Growing up in India, Aro Narendran was always taught that the British rule over his country was unquestionably bad. History classes were clear that colonization was a dark and terrible period in India. “You'd have been called crazy if you thought otherwise,” he says.
When he moved to St. John’s, NL for university, Narendran, who now lives in Halifax, was surprised to find out how much of a “hot button political issue” the monarchy is in Canada. “The level to which people defend it, it's kind of crazy to me,” he says. “The painting of the royal family as this kind of, you know, Disney movie kind of thing, it's kind of weird.”
For Narendran, the monarchy symbolizes thievery, genocide and racism. So it’s a culture shock to see it painted as a beacon of peace, stability and unity. It’s the same for Ali, who grew up hearing horror stories of the British colonization of Sudan from her parents and grandparents. And for Rebecca Thomas, a Mi’kmaw poet whose father attended a residential school. So while Canada just held a national day of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, they aren’t grieving the death of a monarch who symbolized suffering.
“I can feel sorrow and empathy for a family,” Thomas says. “But I don't mourn the figurehead of a state that has caused a lot of damage to my community.”
“I had a friend of mine telling me that I'm celebrating death by not mourning her,” says Ali, an international student who doesn’t want her full name used. “The Queen had an active hand in colonialism, and I feel like she's not a hero.”
Narendran says he felt “95% indifference and 5% Schadenfreude,” when the Queen died on Sept. 8. “I was totally indifferent until all the people, like all the defenders of the monarchy, started scolding Black, brown, Indigenous people for not breaking down and crying,” he says. “People were suddenly like ‘oh, she's a grandmother, she’s a mother,’ and I just wish that people would extend the same sympathies to marginalized or colonized communities.
“Obviously she's not, like, the number one person responsible for every bad thing that happened during British colonialism, but she still benefited from it a lot,” Narendran says. “She never apologized. She never gave back to any of the communities she stole from.”
Thomas sees a straight line between current issues facing Indigenous communities and settler colonialism backed by the British Crown. “So seeing it and mourning it and waxing on through rose-tinted glasses, as though this was a person who was not representing something that did a lot of harm, is really tough to swallow as an Indigenous person,” Thomas says.
“The death of a 96-year-old woman an ocean away bumped the James Smith Cree Nation tragedy out of the top spot of Canadian media. And I find that that shows how entrenched we are in a colonial perspective and rhetoric here within Canada. And I think that that is a shame.”
Although Queen Elizabeth’s death and Charles’ automatic ascension as our head of state has opened the floodgates to talk about what the monarchy means in modern Canada, the institution may not be as important to Canadians as the person wearing the crown. An April 2022 Angus Reid Institute survey found that 55% of Canadians supported remaining a constitutional monarchy “as long as Queen Elizabeth reigns,” while just 34% would want to recognize Charles as the King of Canada. At the same time, a slim majority of 51% of Canadians support ditching the monarchy.
After the Queen died, The Coast did its own, less scientific, survey of public opinion and found that 64% of people believe Canada should get rid of the monarchy. (See sidebar “Coast readers on the Crown” for more on the survey.)
Last week, The Coast conducted an informal survey on our website and social media platforms, asking readers if they wanted Canada to abolish the monarchy. Out of a grand total of 235 responses, 64% of our readers were anti monarchy, 26% pro monarchy and 9% were indifferent or ambivalent.
But interestingly, users of some platforms were far more into—or against—the Crown than others. Here’s the breakdown of the results by platform.
57% anti monarchy, 13% indifferent, 30% pro monarchy
60% anti monarchy, 40% pro monarchy
50% anti monarchy, 33% indifferent, 16% pro monarchy
86% anti monarchy, 14% pro monarchy
The Coast Daily newsletter
27% anti monarchy, 1% indifferent, 66% pro monarchy
Canadians have long thought about the Crown as a person—Queen Lizzie in Windsor Castle with her corgis—instead of the Crown as an institution, and what role it plays in our lives, says Cheryl Simon, a Mi’kmaw woman and professor of law at Dalhousie University. “It's really apparent when you keep hearing people say, ‘Well, they're not actively colonizing anymore, that was history.’ And yet everything around, you know, the tradition and ceremony that we're witnessing with the ascension of King Charles is grounded in that colonizing history,” she says.
