A Canadian Republic (with a new anthem to boot)
Jul 12, 2011

A Canadian Republic (with a new anthem to boot)

It is worth remembering, every once in a while, that Canada remains a constitutional monarchy. Precisely because the monarchy has no de facto power, most of us - myself included - rarely give it much thought and when we do it is of a mild form of bemusement or indifference. Polls indicate that half the population believes the monarchy to be "a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today" and roughly half support a national referendum on the question. However, the issue is largely outside of political and even public debate and people who are passionate about the subject don't seem to be very prevalent. Especially with the rampant fervor over William and Kate's wedding rekindling the attention on the monarchy it is timely to take up the question of the monarchy's role in our society.

The principle comment whenever the topic is raised - particularly if it is by someone claiming there is something morally wrong with being a monarchy - is that it is only symbolic and as such simply cannot be much of a problem. Possibly so, but the conversation doesn't often seem to go that next step and answer the obviously begged question: what exactly does it symbolize again?

Before looking into this, it is worth noting that the answer is actually important. Symbols matter. They influence society, affect how we think, and manage to form a pervasive existence in society. The structure at the hierarchal top of our society is meant to be indued with our loftiest values and principles. For the most part they are, things like universal rights and freedoms that are codified in democratic governments are excellent symbols in society with meaningful consequences. Indeed, it is precisely the commendable nature of these symbols that lends legitimacy to the governance of our society. So it is worth asking whether the monarchy helps in this way by symbolizing important values that we can all agree on or whether it does something different. It won't have real power in the form of being able to actually write laws, but its symbolism should be compatible with the values we espouse and it retains the power that such symbols provide.

Unfortunately, I would submit that the monarchy far from supporting such lofty values actually symbolizes the kinds of things that are diametrically opposed to them. The idea of a king or queen who has absolute, divinely granted rule over all their unwitting subjects could hardly be further from principles of humanist democracy where all people are equals and we choose the nature of our own governance through democracy. Hereditary rule, once again, flies directly in the face of democracy. It is trivially easy to see just how horrific hereditary monarchies can be - one can even look at present day Saudi Arabia and its ruling monarchs from the House of Saud.

Perhaps nowhere else is what the monarchy symbolizes more egregious than in the area of religion. Separation of church and state is a hugely important aspect of our society, as is freedom of religious expression. Yet the symbolic head of our state is also the symbolic head of a specific religion, that of the Anglican church? The symbol here is that right at the very top, far from being separate, religion and state are as closely entwined as they can possibly be. While ironically religiosity is much higher in the US than Canada, they do have a stronger tradition of officially stating the expression "separation of church and state", something that simply is more difficult in Canada because of the deep symbolic connection between church and the head of our state. It actually is more than just symbolic in Britain where - incredibly rare in western nations and in complete defiance of secularism - there actually remain appointed members from the Anglican church in the House of Lords.

This privileged class of individuals represents something that is otherwise absent in our society: a position that is not a priori possible to attain for oneself. The "American Dream", which exists less poetically but no less strongly for it in Canada, that anybody has and should have the equality to rise through hard work and perseverance to any position up to and including Prime Minister is important and provides both motivation and the impetus to create equal social opportunity for all people (universal education follows from this principle). Except, of course, the monarch which is excluded.

So if the monarchy itself appears devoid of any symbolic moral appeal and, instead, seems to fly in the face of modern moral ideals, perhaps it is not the idea of the monarchy per say that is worth glorifying but of British heritage with the monarchy merely being a consequence of that. Of course,  if this were so we could easily find other ways to pay homage to British heritage without keeping a monarchy that seems so repugnant. However, let us not even go that far. I personally have no desire to be associated to a history that includes - as does any other empire one can name - the kinds of imperial conquests, mass racial suffering, and atrocities performed in its name. This isn't to ignore the positives such as, say, the benefits reaped on the world from the British industrial revolution, but to note that we always seem to glorify past empires focusing on all the good and none of the bad. There was bad, lots of it, and retaining symbols of this past empire is as empty and countervailing to modern morality as the monarchy itself is.

