As Harry and Meghan Arrive, Canadians Wonder if They Should Dump the Queen
The celebrity couple abandons their royal duties and moves to Vancouver Island. For Canadians, that rekindles an old debate: Why is a British monarch still their head of state?
When Justin Trudeau first met Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom after he took office as prime minister of Canada, she greeted him by saying, “Nice to see you again … but under different circumstances.” That’s because Trudeau had already met the British monarch as a one-year-old infant, when his father, Pierre Trudeau, also served as prime minister of Canada. For both men, the queen was no mere visiting dignitary, but their official head of state—to whom they had been required, by Canadian law, to swear an oath of loyalty.
“I, Justin P.J. Trudeau, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God,” the prime minister dutifully recited in November 2015 when he first took office, and again when he was reelected last year.
Canada, although it has been fully independent in all other ways since 1982, remains a constitutional monarchy with a British royal as the official head of state. When Elizabeth is not in her Canadian realm, her place in Canada’s political pecking order is taken by Julie Payette, the British governor general in Ottawa. Though the queen’s powers are mostly symbolic, her face is on Canada’s coins, Canadian citizens are officially subjects of the queen, and the loyalty oath to Elizabeth has to be sworn not just by prime ministers, but by every immigrant wanting to become a Canadian citizen.
The majority of Canadians don’t mind this state of affairs, a vestige of their pre-1982 history as a dominion of the British Empire. The royals are still popular, and Trudeau has kept a good relationship with them—not least because they offer great photo-ops.
So when Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, abdicated their royal roles and announced they’d live in Canada, they weren’t moving to an entirely foreign country, but one over which Prince Harry’s grandmother—technically, at least—still rules. Ironically, however, Prince Harry’s abandonment of his royal duties has rekindled an old debate over whether Canada, too, should liberate itself from genuflection before the British throne and finally become a republic.
The first wrinkle in Canadian-British royal relations was over who should pay for the duke and duchess of Sussex’s security detail. In the past, their frequent visits (Meghan lived in Toronto prior to their marriage) came at a substantial cost to the queen’s Canadian subjects. Now that the Sussexes are staying longer—they have rented a sprawling mansion on Vancouver Island—that bill looked set to rise to more than CA$10 million a year, about $7.5 million, which Canadians just didn’t want to pay. In January, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation launched a petition opposing public subsidies for the couple, quickly gathering 80,000 names. On Feb. 27, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which had provided the couple’s security in the past, announced it would stop footing the bill in the coming weeks.
Quebec, the French-speaking province with a long history of separatism, has been a particular hotbed of republicanism. In October 2018, lawmakers for Québec Solidaire, a separatist, left-leaning party in the provincial legislature, refused to give the required oath to the queen in public, arguing that elected representatives genuflecting before a monarch was an undemocratic relic. Since they couldn’t legally take office as legislators if they refused the oath, the lawmakers decided to do it behind closed doors. “Ideally, we wouldn’t have had to swear an oath to the queen,” said Sol Zanetti, a member of the party in the National Assembly of Quebec. “But if we don’t, we cannot exercise our democratic mandate.”
Québec Solidaire has now put forth a bill that would abolish the oath to the queen in the provincial legislature. Three permanent residents in the process of becoming citizens have also challenged the constitutionality of the oath as a requirement for naturalization. But Canada’s Supreme Court upheld the practice. “The oath is secular and is not an oath to the Queen in her personal capacity but to our form of government of which the Queen is a symbol,” the court decision read.
With its French heritage and unique brand of politics, Quebec does not completely reflect how the rest of the country feels. The queen is still relatively popular, and the majority of Canadians oppose abolishing the monarchy. But even at the national level, the anti-monarchists are pressing forward. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-of-center New Democratic Party, which is currently the fourth-largest faction in the federal Parliament, has also called for abolishing the monarchy. “I’m a republican,” Singh said in a television interview in 2018. “It sounds a bit awkward saying that given the other connotation in the [United] States, but I believe that we should be a [republic]. I don’t see the relevance of [the monarchy], and I don’t think that most Canadians do.”
Singh’s push for a republic came after an even bigger controversy over the monarchy’s cost to Canadian taxpayers—in this case, the British governor general’s lavish expenses and pension. Figures from the past few years show taxpayers pay around 62 million Canadian dollars a year, close to $50 million, on the monarchy, mainly for the office of the governor general and the queen’s official representative in each province. Defenders of the monarchy point out that the total bill per capita is only around CA$1.68—the equivalent of about one cup of Canada’s beloved Tim Horton’s coffee a year.
Tom Freda, the national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, has campaigned against the monarchy for years, and he hopes the other provinces will soon reach Quebec’s level of discontent. The group wants Canada to replace the queen—and her representative, the governor general—with a president as the ceremonial head of state, similar to other parliamentary systems such as Germany’s. Canada would follow in the footsteps of other former British colonies that have abolished the monarchy and become parliamentary republics, including Mauritius in 1992 and Fiji in 1987. Australians voted in a 1999 referendum to retain the queen as their monarch.
Other proponents of cutting ties with the monarchy include representatives of indigenous peoples such as the Inuit, for whom the British throne stands for an oppressive history of colonization.
But even if the debate over the monarchy has lately reignited, there seems to be little urgency to fix what most Canadians don’t feel is broken. “I feel like there’s a general consensus among politicians that abolishing [the monarchy] is an inevitability,” Freda said. “However, nobody is making it a priority.”
What’s more, even if Canadians agreed that the monarchy should be dropped, it would require a lengthy process of rewriting Canada’s constitution. The political will to tackle these onerous requirements seems to be missing, said Paul Heinbecker, a former diplomat and speechwriter in the premier’s office under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “Even in Quebec, people do not care enough to invest the political effort to disrupt the status quo,” Heinbecker said. “To drop the monarchy would require the unanimous consent of the House and Senate in Ottawa, and all 10 provincial assemblies. If dropping the monarchy could be done readily, it would likely have been done by now.”
Many politicians also fear that any broad debate over constitutional changes could take Canada down a slippery slope, forcing the government to also discuss power-sharing with Quebec and the indigenous First Nations, two everlasting political struggles in Canada.
For some, it’s now or never. As the 93-year-old queen will pass the throne to her son Prince Charles—or her grandson Prince William—in the foreseeable future, the transition offers an opportunity to make the break, Heinbecker argued. Canadians should therefore make haste and “dispense with the monarchy before we are locked in again for the reign of Charles,” Heinbecker said. Public opinion seems to bear him out: While the queen enjoys an 81 percent approval rating, 53 percent of Canadians say formal ties with the British monarchy should end with her reign, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in January.
In the end, Prince Harry and Meghan’s move to Canada might even have the effect of reconnecting Canadians with the monarchy. Because the Sussexes are perceived as a “relaxed, multicultural young couple,” said Rafe Heydel-Mankoo, a Canadian commentator on royal affairs, they are “able to connect with segments of society not traditionally known for their monarchist sympathies.”
Trudeau has also made it clear that he won’t press the issue. “There might come a time where a prime minister decides it’s a really important thing to crack open the constitution and rewrite it,” he said in 2018, “I don’t think I’m going to be that prime minister.” So if he is reelected the next time Canadians go to the polls, Trudeau will likely swear his oath to a foreign monarch yet again.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in politics and foreign affairs.