Time for Canada to retire the Queen? It's not that simple

Oprah Winfrey's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle provoked some rage among Canadians fed up with the Royal Family. But could Canada actually divorce itself from the Windsors without setting up political trouble down the road?

The Crown is more than a mere symbol — it's wired into the basic structures of the state

Queen Elizabeth greets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a receiving line for the Queen's Dinner for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Buckingham Palace in London, Thursday, April 19, 2018. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

Sunday night's interview of a British prince and an American actress by one of America's most iconic talk show hosts was an incredible two hours of television.

It was also more than mere entertainment or familial drama. What was said over those two hours amounts to a profound problem for the centuries-old institution of the British Crown — and a potentially significant challenge for the Canadian political system.

Asked on Tuesday about what Prince Harry and Meghan Markle told Oprah Winfrey — particularly the suggestion of racism among the Windsors — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would not "comment on what's going on over in the U.K." But he prefaced that no-comment with several comments about systemic racism.

"We have been very clear as a government that we will always stand up against systemic racism and intolerance in all its forms," he said. "I have recognized — our government has recognized — systemic discrimination and has moved forward significantly to fight against it, as it exists in all our institutions, in all our systems. We need to be vigilant and we will continue that work."

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

'I won't comment on what's going on over in the U.K.' — Trudeau

2 years ago
Duration 2:24
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he "won't comment on what's going on over in the U.K." after being asked about allegations of racism made against the Royal Family in Oprah's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Asked about reassessing Canada's ties to the monarchy, Trudeau suggested he had other things to think about right now.

"I can understand some people are looking for constitutional conversations. I'm not going to engage in those right now," he said. "I am focused on getting us through this pandemic."

Most Canadians probably would agree with the PM's choice of priorities. As much as the travails of the Royal Family are fun to talk about — and as much as some Canadians might regard the institution itself as an abomination — surely almost no one wants the prime minister expending time or energy right now thinking about how to rewrite the Constitution to allow for a different head of state.

This may not blow over quickly

In the near term, Sunday night's interview almost certainly will put even more pressure on the person Trudeau picks to replace Julie Payette. And as the Toronto Star's Susan Delacourt suggested on Monday, the allegation of racism in the Royal Family might make it even harder to find people willing to represent the Crown in Canada.

But it's also quite possible that the storm hanging over Buckingham Palace now will still be there after the pandemic passes — either because the Queen and her heirs are not nimble enough to respond sufficiently to this crisis, or because new revelations come to light.

A lot may be riding on the question of who allegedly raised concerns about the skin colour of Harry and Meghan's son (Harry only told Winfrey that it wasn't Queen Elizabeth II or Prince Philip) and what exactly that person said. If it was either of the two men directly in line for the throne — Prince Charles and Prince William — then the future of the Crown in Canada could be further in doubt.

The public standing of Canada's head of state is of no small consequence — both because of what it would take to change the current arrangement and because of the office's fundamental nature.

The constitutional can of worms

Removing and replacing Queen Elizabeth II and her successors could be accomplished only through a constitutional amendment, which would require the approval of Parliament and all ten provinces. Alberta and British Columbia currently have laws requiring that proposed constitutional changes be put to a provincial referendum.

Inevitably, one or two premiers would be tempted to use the occasion to press for other, unrelated constitutional amendments. 

Granted, sometimes it's worth doing difficult and messy things. But there's also the opportunity cost to consider: all the time and energy put toward rewriting the Constitution is time and energy that might be put toward any number of other things.

The second reason for concern is the simple fact that legislatures would be fiddling with the foundation of Canadian democracy — where even the slightest changes can have profound ramifications.

The risk of a perpetual power struggle

Any move to cut ties with the monarchy would, for instance, likely bring with it renewed calls for an elected head of state. That might seem like the sort of thing any respectable nation should have in 2021. But the possible future implications for the rest of Canada's political system should not be ignored.

One recent argument for an elected head of state suggested that an elected governor general would have an "independent mandate" to refuse problematic requests from the prime minister to prorogue Parliament — the sort of requests that have emerged from time to time in recent years. Maybe that would be an improvement over the current situation, in which the governor general intervenes only when absolutely necessary to ensure the continued functioning of Canadian democracy.

But how long would it be before an elected governor general decided they had a "mandate" to refuse to grant royal assent to a controversial piece of legislation? Would anything necessarily prevent an elected governor general from becoming a competing power centre to rival the prime minister?

Then-governor general Julie Payette shares a laugh with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before delivering the 2019 throne speech. Could the establishment of an elected head of state set up a perpetual power struggle in Canadian federal politics? (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

At the very least, provisions for a new head of state would have to be written carefully and with a full understanding of where reform might lead. That may be particularly true now, when Canada seems to have one of the healthiest and most stable democracies in the world — while to our south, an older democracy with an elected head of state is struggling to recover from an attempted insurrection.

Between the status quo and full constitutional reform are any number of things that could be done to reframe or reorient the role of the Crown in Canada. Trudeau seemed to point in that general direction on Tuesday when he was asked to square his own support for the monarchy with the concerns that are now being raised about the institution.

Prince Charles greets people during Canada 150 celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"There are many institutions that we have in this country, including that big building right across the street from us, Parliament ... built around a system of colonialism, of discrimination, of systemic racism ..." he said.

"But the answer is not to suddenly toss out all the institutions and start over. The answer is to look very carefully at those systems and listen to Canadians who face discrimination every single day — and whenever they interact with those institutions — to understand the barriers, inequities, and inequalities that exist within our institutions that need to be addressed that many of us don't see because we don't live them."

In the wake of Harry and Meghan's interview, Queen Elizabeth II and her family have a chance to try to repair their public standing and chart a better path forward — as the Guardian ventured Tuesday's statement from Buckingham Palace is "unlikely to be the end of the matter."

If they fail, it might fall to Trudeau or some future prime minister to deal with the ramifications.

Sunday's show was a remarkable moment for the millions of people who tuned in to watch. But, like the Crown itself, its significance reaches far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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