Politics·Analysis

Apathy might be what's keeping Canadians from ditching the monarchy

Polls suggest that support for the monarchy is a minority view in Canada — but people who really don't care who serves as this country's head of state might be the biggest bulwark against constitutional change.

A lack of interest might be a bigger obstacle to abolishing the monarchy than constitutional roadblocks

According to a poll by Léger, support for getting rid of the monarchy in Canada grew after the Meghan Markle interview with Oprah Winfrey. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

If asked, most Canadians would vote to cut ties with the monarchy.

But this country's constitutional relationship with the Windsors isn't likely to change any time soon, for one simple reason: too few Canadians care enough about the monarchy to make putting the question to them worth all the trouble.

From time to time, something erupts in the news that reminds Canadians of the existence of the British Royal Family — an institution that polls suggest most people in this country see as irrelevant to their lives. When that happens — because a governor general resigns, for example, or because of bombshell new allegations in a TV interview — it inevitably leads to questions about why Canada is still a constitutional monarchy.

In poll after poll, support for the monarchy in Canada doesn't register very highly.

A survey published this week by Léger for the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Press found that a majority of respondents (53 per cent) agreed with the statement that "the monarchy is out of date and no longer has its place in the 21st century," and that it should be done away with.

A plurality of respondents in every region of the country and in all age groups agreed with that statement, while just 33 per cent said that "the monarchy is part of our history [and] we must preserve this heritage."

According to a recent poll by Research Co., 45 per cent of Canadians support the idea of an elected head of state while just 24 per cent prefer to retain the Queen. Again, a plurality in all regions, age groups and political persuasions said they prefer an elected head of state over the current arrangement.

Similar findings can be found in polls by the Angus Reid Institute and Abacus Data.

So there's really no debate: support for the monarchy is a minority viewpoint in Canada.

There is less consensus on preferred alternatives, however — undoubtedly in part because few Canadians have spent much time thinking about it.

Queen, president or prime minister?

Polls suggest that Canadians generally don't want a fundamental change to their political system — indicating that the tie to the monarchy itself, and not our parliamentary democracy, is the sticking point.

After being given a list of options by Léger, 36 per cent of Canadians said they would prefer a system with no governor general, monarchical representative or president. They'd just like to see Parliament function as it currently does, with the prime minister as the head of state.

Technically, that's not how Canada's government works — but to many Canadians, that's how it works in practice. And they don't want that to change.

The next most popular option, at just 16 per cent, is for Canada to become a republic with an elected president. A number of other alternatives received meagre support, though 20 per cent said they'd keep things as-is.

Other polls have found similar results. The Angus Reid Institute found that 29 per cent of Canadians want the prime minister to be the head of state, while 19 per cent still want that role to fall to the governor general, without the ties to the Royal Family. Just 20 per cent said they want an elected president.

This suggests that Canadians are not diehard republicans at heart. The parliamentary form of government suits them just fine, but the divine right of kings and queens strikes them as a little old-fashioned.

Polls show little support and lots of indifference

That doesn't mean Canadians don't like the Queen. When Abacus polled Canadians in the fall, it found that nearly half of respondents (44 per cent) had a positive impression of Queen Elizabeth II. An almost equal share (37 per cent) held a neutral view, suggesting a degree of indifference.

That's a common thread in polling on the monarchy. When asked whether Canada should continue to have a monarch as its head of state, the Abacus poll found that just 18 per cent said it "definitely" should. Only 24 per cent said it definitely should not.

That left 39 per cent of Canadians "leaning" in one direction or the other and another 19 per cent who said they "don't care either way." Put those together and you have a solid 58 per cent of respondents taking the entire issue with a collective shrug.

In countries with historic ties to Britain, allegations by Prince Harry and Meghan about racism within the Royal Family have raised questions about whether those nations want to be closely connected to Britain any longer. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / Asssociated Press)

A more recent survey by Ipsos found something similar: just 40 per cent said they felt "strongly" about whether Canada should break ties with the Royal Family after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The other 60 per cent only "somewhat" agreed or disagreed with breaking ties.

The Research Co. poll found that about 32 per cent of respondents either didn't care or didn't know whether Canada should continue as a monarchy.

In most of these surveys, the majority of respondents either want to keep things as they are — or don't really care. That makes it a majority for the status quo.

Long to reign over us?

The fact that making a change to the Constitution would be no simple matter is another point for the status quo. Such a change would require a vote in Parliament and the unanimous agreement of all provinces. Given this country's history of high-stakes attempts to re-write the Constitution that failed, it's not surprising that Canadians would be wary of trying again.

Defenders of Canada's constitutional monarchy often contrast the successes of other countries under similar systems of government to the failures of those with different systems, such as the United States. The example of a country like Germany — which has both an elected (and largely ceremonial) head of state and boring politics — is not nearly as evocative.

But it is possible to believe both that there is great value in the apolitical role played by the Crown in Canada's system of government — and that it's an unjustifiable anachronism.

Polls suggest Canadians do not feel strongly about the monarchy one way or the other — but if they were forced to choose, more Canadians would prefer having a different head of state. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

That may be why few politicians are willing to spend much political capital on defending the family's role or attempting to change it.

Despite the the fact that, for many Canadians, the British Crown represents a legacy of colonialism, racism, violent conquest and mass deportation, politicians — even those who have no great love for the Windsors — are mostly willing to go no further than to point out that their priorities lie elsewhere. That's what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did last week.

In the end, these leaders know that Canadians will move on to other things. The fallout from Meghan Markle's interview with Oprah Winfrey has not been good for the monarchy — Léger found that support for eliminating the monarchy has increased seven points since early February — but it's not likely to create a critical mass that would lead to change.

Or so the Royal Family might hope. As damning as Markle's comments were, the biggest risk to the Windsors' continued reign in Canada might be the prospect of Canadians starting to ask themselves the sort of questions Buckingham Palace would prefer to leave unanswered.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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