THE NATION’S BUSINESS

The time has come to declare a republic

Canada will survive only if we make large changes quickly—which is why we ought to start by immediately ditching the British monarchy

Peter C. Newman December 11 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

The time has come to declare a republic

Canada will survive only if we make large changes quickly—which is why we ought to start by immediately ditching the British monarchy

Peter C. Newman December 11 1995

The time has come to declare a republic

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

BY PETER C. NEWMAN

Canada will survive only if we make large changes quickly—which is why we ought to start by immediately ditching the British monarchy

It’s only a trickle of talk at the moment, and most likely nothing much will come of it. But those of us who worry about the future of our benighted country realize that tinkering with existing institutions just won’t do any more.

A good example of clinging to the status quo was Jean Chrétien’s lame announcements last week that he intends to declare Quebec a distinct society. It’s a worthy objective, but not unless the Prime Minister has the courage of anointing the idea with constitutional clout. Similarly, his version of granting regions a constitutional veto is stillborn, if for no other reason than his use of the term “West” to describe British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Each of those provinces boasts its own characteristics, and it’s almost as silly to lump them into something called “the West” as it would be to refer to Ontario and Quebec as being “central Canada.”

Canada will only survive if we make large changes quickly—which is why we ought to ditch the British monarchy. Becoming a republic would have two huge advantages. First, it would help convince Quebec that the rest of Canada is not married to the status quo but is open to revolutionary new ideas and fresh ways of governing. This is particularly important because so many FrenchCanadians still believe that most Anglos eat porridge every morning, worship the Union Jack and go into ecstasy over the Royals and their jolly brood.

The fact is, of course, that except for a tiny remnant of diehard monarchists, English Canada recognizes the House of Windsor exactly for what it is: an inbred family of promiscuous mediocrities. Diana’s television confessions only helped emphasize how shoddy the masquerade has become.

The connection between Canadians and the British monarchy has always been based less on constitutional niceties than on a delicate balance of reciprocal illusions: the

Royals would visit Canada once in a while and pretend to enjoy it, and Canadians expected nothing much of them, except to keep the faith—to remain a role model, a symbol they could believe in.

That faith has been irrevocably shattered by the current generation’s bizarre behavior, exemplified by Charles, heir to the throne—and putative Defender of the Faith— daydreaming about being reincarnated as his mistress’s Tampax. (One imagines Her Majesty rolling out of her canopied bed each morning, afraid to turn on the telly in case the BBC might be detailing yet another unspeakable act a family member had recently performed.)

Unlike those monarchies whose reigns have been disrupted by mobs sacking their palaces, the House of Windsor has set itself on fire and no one can douse the flames. Apart from the juicy details of the scandals that continue to haunt them, the British Royals have lost the one quality that must distinguish the Crown: their mystique, the notion that they are somehow elevated from the strivings and twitchings of ordinary mortals. It is that quality and none other that allows them to exercise

any degree of moral authority over their subjects. And it is that quality that they have irretrievably lost.

One Commonwealth nation now toying with the idea of declaring itself a republic is Australia, where Prime Minister Paul Keating plans a referendum on the issue. “Australia has a multicultural society which has a large derivative component from Britain,” he explained just before the recent Commonwealth conference. “We’ve developed a culture here which is changing with immigration—an independence of identity that has emerged here quite strongly.” Instead of aligning himself with such a progressive stance, Chrétien—who was visiting Australia at the time—characteristically ran for cover. “The monarchy is not a problem in Canada at the moment,” he declared, bravely adding, “I don’t want to have the monarchists on my back, too.”

As well as being helpful, by demolishing the Quebec stereotype of English-Canadians as still being in thrall to the monarchy, becoming a republic could give meaning and excitement to the constitutional process. Instead of arguing about the number of “whereases” on the head of a pin, we would be debating substantive issues, defining a new kind of society—and most important of all, starting with a blank slate instead of trying to resurrect all but meaningless institutions that have more than served their time.

It’s not as heretical a thought as it first sounds. In the past three decades or so, we have abandoned the Union Jack, which was part of the Canadian flag, dropped God Save the Queen as our national anthem, patriated our constitution from Westminster and turned the Royal Mail into Canada Post. The only remaining step is to withdraw from under the sway of the hereditary Windsor family and name our own head of state, who would reflect our own, instead of imported, values.

A recent convert to the republican cause is David Culver, the former head of Montrealbased Alcan Aluminium Inc. and one of Anglo Canada’s establishment stalwarts. “The more I think about it, the more I like the idea,” he told me last week. “Becoming an independent republic within the Commonwealth would be about the right place for us. But the real reason for putting this notion forward is that there are so many locked-in, constipated positions involving the present constitution that what we really need is a clean piece of paper—an excuse for everybody to start from a fresh point of view about what we need in this country and what we should be doing.”

Culver tried out the idea on Daniel Johnson, the Quebec Liberal leader, who was extremely encouraging, and discussed it with the No campaign’s president, Montreal businessman Michel Bélanger, who told him: ‘This would give people a great chance to rethink what Canada is all about.”

Certainly, it’s an idea whose time is overdue.