In Praise of the Queen (or the Gifflesnorff!)

This blog is primarily about pop culture — often about Canadian movies & TV, though with the intent (only occasionally acted upon so far) of broadening out to cover other things, like radio dramas, and non-Canadian movies & TV.

So today let’s look at the Royal Monarchy.

Huh? you say. Okay — it kind of relates, at least insofar as it relates to Canadian identity and culture and as I said: Canadian culture is a big theme at this blog. You see, technically Canada is a monarchy…and not just with its own monarchy, but owing allegiance to the British monarchy, currently personified by Queen Elizabeth II. Her image is on some Canadian currency, and her picture is often on display in some government institutions.

And some people think that’s whacked.

They say an unelected monarch has no place in a modern democracy. They say an independent, self-governing nation shouldn’t be acknowledging a foreign monarch. They say a lot of things. They often say that that’s not how the Americans do things, don’tcha know?

I’ll admit, I can be a bit ambivalent about the monarchy and, when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I suspect I was one of those who would happily call for its excision from Canadian life — back when I was young and didn’t tend to think about things as thoroughly. ‘Cause now, ambivalent though I remain, I tend to lean more toward maintaining the monarchy. And I’ll tell you why.

Firstly — and I realize it’s crazy to colour everyone with a same brush — the irony is that the people now arguing to abolish the monarchy I suspect are (ideologically) the same sort of people who, a generation or two ago, would’ve argued just as vigorously to keep it. Because for all they say it’s embarrassing for an independent nation to have a foreign monarch, to them it isn’t really about an independent Canada…it’s about which nation should play Batman to Canada’s Robin! They have a new idol in their heart to replace the British Empire…and it’s the American Empire.

America abolished its connection to the monarchy, and therefore — they argue — so should Canada. Canada should become a republic. Canada should elect a president.

And having a monarchy is supposedly Canada’s Achilles heel when having moral and philosophical discussions. A popular American writer a few years back basically suggested that Canada was a potential breeding ground for “unspeakable evil” in part because of the monarchy. And a recent commentator on this very blog cited Canada’s monarchy as if somehow that proved a point about Canada’s inferiority to the U.S.

So, in a way, I find myself supporting the idea of a monarchy in much the way a teenager might dye their hair pink — just ’cause it seems to annoy a lot of people!

And most of these arguments strike me as, well, semantics — focusing on the symbols, not the reality.

The monarchy — both here and in Great Britain — has no actual legislative power. That falls to the democratically elected parliaments. Canadians are no less free for having a monarchy than Americans are more free for having a president. Freedom is defined by who makes the laws, by Constitutions and Charters of Rights. We can quibble about individual policies, but both Canada and the U.S. are basically equally free (indeed, ask a gay Canadian soldier married to his partner which country is more “free” and I suspect I know what he’d tell you).

By focusing on the (neutered) monarchy, or suggesting that it somehow impedes Canada’s democracy, shows a fundamental failure to grasp how governments actually work.

So let’s talk about semantics. Let’s talk about symbolism.

As I say, my impression is that a lot of the modern call to get rid of the monarchy (not all, but a lot of it) stems basically from a desire to emulate the United States, period. And — and this is a recurring theme in my comments about Canadian culture — ultimately because their goal is to make Canada more like the U.S….basically assimilating Canada into the U.S., if not in actual fact, then simply as a mirror image, a Mini-Me of America.

I mean, for one thing, they aren’t simply talking about abolishing the Queen and her Canadian representative — The Governor General (a position far more common in Canadian’s day to day lives –for all practical purposes, the Queen isn’t Canada’s head of state, the Governor General is, a position appointed by the duly elected government). But they don’t like the GG either and want to replace it with…a president.

So…why?

Why not simply get rid of the position altogether and leave parliament and the prime minister to get on with running the country? Answer: ’cause the Americans have a president. I mean, if you want a new head of state position (the Queen/GG/president being “head of state” and the prime minister simply head of the government) why not create a new title entirely? After all, there’s no etched in stone law that says you have to call someone a president, or an emperor, or whatever. These are just names previous generations made up. Any country can name their political offices whatever they want and other countries just have to accept it. I mean, Canada is sometimes known as The Dominion of Canada even though some have suggested that it’s no longer the proper use of the term Dominion (and the term itself was basically pulled out of a hat a few centuries ago). So why not abolish the monarchy and replace it with…The Gifflesnorff!

Now that’s something I could get behind.

I mean, imagine all those fancy dress world conferences, as presidents and kings and emirs gather, and then the doorman loudly announces, “Presenting, the right honourable Gifflesnorff of Canada!” Man — that’d bring the room to a standstill. Canada would be the only country in the world with the position of Gifflesnorff. Maybe the position could come with some fancy hat — maybe moose antlers. The Gifflesnorff could sashay into a conference room decked out in moose antlers like he (or she) just stepped out of a lodge meeting in The Flintstones. Sweet!

