Monarchist League getting younger, more dynamic, say members

With media coverage of the monarchy ramping up in light of Prince William and Kate's nine-day visit to Canada, mentions of the Monarchist League of Canada are surfacing in the news. CBC News takes a closer look at this small group of royal enthusiasts.

Who are Canada's monarchists, and what do they do when the royals aren't in town?

With media coverage of the monarchy ramping up in light of Prince William and Kate's nine-day visit to Canada, mentions of the Monarchist League of Canada are surfacing in the news. CBC News takes a closer look at this small group of royal enthusiasts who are passionate about getting Canadians to care about the monarchy beyond just the pomp and circumstance of royal weddings and visits.

Founded in Ottawa in 1970, the league has about 10,000 members today based throughout the country, although it is strongest in the Greater Toronto Area and southwestern Ontario, followed by the greater Vancouver and Vancouver Island area. 

The coat of arms of the Monarchist League of Canada. The league was given the right to be granted a coat of arms, crest, motto, supporters, a flag and a badge by the Canadian Heraldic Authority in 1998 and officially adopted this design in 2000. (Courtesy of Monarchist League website)

The self-funded group has no paid staff and no bricks and mortar offices per se. The membership dues it collects go mainly toward the maintenance of its website and the publication of a newsletter, the Canadian Monarchist News, which comes out one to three times a year.

The league's members come from all walks of life, age groups, ethnicities and political affiliations, says Matthew Rowe, spokesman for the league's Ottawa branch.

"One of the most interesting things about monarchists is there really isn't a typical profile," said Rowe, 30, who joined the league when he was 16. "We cut across demographics.

"It's a real mix — everything from students to CEOs to everything in between."

Youth driving membership

In 2006, the league garnered some unwanted attention when its founder, John Aimers, was named in a class action lawsuit alleging he and two other teachers sexually abused students at Selwyn House private boys' school in Montreal.

Aimers was a Parliament Hill staffer at the time he founded the league but worked as a debating coach at Selwyn House in the 1970s and went on to teach at schools in Toronto and Oakville, Ont.

He has denied any wrongdoing but resigned as chairman of the group and signed a settlement agreement Selwyn House reached in the class action lawsuit, launched by 35 former students. The allegations against him have not been proven in court.

Today, the league is led by Robert Finch, a 33-year-old sales and marketing professional based in Hamilton, Ont., and has a network of 20 branches across Canada.

Young people, the group says, make up the fastest-growing segment of its membership, with roughly 15 per cent of the league's members age 25 or under. The league has undergone a generational transformation in the past decade or so, Finch said, and is a much more youthful organization today than when he joined in 1998.

Today's monarchists are less focused on writing letters, holding meetings and using league branches as social gatherings and more focused on employing tools like Twitter, Facebook and the league's website  to engage with the public on the subject of the monarchy.

"To me, that … [transformation is] something we should be really proud of," Finch said.

These days, league branches are encouraged to hold fewer meetings and more public outreach events that appeal to the broader community, rather than just to members.

Prince William and Kate visit Maison Dauphine, which provides services to underprivileged children and families, in Quebec City on July 3, 2011. Young people have been particularly enthusiastic about the royal couple's visit and make up a growing segment of the Monarchist League's membership. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Part of that outreach has been the revival of monarchist clubs on university campuses, including at the University of Toronto, Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., the University of Ottawa and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. These clubs operate much like other student groups, with members organizing pub and movie nights, running Facebook groups and Twitter feeds but also writing articles in campus newspapers and otherwise spreading the word about the value of the monarchy in Canada.

"Campus clubs have a dual role: to gather like-minded people and to also be that voice of awareness for the Crown on campuses," says Tom Richards, 21, chairman of the league's youth network, who joined the league in his last year of high school.

Richards is part of a network of younger, personable spokespeople who have done a lot to raise the league's profile and attract new members in recent years. In Quebec, for example, the league's francophone spokesperson, Étienne Boisvert, helped harness the attention being paid to William and Kate's visit to the province into positive media coverage for the league.

"He's young and not what you would consider your stereotypical monarchist, so that helps to tell the story about who we are, that we're not just an organization of British ex-pats that get together, drink tea and reminisce about the Queen's coronation," Finch said. "We're much more youthful and vibrant than that, and we truly reflect the cross-section of Canadians."

In fact, interest in the league in Quebec grew so much during and leading up to the royal visit that the organization had to engage a second spokesperson to field enquiries from the public and the media, said Finch. Whereas membership in Quebec had been stagnant for years, last week, one in three new membership requests the league received came from francophone Quebecers, he said.

'Defenders of the Crown's honour'

Over the years, the league has launched campaigns against what it sees as slights against the Crown or government attempts to diminish Canada's royal heritage. Often, this amounts to policing the removal of royal symbols from public spaces or references to the Queen from government documents and correcting references to the "British" monarchy and other inaccuracies in the media.

"The monarchy, of course, has to remain neutral in politics," says Rowe. "So, the league serves the role of being the defenders of the Crown's honour … ensuring that it keeps its profile, [that] we respect our heritage and also just promoting education and understanding that Canada has always been a monarchy and it's an important part of our heritage and our identity as Canadians."