Normally the issue is so far off the political table that it simply doesn't get any attention. Part of the reason for this is that it requires a constitutional amendment and the constitution is a tricky business in Canada what with a fifth of the population (Quebec) not having signed on. As a result, constitutional matters in general are suppressed. There is, however, a small opportunity present. Namely, Jack Layton has given a few hints that he would be open to looking into the constitutional debate again - as the representative party for Quebec - and possibly work towards a constitution everyone can sign. This is, of course, very unlikely to occur with a Harper majority (one of the few staunch monarchists), but if and one it does it is quite natural to put the question of monarchy into whatever constitutional changes occur. The monarchy actually was an influential part of the question in the seventies and eighties in the formation of the nationalist Parti Quebecois in Quebec. That sentiment that it is wrong to have a foreign (and English, in particular) monarch ruling symbolically over a francophone people is easily tapped and a constitution drafting a national republic with distinct provincial powers could just possibly appeal to Quebecers.
It doesn't matter a lot. But it does matter some. The monarchy is certainly not the right symbol to retain in an era of progressive, secular humanism, democracy, and universal rights and freedoms. It is time for Canada to become a republic.

Since I am on the subject, it should be pointed out that our national anthem deserves the same scrutiny and, upon so doing, also falls as a moral guide given how it is chalk full of war imagery, commands blind patriotism, is overtly sexist, and invokes religious references to what I assume nobody misunderstands as anything but the Christian God. In a multicultural, multi-religious, gender equal society that prides itself (very wrongly, as it turns out) on being "peace keepers", none of this can stand even mild scrutiny. Unfortunately, it too seems to be too universally mildly liked such that it is beyond reproach. Even if we want to act as if all the various "stand on guard" type clauses can have a wider interpretation than their initial militaristic ones and are instead standing on guard for its values, or something of this nature, perhaps the first thing we should do is actually stand on guard for its values and kick out the monarchy which symbolically challenges them.

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5 comments:

A Kisaragi Colour said...

"Hereditary rule, once again, flies directly in the face of democracy."

-I might point out that the Queen reigns, she does not rule. Rulership has passed to democratically-elected representatives. Democracy can be defined as the people having control of the country's direction. Having a monarch does not impinge on this. But if we take the republican view that the people are sovereign we can still make your argument since citizenship is at least partially a hereditary right.

"It is trivially easy to see just how horrific hereditary monarchies can be - one can even look at present day Saudi Arabia and its ruling monarchs from the House of Saud."

-Your argument is flawed in the same way I could say its easy to see how terrible republics can be by looking at Russia or Iran. A fair comparison would be Norway, Denmark, or even Spain.

"Separation of church and state is a hugely important aspect of our society, as is freedom of religious expression. Yet the symbolic head of our state is also the symbolic head of a specific religion, that of the Anglican church?"

-Yes, separate positions in no way connected to each other. In other words separation of church and state. It is no more a violation of church and state than a pastor being elected to public office (of which we have had a few).

"This privileged class of individuals represents something that is otherwise absent in our society: a position that is not a priori possible to attain for oneself."

-Yes. A position that is attained by the common denominator we all share; the accident of birth. A position that cannot be won by being popular, speaking well, Machiavellian, or any other special quality. By uplifting a position based on accident of birth we affirm our faith in humanity over political advantage. Our faith that anyone, regardless of innate skill, can do a good job.

A Kisaragi Colour said...

"The "American Dream", which exists less poetically but no less strongly for it in Canada, that anybody has and should have the equality to rise through hard work and perseverance to any position up to and including Prime Minister is important and provides both motivation and the impetus to create equal social opportunity for all people (universal education follows from this principle)."

-By saying everyone is equal is it not possible to gloss over how people are in fact not equal? The American Dream is a lie. The presidency is the near exclusive domain of the rich and well-born. But because everyone believes that they can do it if they try hard enough they overlook this. And those who don't make it? Were they just lazy or somehow morally inferior? The American Dream is a sweet-tasting poison that dulls the senses. Why do you think that there is always so much opposition to raising taxes on the rich? Is it not precisely because Americans believe that will be them someday? If the American Dream leads to equality why does America have so little while Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Japan and others have comparably more? Is it, perhaps, because rather than believing a lie we look up and see as our head of state an affirmation that not everyone is equal, that looking out for yourself will only take you so far. This is before we even get into the monarchs who have encouraged social progressiveness (and inspired others to it as well).