“I think that people need to understand the difference between the Crown as a colonial force and the person, because if it was just the person I don't think it'd be as problematic. But it's not,” says Simon. “Because of the way that we have been colonized with the Indian Act, we have daily reminders of the authority of the Crown in our lives. And I think that that is not something that non-Indigenous people necessarily experience as much as we do.”
She says it’s time for Canadians to take a long, hard look at the monarchy’s role, especially when it comes to reconciliation. “It's really hard to reconcile the desire to address, you know, Indigenous nations within this country, and yet still cling to our colonialism,” she says. “I don't think that Canadians generally have been having that conversation.
“Some people are saying now's not the time because of respect, but it's like this is the opportune time to start challenging this,” Simon says. She adds that other countries' decisions to abolish the monarchy will hopefully spark that debate in Canada. Barbados ditched the royals last November, and Jamaica is talking about doing the same.
For Simon, doing away with the royal family would be a “wonderful opportunity” to re-think what Canada is, and what Canada can be. “We've been colonizers. We have these findings of genocide. We have to change the situation. If we're going to become a republic, this is a really great way to basically reimagine what Canada would be like without Crown authority. And so I think it would be a big change for Indigenous peoples and nations.”
Narendran adds that the monarchy has aspects that “any western government or western leader criticizes other countries for.” Namely that it’s undemocratic, “incredibly outdated” and “expensive as hell.” For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, our constitutional monarchy cost Canadians $58,749,485.52, or $1.55 per person. In the UK, the monarchy cost $2.07 per person. “It's mostly symbolic, and it's symbolic of something terrible,” Narendran says. Or as reader Aki Tsi put it when answering The Coast’s poll on Facebook: “It's 2022, not 1522.”
Simon urges Canadians to ask themselves if a constitutional monarchy, with its colonial legacy, is something they continue to want and value. “And that is the question that I think everybody should be asking, regardless of how you personally feel about the monarch, because it's something that Indigenous people have always faced.”
Is there a case to keep the monarchy around? “I think that it is important because it's the thing that ties us all together. The monarchy is above our politicians,” says Helen Wyman, chair emerita of the Halifax South West Nova branch of the Monarchist League of Canada. She says having an apolitical, long-serving head of state rather than a partisan one that can change very few years, makes Canada’s government more stable. Ditching the royals “could lay us open to somebody taking over and becoming more or less a dictator.”
When we posed the question to readers of The Coast Daily newsletter, many responded with the same sentiment. “In these tumultuous times, the monarchy is the ultimate head of the Commonwealth of nations, a constant protectorate of our country’s parliamentary system of governance and not a republic as the USA, a failed experiment which allows the entrance of tyrants to its presidency. The monarchy is a gatekeeper/defender of our rights and freedoms,” writes Cathy Langille.
“I really do think that we are more stable with what we've got, rather than trying to change,” Wyman says. Or as reader Thom Fitzgerald puts it: “If we didn't have the royals, we'd just create our own de facto royals. Canada has its Trudeaus, the US has its Bushes and Kennedys—maybe it's best to stick to the devils we know.”
But Simon pushes back against the idea of keeping the colonizer in power just because it’s easier than coming up with an alternative. “If we're not even willing to undertake the exercise of thinking about it, then it makes me question, how serious are we about reconciliation?”
“I fully understand why so many Canadians would be thinking about abolishing the monarchy that is not relevant, that is an elitist, classist institution,” says David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University and author of Battle Royal: Monarchists vs Republicans and the Crown of Canada. But he warns that the road to cutting ties with the Crown will be long and difficult.
“The monarchy in Canada is constitutionally entrenched. It is hardwired into the Canadian Constitution,” he says. When Canada gained the power to amend its own constitution in 1982, a rule was added that made changing the status of the monarchy “practically impossible.”
