Will Canada Become A Republic? We Asked An Expert About Our Chances

It would be a MESS.

Senior Editor
Flag of Canada in front of the Peace Tower on the Centre Block of the Canadian parliament complex in Ottawa.

Flag of Canada in front of the Peace Tower on the Centre Block of the Canadian parliament complex in Ottawa.

If the plethora of cheeky memes are any indication (and they usually are), the death of Queen Elizabeth II has many Canadians looking down the line of succession with unease. The loss of the largely popular monarch and her roster of less popular spawn has revived the pesky 5 à 7 question: will Canada become a republic?

It might seem like the question is more pressing than ever.

A December Angus Reid Institute survey showed that a majority (52%) of Canadians were opposed to the idea of keeping the monarchy indefinitely. The survey had even worse news for then-prince now-King Charles III: 66% of polled Canadians opposed recognizing him as monarch.

An April survey reinforced those results. In that poll, only 34% of respondents were in favour of maintaining the monarchy with Charles as its figurehead and just a quarter thought the institution was still "as relevant as ever."

Unsurprisingly, the monarchy is even less popular in Quebec, where, according to an August Leger poll, 61% of residents are in favour of ditching it altogether.

Meanwhile, sovereignist political leaders like PQ head Paul St-Pierre Plamondon and Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet are already raising a debate about the province's relationship with the Crown.

But does all this mean that Canada is on the path to republicanism? Probably not, according to McGill Institute for the Study of Canada director and political science professor Daniel Béland.

Here's why.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Public opinion ≠ political will

"That's the problem is that it's not just about public opinion polls," Béland told MTL Blog. Abolishing the monarchy would be a monumental task that poses both political and legal challenges.

Section 41 of the 1982 Constitution Act actually outlines a procedure for making changes related to the office of the monarch. Unlike other constitutional amendments that only require the majority agreement of two-thirds of provincial legislatures representing at least 50% of the population, in addition to resolutions by the Canadian House of Commons and Senate, amendments related to the monarchy require the agreement of every provincial legislature.

Good luck with that.

"It will take a tremendous level of consensus for that to happen," Béland said, describing previous constitutional debates, the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, as "traumatizing." They ended up contributing to the rise of separatist sentiment in Quebec which resulted in the 1995 referendum.

Quebec still hasn't agreed to the 1982 Constitution Act. Canada currently operates on a tenuous truce. Reopening the constitution to debate would be like opening a can of worms.

"There is no appetite" for such an undertaking, according to Béland.

"It's not just about the threshold in terms of popularity or unpopularity" of the monarchy, "it's also the political cost of doing this. Even if there was massive support for it, it doesn't mean it would work."

And barring some massive political upheaval, republicanism isn't likely to gain popularity in the federal political landscape. Many elected officials support the monarchy. And, as Béland pointed out, the separatist Bloc Québécois can only ever hope to occupy Quebec's House of Commons seat allotment, currently a maximum of 78 of the 343 seats in the chamber.

So we replace the monarchy. Then what?

Abolishing the Canadian monarchy isn't as simple as firing King Charles III. It would take a wholesale reimagination of the constitution.

The Crown as an institution underpins the whole of the Canadian legal and political system. The governor general, the cabinet, the office of the prime minister and Parliament are simply its executive and legislative manifestations.

The Crown is the authority that turns bills into laws, dissolves Parliament and makes judicial appointments.

"You cannot just eliminate the monarchy without replacing it with something else," Béland explained. "We need a head of state, and we need something to replace the Crown, and this is not an easy task."

The question of how to do that and what figure or system to replace it with would plunge Canada right back into constitutional debate.

"Even if a large majority of Canadians want [to abolish the monarchy], will they agree on what will replace it? And will politicians want to take the risk of trying to put forward a proposal and then try to get consensus?"

Could Quebec ditch the monarchy on its own?

It's highly unlikely, according to Béland, not just because such a project would pose similar legal challenges at the provincial level, but also because it would present political obstacles for separatist parties, for whom, the professor explained "the monarchy is just part of a package deal."

"They don't want to exit Canada just because they don't like the king. The monarchy is just part of the problem. The problem for them is Canada."

"Just to say, 'we abolish the monarchy, but stay within Canada,' in a way that will be a way for them to validate Canada."

"So if you get rid of the monarchy while staying within Canada, you make it maybe more bearable from their perspective. I would just say it would be a bit silly to do that."

Instead, the monarchy might just become less visible

Béland acknowledges Charles' popularity deficit compared to his mother and sees Canadians' perceptions of the monarchy changing under his reign.

"These are huge shoes to fill for Charles III because his mother was so well-liked overall and was around for so long," he told MTL Blog.

Elizabeth II's advantage, as he sees it, was her longevity. She came to represent continuity. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out in his address following her death, she was queen for 70 of the 155 years Canada has existed as a state.

"Regardless of whether we like the monarchy or not, Elizabeth II was a figure that was really ever-present in the media, even in our history books," Béland said, suggesting she offered a kind of living "proof that our system is stable."

Charles III, by contrast, became king at the age of 73 and, despite what might be some life-extending hereditary advantages (his mother was 96 at the time of her death; his father was 99; his grandmother was 101), won't live more than a few decades at best.

The new king also comes with baggage: his headline-making, movie-and-Netflix-show-inspiring divorce from the late Princess Diana, his marriage to now-Queen Consort Camilla (who is even less popular than he is); and, more recently, his viral divabehaviour.

But even tabloid-fuelled royal fuss could pale in comparison to the dramatic national undertaking of rewriting a constitution.

"People like stability in terms of political institutions," Béland said, pointing to the seamless transition between the death of the queen and the ascension of the king.

"Even if support for the monarchy will keep declining, is it something that will be worth so much political effort and so much attention, considering how little it actually affects the everyday lives of Canadians?"

Canadians, most of them indifferent to the monarchy, have perhaps more relevant reforms to discuss, he said, such as proposed changes to the electoral system. There are also the politically pressing issues of the ongoing pandemic and its economic consequences.

Instead, Béland suggested it's possible we'll see the monarchy retreat from Canada's visual culture. An institution that mostly expresses itself through tokens, on currency and in oaths, the monarchy could see its symbolic reach decline as people "care less and less," he said.

So barring momentous political shifts or catastrophic personal drama in the royal family, Canadians might have to get used to their new king's face, at least for the foreseeable future.

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