Or maybe as an homage to Canada’s First Nations, we should title the head of state The Grand Chief.

But all those who advocate getting rid of the monarchy would be appalled at my suggesting that — because it isn’t just about getting rid of the monarchy to them. It’s about getting…a president. Just like the Americans.

It isn’t about fostering a unique Canadian identity divorced from England…it’s about twinning Canada more inexorably with the United States. ‘Cause what they also want is an elected president (and, I’m guessing, housed in a big white house modelled after Greco-Roman architecture).

But, y’know, maybe a head of state shouldn’t be elected. At first blush that might sound odd in a democracy. But as I said: having an unelected head of state hasn’t made Canada any less democratic or its people any less free than anyone else (just ask the Russians about that). And maybe the key is contained in those designations: the Head of State vs. the head of government. Maybe a head of state should be someone who represents something more than the whims of last week’s election. The head of state represents the nation as a whole. Because what we forget when saying that no one voted for the Queen or the Governor General is that, equally, no one voted against them. No one can honestly say they dislike them, or have anything against them personally.

The Governor General (as I say, more pertinent than the Queen) didn’t raise your taxes, or cut services. The GG didn’t send troops to fight in a war of which you disapprove…or refuse to commit troops to a war you think is legitimate. The Governor General is just there to innocuously represent all Canadians, to make nice speeches, to add apolitical dignity to occasions that should be divorced from partisan politics…and, on occasion, to look pretty. Let’s face it: Michaelle Jean was pretty hot. During her tenure I though it could’ve been a cute, nonsensical gag (on The Royal Canadian Air Farce or something) to point out a distinction between Canada and the U.S. is that Canada’s head of state looked not unlike an ex-model and the U.S. head of state (then George W. Bush) looked not unlike a lawn gnome.

When an elected head of state purports to represent their country, it’s got to rankle a bit with all those who didn’t vote for them. But a figurehead style head of state, well, you can accept as a reasonable compromise. They don’t represent any one party, or any one ideology.

But there are other aspects in the favour of keeping the monarchy — still symbolic, perhaps, but a kind of practical symbolism. You see, for all that detractors claim she is the British Queen and Canadians should throw off its colonial yoke…equally, she is the Queen of the Commonwealth which includes some 50 plus nations throughout the world. By maintaining our ties to the Queen, we aren’t simply hitching ourselves to Great Britain…we are maintaining a connection to a plethora of nations throughout the world, including in Africa and Asia. And given the claim that Canada and Canadians are supporters of multilateralism (as opposed to unilateralism) keeping a membership in such a “club” is a good way of keeping the nation, well, rooted…and honest. And though there are nations in the Commonwealth who no longer recognize the Queen, as I say, symbolically having the Queen binds Canada to a world outside of itself. It reminds Canadians they are not an island, but part of a group.

It keeps Canada humble.

It also, y’know, fluffs Canada’s ego (which I realize is a contradiction). Because the Commonwealth allows Canada to be part of a club that doesn’t include the so-called “super powers” like the USA, Russia, or China. A club where it gets to sit at the big kid’s table. And for all that detractors claim maintaining the monarchy is a sign of subservience to Britain…in any practical sense, looking at recent world history, does one get any impression whatsoever Canada is being led around by the nose by Britain? Yeah…didn’t think so.

Now, as I admit: I’m ambivalent about the monarchy. I don’t pay a lot of attention to it. I’m not really sure how many kids the Queen has, or how many kids they have. I think Charles is next in line. But that’s the added appeal to having the British monarchy…it’s like a divorced parent who only gets the kids every other week-end. We don’t have to deal with the tantrums and the fevers — the scandals and embarrassments. That’s for the British government to deal with. When the royals visit Canada they are usually on their best behaviour, they smile, and say polite things, and give those who care about such things a warm, fuzzy feeling. Then they go home and we don’t have to worry about them until the next visit. When they do good, they are Canada’s royals…when the screw up (like dressing as Nazis at costume parties) we can dismiss them as British.

Given what a handful politicians can be — both elected and unelected — that’s not a bad arrangement!

And ultimately…having a monarchy is part of the Canadian culture and identity and, as you know, Canadian culture and identity is a big part of my theme here. Without a monarchy, a lot of the icons and simple terms that Canadians take for granted would go…things that, yes, help us distinguish ourselves from the United States. Crown Attorneys, Royal-this and Royal-that, Governor General Awards, military units named after royal personages, holidays like Victoria Day, etc.

