Polls show more Canadians are turning their backs on the monarchy, but few ask why

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There has never been a solid answer as to why the country would terminate the monarchy without knowing what the replacement would be.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 8, 2023.

OTTAWA–King Charles III has been crowned. Long live the King.

Surveys say that his accession is opposed by the majority of Canadians, but has anyone done a deep dive into the reasons why?

A Pollara poll done for The Toronto Star found that the vast majority of young people opposed the status of Canada as a constitutional monarchy.

Apparently, the older one gets, the more one is attuned to tradition. Forty-seven per cent of those aged 55 years and older supported retaining the monarchy, while 35 per cent were opposed. The survey did not delve into the meaning of a constitutional monarchy, and I doubt if many of the poll respondents have a clear idea of the role of the head of state in Canada.

Some believe it wields a tremendous amount of power, even though recent history makes clear that real power lies with the head of government.

When Queen Elizabeth II signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms back in 1982, she did not offer amendments. She approved the document based on a vote of the Canadian Parliament. Ditto for Barbados’ decision to sever ties with the monarchy.

When Barbados decided to end its relationship with the Crown in 2021, the Queen approved without rancour or reticence.

Then-Prince Charles attended the dissolution ceremonies, held 55 years to the day of Barbadian independence when the country terminated colonial status but kept constitutional ties with the Crown.

Several other Caribbean countries have vowed to follow suit, and some speculated that the death of the Queen would see Canada do the same.

One of the reasons cited for leave-taking is that King Charles is not his mother. That is self-evident. She became the Queen as a young woman and remained in that role until her death 70 years later.

Upon her passing, wonderful eulogies were penned globally about how she had carried out her responsibilities with dignity. But as her reputation gathered strength, that of her oldest son diminished in parallel.

Imagine being a 70-year-old man waiting for your mother’s permission to take over her job.

King Charles’ marital problems blunted his fealty role to cement the image of a rather weak vassal to Her Majesty. His foibles played poorly in the international media and certainly reinforced the impression that Queen Elizabeth would be the last legitimate reigning monarch.

Canadian pundits wrote that when the Queen passed on, it would be the perfect time to cut ties with the royals. But there has never been a solid answer as to why the country would terminate the monarchy without knowing what the replacement would be.

Toronto Star columnist Andrew Phillips had an interesting take on the issue last week. His column was headlined, “If monarchies are so bad, why are they the best places to live?”

He points out that while only 20 per cent of countries have monarchies, seven of the 10 countries cited for having the best quality of life have a monarch as head of state.

Phillips does not claim that having a monarchy makes a country more liveable. There are plenty of examples to blow that theory out of the water. But he does say that having a monarchy “does not hold a country back” and hypothesizes that in the instances “where monarchies managed to survive … [they] figured out how to … combine tradition with change … Rather than inflict the trauma of a radical break with the past … they chose to evolve toward constitutional monarchies.”

Some Canadians may want a radical break. The majority of Quebecers see a divorce from the Crown as a positive outcome to their warrior history with the English. But chances are, even if the monarchy ceased to exist, separatists would find another reason not to remain in Canada.

The global attention paid to the May 6 coronation will stifle the naysayers temporarily, but the heavy lifting will be left to the King.

On a personal note, as minister responsible for royal visits, I spent many hours with Prince Charles and his mother when they visited Canada. Queen Elizabeth was a true professional who managed any challenging situation with regal aplomb. Prince Charles was warm, funny, self-deprecating and quite the opposite of his public persona.

He reached out to people with an ease rarely seen in a monarch.

Whether it was a school gymnasium in Churchill, Man., or a state receiving line, he always had an extra smile for those who appeared stiffly nervous.

I predict King Charles’ warm personality will soon convince most Canadians of the historic and enduring value of a constitutional monarchy.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.