The league credits its lobbying efforts for convincing the government to shelve plans to remove references to the Queen from the citizenship oath on two occasions — in the late 1980s and '90s. In 1998, the group lobbied hard to get Canada Post to stock stamps with the Queen's image at all outlets and to hang her portrait in post offices in communities that demanded it. It also claims credit for a 2008 decision by BC Ferries to cancel plans to remove pictures of the Queen from its ships.

"It's important that people understand that it's not a political statement to have the portrait of the Queen up; it's a statement of fact," said Rowe. "This is our head of state, and it's important that people understand who our head of state is and the role that they play."

Government attitude changing

In recent years, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has shown an appreciation for the value of the monarchy and a willingness to restore royal symbols, Rowe said. Under its watch, a new citizenship guide has come out that emphasizes the role of the monarchy and the image of the Crown has been restored to the patch worn by customs officers on their uniforms.

The league attributes this new attitude toward the monarchy in no small part to the arm-twisting, subtle negotiating, public campaigning and persistent pestering of government officials its members have engaged in over the years.

"Those small battles that we've had for the last 10,15 years have really started to make a real difference," Finch said.

The chairman considers this change in Ottawa's attitude toward the monarchy to be the league's greatest accomplishment of recent years.

"It's seeing three back to back-to-back royal tours within three years," Finch said. "It's seeing such strong monarchist statements being made by ministers of the Crown; it's seeing Canada Post release royal-related stamps on a whim without putting up a fuss of doing so; it's seeing a new attitude change at Rideau Hall, the Governor General calling himself, proudly, the Queen's representative.

"All these things, which may seem subtle to a lot of people, have powerful meaning to them. To me, that is the legacy that we've tried to accomplish."

However, that doesn't mean the league's members will let their guard down or stop fighting the grassroots battles against the removal of royal emblems or other forms of "de-monarchization," says Rowe. 

"You can have the prime minister on side, you can have the government on side, but a lot of it comes down to an individual clerk in a town somewhere [who] decides to take things down," Rowe said. "We rely on the vigilance of our members to watch out for that stuff. You don't want to get on the wrong side of a monarchist; they're tenacious."

Dispelling myths about monarchy

Despite the warming attitude toward the royals in recent years, there are still a lot Canadians don't know about the monarchy, say the league's spokespeople.

"The real danger to the Crown is not committed republicans; it's that nobody knows how the system works," said Richards.

Educating Canadians about the place of the monarchy within Canada's system of government and national identity is a large part of the league's mandate. Members advocate on an individual and organizational level to remind Canadians that the monarchy still has an active role in Canadian life, to correct misconceptions and to foster an appreciation for the institution itself.

Some people still believe Canadians pay some sort of tithe to Queen Elizabeth II. A large part of what members of the Monarchist League do is to publicly dispel that and other myths about the role of the monarchy in Canada. (Akira Suemori/Associated Press)

"The education system in the last two decades or so has done a tremendous disservice to young people by either marginalizing the role of the Crown or just not even discussing it altogether," said Rowe. "So, there is a lot of confusion with how it operates, what sort of powers they have."

Some of the most common misconceptions have to do with how much the monarchy costs Canadians.

"There is the perception that because monarchy is glamorous, because there is a lot of razzle-dazzle, that it's expensive. It's actually much cheaper than a presidency," Rowe said.

As part of its effort to dispel myths about cost, the league publishes an occasional survey of expenses related to maintaining Canada's constitutional monarchy, including the cost of royal tours and the operation of the offices and residences of the Governor General and provincial lieutenant-governors. By its 2009 estimate, the monarchy costs each Canadian $1.53 per year, which many say is still too much for what Canadians get in return.

Royals back in favour 

While the league's membership tends to swell at times of royal weddings and visits like the current one of William and Kate, its most committed and motivated members tend to join when the institution is perceived as being under threat, Rowe said. It was at just such a time that the league was first founded — on the heals of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when institutions like the church and the monarchy were fast falling out of favour — and not just in Quebec but also on Parliament Hill under the government of Pierre Trudeau.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are greeted by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird upon their arrival in Ottawa on June 30, 2011. The current government has shown a new appreciation for the role of the monarchy in Canadian life, says the league. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"Like never before, you had these forces that were challenging the authority of monarchy and the role of monarchy in public life," Rowe said. "So, all of a sudden, there was a need for … an organization of concerned citizens, friends of the monarchy, to stand up for the institution, because it can't fight for itself in that regard."

The monarchy is faring much better these days, says Rowe.

"The reason why monarchy survives, and the reason why it lasts and why it has lasted for a thousand years is because it changes, it adapts, it evolves, and with this next generation, you're seeing sort of a resurgence in Canadian appreciation and understanding for the Crown and also a government that understands that better," he said. "The tide is now the other way — we're putting more of an emphasis on the royal symbols and celebrating them as part of what it means to be Canadian."

As for the current visit of William and Kate, the league is holding informal get-togethers with its members in some of the cities on the couple's itinerary but won't be meeting with them privately as it has with some other members of the royal family in the past. That is as it should be, says Rowe, since the trip is being organized by the government and is not a private visit.

"The purpose of this trip is not for them to just meet with monarchists and people who like the monarchy," he said. "It's to meet with as broad and wide selection of Canadians as possible and to engage Canadians who otherwise wouldn't necessarily take as much interest in the monarchy."