Down with the Crown

Debate over the monarchy’s future is chance to push for decolonization and reparations
Photo: Queen Elizabeth statue on Parliament Hill in 2012. The statue has been temporarily relocated to Rideau Hall due to rehabilitation work on Centre Block. (CyclePhotog / Flickr)
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A billionaire interviewing two celebrities is not the type of news that should garner attention. But if the personal is political, then Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, is telling. Discussing the intricacies of royal life, Markle described being driven to suicidal ideation and being silenced by the royal family. The real drama, however, centered on her son, Archie. While Meghan was pregnant, a member of the royal family worried that the baby would be too dark. For Meghan, it was devastating and “really hard to understand.”

For many, though, the fact that someone whose status is built on colonialism and slavery is racist is unsurprising. But to dismiss this news would be foolish. For Canada, it is another blow to an institution in crisis. Just last month, the Governor General — the Queen’s representative in Canada — faced accusations of workplace harassment and resigned. Opposition to the monarchy soon reached “historic levels,” with a plurality of Canadians wanting an elected head of state.

The monarchy’s continued existence helps maintain the myth that Indigenous people were conquered and gave up their sovereignty.

Many opponents of the monarchy, who prefer a form of republican government, have condemned the institution as antithetical to an otherwise meritocratic society and long emphasized how costly it is to maintain the Office of the Governor General. The left should offer an alternative to these neoliberal arguments, emphasizing the monarchy’s role in colonialism and racism. Failing to do so, the monarchy might die, but capitalism will be more alive than ever.

God Damn the Queen

With carbon emissions rising, Indigenous land stolen, and police killing Black and other racialized people, the monarchy may seem to be the least of our concerns. The Governor General rarely exercises her powers, and the Queen rarely visits Canada. While the left has opposed the monarchy, many do not see it as a priority. In a recent poll, NDP supporters were the most likely to say they did not care whether Canada’s head of state was a monarch or elected.

They have a point. Abolishing the monarchy would not immediately solve our problems. To a certain extent, the Canadian monarchy is merely a symbol, rather than functioning as a system of hereditary rule. Yet, as long as Canada remains a monarchy, decolonization is impossible. It was the British monarchy that encouraged the settlement of Turtle Island (so-called North America). While treaties were at times negotiated, the desire to settle the continent led the British army to push Indigenous people off their lands into smaller areas, weakening their nations. The money generated from colonialism supported the construction of palaces across Britain, many of which the royals still enjoy the use of today.

To be sure, monarchism is not the problem per se. The republican United States engaged in no shortage of treaty breaking and genocide against Indigenous people. In fact, the Royal Proclamation of 1763’s ban on further settlement westward and granting of self-government to Indigenous people was one of the drivers of the American Revolution.

But to suggest that other forms of government were just as bad or worse misses the point. Symbols of conquest should be abolished, whether monarchist or republican. In the United States, statues for Confederate leaders such Robert E. Lee are not simply reminders of the past, but glorifications of those who defended slavery. In doing so, they help maintain white supremacy, and for this reason many have been removed.

Likewise, the Canadian monarchy represents Britain’s ability to engage in such extensive brutality and suppression that only the Queen’s representative, rather than Indigenous people, have the final say on state law. The monarchy’s continued existence helps maintain the myth that Indigenous people were conquered and gave up their sovereignty — a fiction that allows our current settler-state to continue the British legacy of treaty breaking and land theft. For these reasons, the left should push for the monarchy’s abolition.

Capitalist republicanism

Beyond scrapping colonial symbols, the monarchy’s abolition would have other impacts. The current Canadian Oath of Citizenship requires immigrants to affirm their “allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.” This poses a problem for republicans, such as attorney Charles Roach, who, despite living in Canada for nearly six decades, never became a citizen due to his opposition to the monarchy. Since the Queen is the head of the Church of England, members of certain religious groups also face difficulty, having to swear allegiance to a religious figure whose faith they do not share.

Sooner or later Canada will have to decide on whether to remain a monarchy.

Yet for many republicans these social justice issues have little currency. Instead, getting rid of the monarchy is part of a liberal nationalist project. Many speak, for instance, about how the monarchy is antithetical to Canadian tolerance and egalitarianism. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, James Cox argues for the abolition of the monarchy since “it goes against Canadian values such as freedom and diversity.” So-called small government conservatives have also attacked the monarchy. In 2018 the National Post ran a story detailing the expenses former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has billed since leaving office.

Accepting these arguments would defeat the purpose of abolishing the monarchy. A republicanism that celebrates Canadian tolerance obfuscates how prevalent racism is in our society. Emphasizing the costs of the Governor General, which are relatively low, gives into a neoliberal logic that is used to argue for the cutting of social services. Such arguments should be resisted, with emphasis instead on abolition as means of furthering decolonization.

Anti-monarchy, anti-colonial

Sooner or later Canada will have to decide on whether to remain a monarchy. If not now, the question will be on the agenda when the Queen inevitably dies. Prince Charles is highly unpopular, with only one in five Canadians wanting him as their king.

The direction this discussion will take is an open question. There will be an opportunity to consider the monarchy’s role in colonialism, which could open further dialogue about decolonization and reparations. But for others, republicanism could help entrench liberal nationalism and neoliberalism. If the left does not engage in this discussion, the fight against colonialism will be all the more difficult.

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