"So if the monarchy itself appears devoid of any symbolic moral appeal"

-'Appears' being the operative word here. To my above points you could add political neutrality, personal loyalty to the state (rather than abstractions. But perhaps a more interesting symbol is how the state relates to the people. In a republic were the people are sovereign it can well be said the people are the state. And to criticize it is to criticize yourself, your neighbour, and your community. But in Canada we have the advantage of the people NOT being the state and it is this degree of separation that allows freer criticism of it.

A Kisaragi Colour said...

"There was bad, lots of it, and retaining symbols of this past empire is as empty and countervailing to modern morality as the monarchy itself is."

-It is said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I'm actually curious as to your motives here. Do you want the past removed to maintain some type of childish innocence, a sense that Canada can do no wrong? Rubbish. There was good as well as a lot of bad. If we were to remove every symbol possibly associated with a negative event we would left with white space. Like it or not, the British Empire is a part of our heritage (just as the French Colonial Empire is, or scalping). You can rail against it, you can try to find the good in it but trying to close your eyes and pretend it has nothing to do with you is immature. Accepting the past is an important part of maturity. The monarchy reminds us we have that past. William and Kate (and now George and Charlotte) remind us we also have a future. A president would remind us we have to vote in a few years.

"Jack Layton has given a few hints that he would be open to looking into the constitutional debate again"

-It should be noted that the Late Jack Layton was a monarchist.

"That sentiment that it is wrong to have a foreign (and English, in particular) monarch ruling symbolically over a francophone people is easily tapped and a constitution drafting a national republic with distinct provincial powers could just possibly appeal to Quebecers."

-Given the treatment immigrants have received in la Belle Province one should wonder whether pandering to nativist sentiment is at all desirable. But more to the point. Say we did become a republic and Quebec leaves anyways (they do have other issues of concern [not that it is at all likely now]). We have just changed our system completely for no reason. We don't actually gain anything from becoming a republic and research would seem to indicate we would lose a fair deal:
http://maplemonarchists.weebly.com/blog/the-academic-study-of-monarchy
http://maplemonarchists.weebly.com/blog/crowned-democracy-an-update-on-the-state-of-academic-research-on-monarchy
http://maplemonarchists.weebly.com/blog/we-must-go-deeper-an-update-on-the-state-of-academic-research-on-monarchy
And if Quebecers hate the monarchy so much why is it that under the most monarchist PM in a generation the seperatist movement has basically imploded. You'd think the reverse would be true.

Constitutional monarchy is the best form of government devised. We would be foolish to abandon it.

bazie said...

"Constitutional monarchy is the best form of government devised. We would be foolish to abandon it." - We can quibble about the symbolism, but this conclusion is nonsense. Since the monarchy doesn't hold a shred of de facto power, the basic power structures of our society simply does not change. It can't be "better", it can't be "foolish to abandon it", since abandoning it doesn't actually change anything outside of the symbolism. Symbolism is important, but orders of magnitude more less important than changes to the power structure such as, say, eliminating the Senate.

All of the extremely negative symbolism of the monarchy remains after your refutations. Hereditary rule (or "hereditary reign" if you really prefer) is fundamentally antithetical to democracies. Sure, the ideals of equality may not be perfectly met in our society, but it is still a good ideal, one that is fundamentally incompatible with a monarchy. Trying to pass off the fact that the queen is both head of state and head of the church as a separation of church and state is just laughable.

But what intrigues me more is your attempts to demonstrate some shred of GOOD symbolism that might come up: "To my above points you could add political neutrality, personal loyalty to the state (rather than abstractions. But perhaps a more interesting symbol is how the state relates to the people. In a republic were the people are sovereign it can well be said the people are the state. And to criticize it is to criticize yourself, your neighbour, and your community. "

Most of us are capable of distinguishing the concepts of criticizing the actions of our government and criticizing ourselves and our neighbours. We don't need to have a monarch to remind us of how to do that, and I don't even get how you think a monarch would help us here. And I reject that "personal loyalty to the state" (loving the Queen opposed to loving Canada, I suppose) is either meaningfully improved or even a good thing. "Loyalty" is a great thing, right up until the entity you are loyal to does something greatly evil.

So what do we get: zero practical benefits, zero symbolic benefits, a whole heaping tonne of symbolic crap from a bygone era that we have systematically rejected in every aspect of our society but the monarchy. Why would anyone want to keep it, let alone write an entire blog dedicated to this anarchonistic nonsense?

A Kisaragi Colour said...

"So what do we get: zero practical benefits, zero symbolic benefits"

I see you ignored the links near the end.

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