Canadian Monarchy Debate Rekindled:  Should We Dare to Depose Our Foreign Head of State?

November 10, 2009

Yesterday I raised the matter of the continued role of the British monarchy in Canada as a potential church-state separation issue for the Centre for Inquiry. The monarchy debate has been rekindled in part because of an 11 day visit to Canada by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, which ended this week.

For those unfamiliar, Queen Elizabeth II continues to reign as our nation's head of state while her representative the Governor General acts as her proxy for ceremonial and constitutional duties. In a farcical display, the Prime Minister of Canada, an elected official who leads the government, advices the Queen on whom to appoint to this position. No one votes on the Queen's representative, Canada's ceremonial spokesperson, who serves, as it's often described, "At Her Majesty's Pleasure."

The Navigator polling firm recently discovered that over 60% of respondents felt the monarchy was outdated in Canada. This prompted Brian Tobin, former premier of Newfoundland, to say: "It looks silly... that Canada has a head of state who's born in another country."

I decided to poll an admittedly more biased audience, so I put the question up on my facebook wall last night: "Should a secularist organization take a formal anti-monarchy position?" and received about 30 comments by the morning. I have to admit I thought this would be a slam-dunk, but feelings were mixed.

The greatest reason to oppose the monarchy from a secularist point of view is that the Queen of Britain is also the head of the Anglican Church. As Citizens for a Canadian Republic points out, the US has proven a modern secular democracy can elect a Black head of state, yet here in Canada we will never have a non-Anglican head of state. The Movement Laique du Quebec (Quebec Secularist Movement) has a formal anti-monarchy position due to this dual political/religious role.  Actually, the US offers an even better reflection.  In the US the head of state must be US born, while in Canada the head of state will likely never be Canadian born.  Odd.

On the other hand, many felt the issue was outside our scope and that pragmatically constitutional monarchies are secular political systems. I can't help but point out in that regard that during his visit the heir apparent, surrounded by cohort of political dignitaries and Anglican church VIPs, attended an Anglican church service, a tradition when monarchs visit Canada, last occurring in 2002 when Queen Elizabeth attended service during her Golden Jubilee Commonwealth tour.

I think the general consensus view was that we take an indirect approach, opposing the dual role of the monarch as head of state and church, and especially we should take issue with the notion of the divine right of kings. The catch is that throughout history kings have always claimed authority by allying themselves with the priestly class. In the middle ages, the concept of the Great Chain of Being made this explicit. A chain descended from the source of all authority, God, progressing down to angels, demons, stars, the moon, then kings, princes, nobles, and finally common men just above the animals and the inanimate world. There's just no way to separate the religious justifications from the political power granted an unelected head of state.

So while this is not a major issue worthy of great resource dedication, I will continue to push for a solid and clear position, and we will explore the issue further with a Cafe Inquiry panel discussion in Toronto to include reps from the Monarchist League, Citizens for a Canadian Republic , and it's my hope our allies the Canadian Secular Alliance .