Harry and Meghan media circus has Canadians missing the point of the maple monarchy

Some serious reflection is needed about why the Crown matters in contemporary Canada, writes Ian McKechnie.

Some serious reflection is needed about why the Crown matters in contemporary Canada

Members of the Royal Family gather on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on July 10, 2018. From left, Prince Charles, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

This column is an opinion by Ian McKechnie, a graduate of Trent University, a member of the Monarchist League of Canada, and a freelance writer and historian in Lindsay, Ont. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

"...The strength of human feeling is still the most potent of all the forces affecting world affairs. Over all nations – as a North American historian has written – over all nations is humanity."

These words came from a speech King George VI delivered in London on June 23, 1939, shortly after he and Queen Elizabeth [the Queen Mother] returned from their cross-country tour of Canada. They were words that most of the world needed to hear at the time, a world just as deeply fraught with uncertainty and instability as it is today.

As the King and Queen crisscrossed the country by train, Canadians saw in their sovereign someone who transcended differences in politics, language and regional identity. Speaking before Canada's Parliament, the King said: "It is my earnest hope that my present visit may give my Canadian people a deeper conception of their unity as a nation."

After the unveiling of the War Memorial in Ottawa on May 21, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, centre, take part in a royal 'walk-about,' plunging into crowds of First World War veterans. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-211015)

More than 80 years later, our unity as a nation is once more being called into question in some quarters, and our shared humanity is being overlooked as we shout at each other from either side of the partisan fence, eager to apply a litany of labels to people whose views we dislike or distrust.

And meanwhile, King George VI's great-grandson is moving to Canada with his wife and son.

Since Harry and Meghan made their surprise announcement a fortnight ago, there has been a torrent of questions voiced across the land. Where will they live? What will they be doing? How much will it cost?

Britain's Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, visit Canada House in London on Jan. 7. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Reuters)

With the questions have come the inevitable articles asking whether constitutional monarchy has a future in this country.

All but lost in the media circus surrounding this latest royal development is serious reflection about why the Crown matters in contemporary Canada.

As partisan echo chambers become louder and louder, and as politicians in both Britain and Canada push the boundaries of acceptable constitutional behaviour, the monarchy may become – as former Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson once said – "the last bulwark of democracy," an institution that provides sound leadership without the partisan filter that has taken its toll in public conversation and political debate.

The problem is, we don't pay nearly enough attention to the Crown; when we do, we don't take it particularly seriously.

For the past half century or so, we've been taught by columnists, school textbooks, and politicians that the Queen and her representatives are "only ceremonial and symbolic figureheads," as though their words and actions lack any purchase in reality.

We therefore pay scant attention to what the Viceregal officeholders – the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors — have to say, despite the fact that their role can help facilitate "constructive participation in our democracy."

David Johnston, while he was governor general, set about establishing the Rideau Hall Foundation to promote "learning, leadership, giving and innovation" among Canadians – all of which are vital parts of democracy.

If democracy means more than simply casting ballots in a first-past-the-post contest, if it means also empowering people to play meaningful roles in strengthening their communities, then surely such initiatives are worth talking about in classrooms and columns.

Then-Governor General David Johnston speaks during the Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1, 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

We've also convinced ourselves that the Crown is the ultimate symbol of colonialism, and so haven't always paid attention to the role successive governors general and lieutenant governors have played in fostering reconciliation.

James Bartleman, while lieutenant governor of Ontario, worked to strengthen the bonds between the Crown and Indigenous peoples, and also raised awareness about empowering Indigenous youth through his promotion of literacy.

Russ Mirasty, appointed as the first Indigenous Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan last summer, has said that his role is all about building relationships – something that is vital to the process of reconciliation, and something partisan politics alone can't achieve.

Lieutenant Governor Russell Mirasty greets children during the first day of the fall legislative session at the Legislative Building in Regina on Oct. 23, 2019. (Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

Tellingly, we have bought wholesale into unsympathetic portrayals of the Prince of Wales, largely ignoring his important contributions to public discourse. One need only peruse some of his speeches or take a look at the outstanding work being done by the Prince's Charities Canada to see that there is much more to Prince Charles than what tabloid journalism tells us.

And civic literacy, or rather, illiteracy, remains a problem in Canada.

Millennials may now make up the largest cohort of eligible voters, but are they acutely aware of what the Queen's representatives can do to protect our democracy if a government refuses to step aside after losing a vote of confidence or an election? What was unthinkable a generation or more ago has become a worrying possibility as politicians on both sides of the pond play fast and loose with long-established constitutional traditions.

As Harry and Meghan prepare for a move to Canada, let's not allow tabloid fodder to obscure the very real benefits the Crown provides in fostering national unity and upholding our democratic inheritance.

They, and we, deserve better.


Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., a member of the Monarchist League of Canada, and works as a freelance writer and historian in Lindsay, Ont.


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