Dr Paul Benoit, a former university lecturer,
civil servant and ministerial aide, is on the Board of the Canadian Royal
Heritage Trust, an educational charity dedicated to preserving the more than
500 year history of royal heritage in Canada.
This fall the Queen will be
making her twentieth visit to Canada (not including her tour as Princess in
October 1951). For half a century, she has personally contributed, beyond
measure, to the strengthening of civil society in Canada. When not acting on
her own, her representatives in all the capital cities – the Governor General
and the Lieutenant Governors – and members of her family have assisted in
carrying out the different functions involved in the royal mission. Working
jointly and severally, they form a firm that we call the Crown.
Prior to the Queen’s visit, it
is fitting that we get a better grasp on the constitutional role of this
Despite the teachings of
political scientists John Stewart (a former MP and Senator) and David Smith, many
Canadians continue to think and speak of our constitution in the tri-partite
terms of a legislature embodied in Parliament; an executive embodied in the
Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues; and a judiciary embodied in the
Courts and Charter.
I propose that we think of our
constitution in less legalistic terms, that we approach it from a combined
historical and sociological perspective. From this perspective, we ask: what
holds Canada together? With so many centrifugal forces at work in today's
world, is there still a basis left for our sovereignty? How do our major public
institutions contribute to the coherence of civil society? To begin to answer
these questions requires an appreciation of our institutional heritage.
Monarchy has played a central
role in the integration of society throughout the history of the West. But that
role has evolved greatly, particularly in Great Britain as that society grew in
complexity. Indeed, since the 17th century, in a continuous process of
differentiation, the British Crown has undergone four major transformations.
Sharing Power: The Glorious Revolution of 1688
consolidated the basic framework for the Crown's sharing of power with
representatives from the different estates of the realm. The Monarch's power
could no longer be exercised absolutely. The liberty of the realm could no
longer be left to the King's prerogative. It could only be secured through the
political cooperation and consent of peers and burgesses – property-owners
small and large.
This settlement in the
distribution of power made for a 'mixed' regime – the humanists' ideal – that
combined the best of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. All three were given
scope to operate in Parliament; each had its chance to contribute while being
checked through the operation of the other two. To be fixated on only one
principle – say, the democratic – is to miss the whole point of Parliament.
Today, the Crown continues to
be an integral part of Parliament: convoking it, dissolving it, initiating each
session with a speech from the throne, and assenting to every bill. On a
day-to-day basis, the Crown is symbolically present in the mace that lies in
the centre of the House of Commons whenever it is in session and in the
designation "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" that is attributed to
the major opposition party.
Maintaining Authority: The 18th century witnessed
another important, though arguably accidental, evolution in the role of the
Crown. From a legal and an administrative perspective, the Monarch began to be
distinguished from his chief counsellors. Not speaking English, George I did
not attend cabinet meetings. This created a vacuum that was filled by Sir
Robert Walpole, who became England's first de facto prime minister
(1721-42). In the 1780s, William Pitt (the Younger) consolidated the authority
of the cabinet and of the premier within the cabinet.
This doctrine of royal
infallibility had the advantage of preserving the stability of the state's
structure of delegated authority. In return, the Monarch had to choose his
chief advisors from among those politicians who had the support of the majority
in the House of Commons. This convention ensured that those who were
responsible were also accountable – accountable to Parliament and, through
Parliament, to the electorate. It provided an effective way of revoking a
ministry and its policies without jeopardizing the administration of the state,
most of which had to be carried on at arm's length from the vagaries of
The question of who would take responsibility for
the administration of public affairs and how they would be made accountable was
resolved in Canada at the time of the Baldwin-Lafontaine ministry (from 1848 to
1851) with the support and goodwill of the Governor General, Lord Elgin.
Celebrating in Public: In the wake of the reform movement
and the expansion of the franchise in 1832, Prince Albert recognized that the
monarchy would have to evolve further if it was to keep up with changing social
conditions. The Crown would have to establish a deeper cultural rapport with
people, a rapport that would go beyond the sharing of political power with
Parliament or the maintenance of independent civil, military and judicial
services. The Monarch would have to reinvent the essentially baroque idea of public
ceremonial, adapting it to contemporary circumstances.
Just as individual families
mark birthdays, weddings, deaths, anniversaries and other extraordinary events,
so should the Monarch, in the company of other members of the royal family,
celebrate those events that are milestones in the collective life of society.
Commemorating such an event in public with an appropriate display of decorum
makes the event more impressive and lends a deeper significance to the
occasion. It also sets an example of public behaviour to be emulated by others
on lesser occasions.
Coinciding with a cultural
revival of the Gothic, the British Crown's interest in public ceremonies
resulted in pageantry that took on a hallowed aspect, an aspect reinforced by
the involvement of the Anglican Church in many of these ceremonies. Benjamin
Disraeli is credited with persuading Queen Victoria in the late 1860s to take
on this function, a function that achieved its full aesthetic splendour in the
Queen's golden and diamond jubilees.
In Canada, the need to
celebrate extraordinary achievement resulted in the development of a distinct
honours system; most notably, the creation of the Order of Canada in 1967.
Encouraging all forms of cultural endeavour, the Canadian Crown awards prizes
of excellence every year to architects and artists in the literary, performing,
and visual and media arts.
Reaching Out: At the same time, it became
apparent that beautiful ceremonies and the conferral of honours could only go
so far. They were pleasing and even inspiring, but that was not the same as
involving people at a deep emotional level and giving them an abiding sense of
collective purpose. As industrialization and urbanization proceeded apace, more
and more people felt alienated from the mainstream of society and the goals set
by its elite. The 1930s were particularly bleak in this regard. Basic
assumptions about traditional western society were called into question.
Socialism and fascism became attractive to many, as each in its own way sought
to give meaning and structure to the life of the common man. It was against
this larger social background, in the spring of 1939, that the Queen, whose
death we have just mourned, brought about intuitively the fourth and final
modernization of the Crown.
Tom MacDonnell, in his account
of the royal tour across Canada, Daylight upon Magic, describes how the
Queen, "in an inspired moment, turned from the red carpet and waiting car
and moved instead towards the cheering [veterans]". The Queen had invented
the walk-about; against the advice of their courtiers, she and the King then
took every opportunity to depart from the formal arrangements and get closer to
the cheering throngs that surrounded them. There was something poetic about
these emotional encounters: however brief, they were heartfelt and had a
profound and lasting impact.
In a country as vast as Canada
and with a non-resident monarch, the function of reaching out and forging
emotional ties with people from all parts of society is largely carried out by
the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governors. Through their extensive
travels, participation in community events, visits to schools and hospitals,
and support of charitable organizations, the representatives of the Crown
acknowledge the many different ways which ordinary Canadians struggle to make
their contribution to society.
In conclusion, to appreciate
the Queen's contribution to Canadian public life requires that we understand
the Crown's involvement in all four dimensions of civil society: the political,
the legal, the ceremonial and the poetical. No one dimension is more important
than another. The accompanying diagram highlights how the Crown integrates all
four dimensions – thus preventing them from taking off in different directions
– while recognizing the independent basis of each.
A fitting way for Canadians to
show our appreciation to the Queen for all she has done would be to invite her
to open the next session of Parliament in October. It would also demonstrate an
appreciation for our institutional heritage and a confidence in its ability to
continue to serve us into the future.