I first saw Queen Elizabeth in a motorcade while she was on her way to Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. I was outraged. “She’s not wearing a crown!” I screeched in disappointment to my mother. I was four years old. I’ve seen her at least a couple of times since then, and with my expectations set, have not since complained about the absence of a crown.
Elizabeth gained her crown in 1952, and she was the longest reigning Commonwealth Monarch in history. The only one, in fact, that many of us have known. When I was growing up, Canada had much more of an English colony mentality, and wore those trappings proudly. Photos of the Queen were everywhere. We sang “God Save the Queen” every morning in class. The mail arrived courtesy of the Royal Mail. That changed over time in an effort to give Canada more of an identify of its own. The Red Ensign, the flag used to represent Canada from Confederation through to the 1960’s, was replaced by the current Canadian flag. “God Save the Queen” was largely replaced by “O Canada.” The mail service was rebranded as Canada Post.
Throughout, the Queen was never far away, even if she was a bit more out of sight. To this day, trial prosecutors in Canada are referred to as Crown Attorneys, contractors to the Canadian Government are to deliver their goods and services to Her Majesty, and legislation only becomes law by virtue of Royal Assent. The Crown remains Canada’s Head of State, represented by the Governor General at the federal level, and by Lieutenant Governors at the provincial level. In other words, the Crown, as it always has been, is an inescapable and essential part of life in Canada.
As for the monarchy as an institution, some people love it, some hate it, and the more pragmatic simply shrug and move on. For the most part, it has worked for a long time and has been viewed as alternatively harmless or even potentially beneficial. For instance, former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker made the case that the American Watergate scandal couldn’t happen in Canada. If the Prime Minister was embroiled in such a scandal, Diefenbaker opined, the Governor General could dissolve parliament and call an election. The thing is, we now know that this wouldn’t happen.
A few years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did something that no other Canadian prime minister had done. He requested that the Governor General prorogue parliament. His minority government, you see, was certain to lose a non confidence motion in the House of Commons. After consulting with constitutional lawyers, the Governor General assented. The reasoning was that the Prime Minister was elected and the Governor General was not. The problem with this precedent is that it removes important checks and balances from our system of government. The Prime Minister shouldn’t have the power to suspend parliament whenever its convenient. If Royal Assent is virtually guaranteed no matter the request, we would be better served by an elected head of state who could legitimately say no when that was appropriate. So, to make it explicit, I do wish Canada could move towards an elected head of state.
But now pragmatism rears its ugly head. Changing the Canadian constitution requires the agreement of at least seven out of ten provinces representing at least 50% of the population. The fact is, no one can get the provinces to agree on the day of the week, let alone major constitutional changes. So, at least as far as Canada is concerned, the monarchy will be around for a good while yet.
It’s been interesting to look at the varied reactions of people in response to the Queen’s death. Some are sorrowful, some are flinging vitriol at her and the institution, and some use the occasion to attempt jokes. So what do I think about it all? I think that nobody asks to be born into the royal family, and that, basically, it would suck to be them. Because their future is written. Yes, they may be rich and famous, but they can’t grow up to become astronauts or authors or doctors or carpenters. They lack many of the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted. When the Queen was young there was little chance that she would become monarch. Perhaps that allowed her a slightly more normal childhood. That changed of course, when King Edward abdicated and George, Elizabeth’s father, became King. Not only had Elizabeth not expected to become monarch, she was thrust into the role while in her twenties. And yet she did so with grace and elegance and along the way became one of the most recognized and beloved leaders in the world.
In my opinion, it’s disingenuous to rail at the monarchy, and the Queen specifically, and visit upon them the entirety of the sins of the British Empire. Firstly, they didn’t ask for the job, it was thrust upon them. And secondly, someone has to do the job. You can’t deride a member of the royal family for assuming the crown when the fact is that there has to be a head of state. I think all that energy would be more usefully spent in promoting the idea of a republic using reasoned arguments. Raise the subject at political meetings. Lobby political parties to add support for an elected head of state to their platforms. Until there is broad public and political support for such a change, it’s not going to happen. So if you feel strongly that change is needed, you’d best get to work.
Some of the little things I loved about Queen Elizabeth: her infectious smile, and her calm, reassuring presence that’s been a constant throughout my life. She always strove to bring people together by highlighting what we had in common. And there was also her sense of being a good sport. My eyes nearly popped out of my head during the opening of the 2012 Olympics when she calmly said, “Good evening, Mr. Bond.” Then there was her tea with Paddington Bear at the Platinum Jubilee. Priceless.
The thing is, I’ve been around long enough that, with precious few exceptions, nearly everyone who was an adult when I was a child is gone. The loss of Queen Elizabeth marks one more lost connection with that time of my life. And for all the reasons listed above, I shall mourn Elizabeth II.