Abolishing the monarchy would require the unanimous consent of the federal government and all 10 provinces, Johnson explains. “There are only very few items that require that unanimity, and the monarchy is one of them,” he says. “Now that is extremely, extremely difficult—little PEI could simply say no, and if PEI says no, you do not have unanimous consent, and the constitutional amendment dies.”
No prime minister or premier has ever tried in earnest to ditch the monarchy. “Obviously, they're afraid to get into the constitutional mess,” says Johnson. If the 10 premiers were to meet up in Ottawa to attempt the amendment, “I think we know what would happen from looking at Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accords.” If you need a social studies refresher, those debacles about Quebec 30-odd years ago were the last times Canada tried to amend the constitution, and the lesson was that the provinces, and Canadians, will never agree.
“There's nothing to gain from it, it would probably fail, and then we have squandered political capital on this when we really should be spending our time on more important issues like the environment, like economic development, like health,” Johnson says.
He points out that it’s actually easier to abolish the monarchy in the UK than it is here. All the English politicians would need to do is pass an Act of Parliament through the House of Commons, and the House of Lords (the UK equivalent of the senate) couldn’t even veto it. Then King Charles III would be constitutionally bound to sign off on his own termination. But Charles holds the title King of Canada “separately and distinctly” from being the king of the UK, Johnson explains. The UK could abolish the monarchy and yet it would still reign over Canada until we made a constitutional amendment.
At the end of the day, Johnson says it doesn’t matter how many Canadians want to abolish the monarchy, it’s just not going to happen. “Monarchists can somewhat rejoice in that the monarchy is hardwired into the constitution.”
But should that stop us from trying? Simon says the Charlottetown and Meech Lake Accords were the last time the nation talked about restructuring itself, and we should have another crack at it. “I think it would be a worthwhile exercise, because there's so much that has changed in Canadian society since the ’80s,” she says.
“We have a much clearer understanding of the consequences of not effectively dealing with Indigenous sovereignty, you know, with the findings of genocide. So I think that the groundwork has been set to have the discussion, and so I think that is definitely worthwhile. Again, if we're serious about reconciliation, like we kind of don't really have much of an option.”
It’s been argued that abolishing the monarchy would actually harm Indigenous peoples, because treaties were signed between Indigenous nations and the Crown. But Simon, an expert in aboriginal law, disagrees. She points out there was debate about how changing the Crown’s role would affect treaty rights when the constitution was patriated 40 years ago. “It doesn't mean that the treaties would go away. They've also been enshrined in our constitution,” she says. “I suspect it would be the same with a republic. Canada would just have to, you know, deal with the fact that they are the successor when it comes to the authority for the treaties.
“The alternative would be Canada really, really changing the nature of the institution to have a role for Indigenous people. That is, they could go beyond their treaty obligations.”
Like it or not, barring a constitutional overhaul we’re stuck with King Charles III, the current embodiment of the monarchy. But in case the 73-year-old’s mind is more open to change than our constitution, Simon and Ali have some suggestions for the new King of Canada.
“I feel like Charles could maybe start by just acknowledging the damage the UK has caused to a lot of countries,” Ali says. “I feel like an apology wouldn't be enough because it's been like years and years, like centuries of damage, but actually just recognizing the fact that damage has been done, and returning what they've stolen, might be maybe a good change.”
Simon says the royals should acknowledge that terra nullius was a fiction. “Reconciliation hasn't happened with respect to truth of history. And I think that there is a role to play for the monarchy to own their truth of the actions that they've undertaken,” she says.
While there's only so much Charles himself can do, Thomas and Simon have ways Canadians can improve the institution from the inside.
“If we're going to honour this monarchy, and if we're going to hold it up on a pedestal the way that we are doing, I think that requires us to take a little bit of a closer look at our treaties that we signed with the British monarchy, and maybe honour those and pay as much reverence to those as we do about the individual that symbolizes a signatory of those treaties,” Thomas says.
And if the monarchy abolition debate doesn’t get off the ground, Simon says Canadians “need to seriously think about pushing harder for their representatives, whether it be MPs or MLAs, or whatever, to really push the limits of what's possible under our current system.
“Because again, it comes back down to how serious we are about reconciliation.”