Getting back to symbolism…the whole debate can put me in mind of an allegory.

See, there’s this girl, we’ll call her Jeanne-Sally, who moves far away from her friends and families, into an apartment building, and she hooks up with a powerful, rich, charismatic guy named, say, Bob. Bob is a larger than life presence and demands a lot of attention. Also in the building is Jose — a nice enough guy, but he has his own circle of friends next door and tends more to just chat with Jeanne-Sally in the elevator. So Jeanne-Sally is largely alone with Bob — but she is connected through her e-mail and facebook to her friends and family in other cities. But after a while, people start pressuring Jeanne-Sally to cut off her old friends and family. These people, most of whom are friends and hangers on to Bob, and eager to curry Bob’s favour, insist Bob is all Jeanne-Sally needs in her life — that her ties to her “old” life are immature and really, she should find all the fulfilment she needs in her life just hanging with Bob. (This despite the fact that Jeanne-Sally isn’t even married to Bob — they’re basically just Friends With Benefits!)

In relationship terms we’d suggest that was unhealthy. We’d suggest Jeanne-Sally should be very careful of that pressure, and maybe distance herself from her relationship with Bob until they both could determine what they truly wanted from the relationship.

A fair allegory? Yes? No?

Personally, I’m just not convinced that Canada cutting itself off from its past and global connections just because some people don’t understand how legislative power works is really the best idea.

Unless we want to replace the Governor General with a Grand Chief. Then, sure, maybe I might consider signing a petition.

Or better yet, a Gifflesnorff. With moose antlers.

Cool.

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5 Responses to In Praise of the Queen (or the Gifflesnorff!)

  1. KO says:

    (comments have been edited for space)

    ..I’m so shocked that someone who claims to be proud of all the progressive accomplishments in Canada would attempt to defend and promote monarchy (one of the most non-progressive institutions in the history of the world) in any way.

    Eventually Canada will get rid of monarchy just like eventually the US will legalize gay marriage nationwide. And you, just like those who are against gay marriage here in the US, will be on the wrong side of history. I would of thought a reasonable person like you would know that monarchy is an indefensible institution and a contradiction in a democracy. I know you think America is the cause of all Canada’s problems in regards to Canadian identity, but whether or not Canada has a monarchy or not has nothing to do with US. This is about what’s right and what’s wrong. …the North Korean dictatorship calls itself royalty. The Saudia Arabian dictatorship calls itself royalty as well. British monarchy is part of the the same tyrannical institution…because it promotes inequality over equality. I know the British monarchy is non-threatening, but nice or soft tyranny doesn’t make it right.

    Ireland is a republic…but their head of state is elected, which promotes equality over hereditary inequality. Ireland is not living in a contradiction, while Canada, UK, Australia, etc. are.

    • Administrator says:

      I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. To me freedom and democracy is defined by the liberties and rights enjoyed by the people…not by who is or isn’t on a postage stamp. But, hey, there’s always my Gifflesnorff compromise!

      But you keep repeating a curious misapprehension. I do not “think America is the cause of all Canada’s problems”, nor do I “blame” America (as you suggested in a previous comment) for anything — quite the opposite. I’m the one saying Canadian artists should stop obsessing about the U.S. so much. I’m the one saying it shouldn’t be America’s burden to define Canadian culture and values. In this discussion I feel a bit like a housewife who arouses the ire of her husband by announcing she’d like to get a part time job! Somehow my suggesting America doesn’t have to be the centre of Canada’s universe, that there’s nothing wrong with setting Canadian movies in Canada, or that sometimes Canada was on the right side of historical events, is construed by you as an attack on America and that I’m blaming America for something. But honestly — I ain’t.

      • KO says:

        (comments have been edited for space)

        So it’s okay to have…tyrannical institutions on money and postage stamps because it doesn’t have a noticeable affect on your daily life? … I believe perceived Canadian identity woes begin at monarchy. If Canada had removed the monarchy, you wouldn’t be writing countless posts on Canadian identity today.

        The reason I concluded that you’re blaming America for Canada’s identity frustrations is because you insisted that Canadians that do want to become a republic, want to solely because America is a republic. … Shouldn’t you copy the good that your friends and neighbors do? … What is right should trump over all.

  2. RyanG says:

    I agree, there’s no reason to cut off connections with the UK. But why not add other offices? We could declare that besides the Queen we also share the President of France, the President of India, the President of Ireland, the President of China, the President of Taiwan (if we can get them in the same room), the Emperor of Japan, and the entire Federal Council of Switzerland. No reason not to, and it’s not as though they could refuse. We could if we so choose declare that all the heads of state in the world share the titles in Canada, and decide whose in charge for the week by arm wrestling.