Cross Country Checkup

Barbados is severing ties with the Queen. Should Canada follow suit?

Julie Payette's resignation as governor general has renewed questions about Canada's connection to the British monarchy. While Barbados has announced their plans to sever ties, experts warn it may be more difficult for Canada to do the same.

As Barbados leaves monarchy behind, Canada must reckon with colonial past, says activist

In a speech last September, Governor General Sandra Mason said Barbados would separate from the British monarchy. "The time has come for us to leave our colonial past behind," she said. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

The Barbados government's decision to cut the country's ties to the British Monarchy and become a republic is long "overdue," says a former high commissioner for Barbados.

It was announced in September that the Caribbean country would remove Queen Elizabeth as its head of state by November 2021, coinciding with the 55th anniversary of independence.

"The time has come for us to leave our colonial past behind," said Governor General Sandra Mason during a speech prepared by Prime Minister Mia Mottley.

"Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state. This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving," she added.

The move has been decades in the making, but efforts to separate have been hampered by the country's deep ties to England and a loyalty to the Queen, said Guy Hewitt, a former high commissioner of Barbados in London, England.

"Britain still remains our largest source market for visitors, and tourism is our major economic activity. So there are still a lot of links that go back from our colonial history to our contemporary reality," he told Cross Country Checkup.

Former high commissioner of Barbados in London Guy Hewitt meets with Queen Elizabeth II in November 2014. Hewitt says he supports the decision for Barbados to leave the British monarchy behind. (John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

But, opinions have steadily shifted, he adds. "People have been asking and reassessing the nature of that relationship and how healthy and how necessary is it in the 21st century."

The rise of Black Lives Matter protests last year, and the Windrush scandal, in which the U.K. Home Office threatened deportation and denied basic rights for thousands of legal residents from the Caribbean who arrived before 1973 and were granted indefinite leave to remain, signalled a need for Barbadians to be governed by their own, Hewitt said.

Barbados is the just latest Caribbean country to become a republic. In 1970, Guyana dropped the Queen as its head of state, followed by Trinidad and Tobago in 1976, and Dominica in 1978.

Like the countries it follows, Barbados will remain a part of the Commonwealth.

"There is this acceptance that a republic status is part of the growth of any modern democracy — part of being truly sovereign, having a native head of state."

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Canada yet to face colonial past, says El Jones

Canada has similarly faced calls to sever its bond with the monarchy. Most recently, the role of the governor general, the Queen's representative in Canada, came into question following the resignation of Julie Payette following the release of a report that found she led a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall.

A February poll by Research Co. found that 45 per cent of Canadians would prefer an elected head of state. That's up by 13 points from a survey one year earlier. 

Julie Payette resigned as governor general in January following reports that she presided over a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The decision by the Barbados government to leave the monarchy behind is part of a broader movement in the Caribbean that's reckoning with the history of colonialism — a history that poet and activist El Jones says Canada has yet to face.

"There has not been a lot of reckoning, certainly within England or, really, I would say in Canada around the actual legacy of the British Crown," said Jones.

Jones says that Canada could learn from Barbados. Too often, she says, calls to change Canada's head of state are dismissed as too difficult, or unnecessary given the role is simply ceremonial and eliminating it would be disruptive.

But those arguments don't sit well with Jones.

"You cannot both have a ceremonial role and then say that all the symbolism and ideas attached to it somehow don't attach," she said. "If we're going to have a ceremonial role, then we can't accept the idea that this is also a representative of a particular history of colonization."

Poet and activist El Jones says that British Crown has not acknowledged the harm caused by colonialism. (Robert Short/CBC)

Ties to monarchy a 'necessity'

She points to the Crown's relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada, which is signatory to many Indigenous treaties, as an example. 

As the Queen's representative in Canada, the governor general is responsible for those agreements — but Jones argues that governors general have done little with respect to Indigenous reconciliation.

"If the governor general were actually working towards Indigenous sovereignty and working with Indigenous nations in order to use the Crown position to, for example, solve land claims or to intervene on cases where Indigenous people are challenging pipelines or environmental issues, then I think the office would have a role," she said.

Indigenous peoples in Canada are connected to the monarchy through treaties which would make Canada's separation from the Crown challenging, says writer and professor Niigaan Sinclair. (University of Manitoba)

Niigaan Sinclair, an Anishinaabe writer and associate professor in the department of native studies at University of Manitoba, says he understands the push to break free from a country's colonial past, but cautions it's not a simple move, particularly when it comes to Indigenous treaties.

"I support any self-autonomous or self-governing nation, whether it be a nation state like Barbados or a nation like Indigenous nations up here in Canada," he said.

"It does involve a great deal of legalities, however. A lot of considerations of what those steps look like because it impacts things like treaties and political, even economic relationships."

Sinclair calls the relationship between Indigenous groups and the Crown "dual-edged", pointing to its "necessity" because of treaties and its role in violence against Indigeous peoples. Still, in many Indigenous communities, there is reverence for the Queen, he adds.

To simply end that relationship would not only require significant constitutional change, but a new approach to Indigenous land claims.

"I think, for the most part ... Indigenous peoples are invested in working with the relationship as it stands today, as opposed to blowing it all up and starting again," he said.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Reuters. Produced by Steve Howard, Caroline Petrucci and Menaka Raman-Wilms.

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