the governor general and the lieutenant governors, the will of the people is expressed that way. And the will of the people, in the end, is expressed by the sovereign, because if the vast majority of Canadians chose not to have the Crown, it wouldn't exist. It's a strange institution.

Bliss in the debate makes a prediction that there will be, "somewhat of a political and constitutional crisis in Canada if Charles suddenly succeeds his mother on the throne and the Canadian people are told that the matter is none of their business."

I don't believe for a moment that Professor Bliss is right.

In Charles' own case, he's figured it out. He knows if he wants to make his mark, it's going to be as the Prince of Wales.

In a way, he can be much more of an involved citizen as Prince of Wales than he can be as sovereign, and he's made the most of that. That's why he's controversial. He speaks out on things he couldn't possibly speak out on as sovereign and I think he made that realization a long time ago.

Speaking of the person, what's it like to talk to the Queen?

If it's not at a stiff reception, it's fine. She's interesting. I've had three conversations. Two have been stiff  and one was interesting and I tried to recount it in my book.

You also write about what it felt like, almost physically.

It's scary. It's like talking to your currency. The face is very familiar and you cannot quite believe you're in that kind of proximity. That's part of what we do to all celebrities. The Queen's been around so long, our whole life's set against her, one way or another, greater or smaller.

How did meeting the Queen compare to meeting the Queen Mum?

The Queen Mum's a hoot. She's fun to meet. I met her on a few occasions and she was always easy to talk to and curious.

When I was much younger, through a bizarre sequence of coincidences, I ended up being presented to her with a girl I had just broken up with and we proceeded to have an argument in front of the Queen Mother, which was not the most efficacious moment in my life.  She more or less said, "Children, children, this will pass."

You write about that in the book, which left me wondering, what was the argument about?

I was a university student in St. John's, Newfoundland, and I was given the assignment of covering the Queen Mother's visit in 1967, the centennial year. I got a working press invitation aboard the Britannia, which had brought the Queen Mother to St. John's. It was a reception for the provincial cabinet.

Up to three days before, I used to date the daughter of the minister of health and we broke up nastily, it was not pleasant. I got dropped. I wasn't pleased about it and I said some terrible things, a telephone book was hurled my way, I stormed out, blah, blah, blah. Your usual 21-year-old break-up.

I got on with my life, sort of, but thought bitter thoughts. The next thing I knew I was aboard the Britannia and I saw, to my horror, the minister of health coming with his daughter as his escort, rather than his wife.

I thought I'll just keep a distance, then at one point I backed up at the railing, trying to keep my distance and smashed the back of her shoe. I didn't realize she was right behind me.

She said, "Watch it!" And I said, "You watch it!"

At that point an equerry for the Queen Mother came up, with a steward behind,  and took our drinks and said, "Oh, the Queen Mother would so like to talk to some younger people." And off we went.

As we went, I knew it was going to be a disaster. I knew I'd talk too much, which I do when I get nervous. And I knew we'd get into an argument.

It was silly. She said she didn't remember the Queen's visit. And I said, "That's because she wasn't born for another six years, your majesty."

And she said, "No, John, I've seen lots of films by daddy and I know everything that happened on that trip. And I said, "Oh, well then, daddy."

And the Queen Mother, she just started smiling and said, "Children, children, this will pass."

The next day at government house, the lieutenant governor was taking the Queen Mother around and he saw me and he said, "Your Majesty, here's a young journalist from Toronto, Mr. Fraser." And she said, "Oh, we've met!"