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Debates Over the Role of the Crown

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Prime Minister The Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliott Trudeau signing the Constitution (April 17, 1982). Robert Cooper. Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, PA-141503 (via Flickr).

Historical Context: A Timeline

  • 1534. A great deal of “Canadian” land is governed under French rule

  • 1763. Treaty of Paris transfers New France to British rule

  • 1848. Nova Scotia and the United Province of Canada (Ontario and Québec) establish responsible government under Britain

  • 1867. The British North America Act states that the Crown is the “Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada.

  • 1867.  The Constitution Act of 1867 states that the British Crown is “the Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada”

  • 1931.  Statute of Westminster–British law establishes Canada’s legislative independence from the United Kingdom.

  • 1947.  The Letters Patent issued by King George VI empowered the Governor General to exercise the prerogatives of the sovereign.  

  • 1982. Patriation of the Canadian Constitution, ending Britain’s power to legislate for Canada.

The Crown’s Role Today

As a constitutional monarchy, Canada is governed in the name of the Crown, a sovereign authority vested in Queen Elizabeth II and exercised through the representatives of the Crown in Canada. The functional role of the Crown–the “Crown’s prerogative authority”–is assumed by the Governor General at the federal level and the Lieutenant Governors of the provinces–who act as the Queen’s representatives within Canada’s political institutions and more broadly, within Canadian democracy.

The Governor General acts on behalf of the Queen in matters of federal jurisdiction, assuming the responsibilities of the Head of State. These include appointing and providing advice to the Prime Minister and granting Royal Assent to acts of Parliament. Similarly, Lieutenant Governors are the representatives of the Crown at the provincial level and take on duties like the swearing in of the Premier and Cabinet, as well as providing Royal Assent to new legislation. In contemporary Canada, many of these actions are taken on the advice of cabinet or the broader legislature and are therefore, largely ceremonial in nature.

The role of the Crown has changed dramatically over time as Canada has transitioned from a colonial to an independent country. Nevertheless, the Crown remains an important (albeit largely symbolic) part of the executive branch of Canadian government that aligns with the Westminster-style governmental system inherited from the British.

Ongoing Debates About the Role of the Crown

There have long been concerns about the relevance of the Crown in contemporary Canada. While monarchists have long argued that Canada is better served by maintaining the political traditions and institutions of the country’s monarchical past, others have suggested that Canada should leave its historic and largely symbolic relationship with the Crown behind.

The Powers of the Governor General

One significant concern is that while the role of the Crown has been largely symbolic, the Governor General continues to hold certain reserve powers, including the power to hire and fire the Prime Minister and form or dissolve Parliament. The Governor General can appoint the party leader and ask the leader of a recently elected party to form government. In some circumstances, particularly in cases where a minority government is in power, complications may arise when another party leader makes a competing claim regarding the confidence of the House, forcing the Governor General to either dissolve Parliament or otherwise take action.

Such circumstances occurred in 2008 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government was threatened by an opposition coalition. The opposition parties had agreed to bring down the government with a vote of non-confidence and to form a coalition government in its stead. In an effort to avoid the impending non-confidence vote, Harper asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue parliament and end the session before a vote could take place. This put the Governor General in an awkward position. On the one hand, Harper was still the Prime Minister, and such requests for prorogation are typically granted. On the other hand, Harper’s claim for confidence of the House was not very strong. In the end, the Governor General granted a short prorogation, but a vote of non-confidence was held the following month. The Harper government ultimately survived after the opposition coalition fell apart.

Episodes like the 2008 prorogation crisis beg important constitutional questions for Canadians. For example, does the Governor General’s duty to preserve and defend democratic government in Canada outweigh the convention of acting on the advice of the Prime Minister? Further, to what extent should an unelected representative of the Crown be permitted to make such decisions within a democratic country? In this case, the Governor General decided that a short prorogation was not detrimental to the system as she invoked her reserve powers and refused the Prime Minister’s request.

Costs of the Crown for Canadians

The costs that Canadian taxpayers might bear for maintaining ties to the monarchy has also the subject of debate. A 2020 poll by the Angus Reid Institute showed that 73% of Canadians opposed paying for a security detail and other expenses for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during their time spent in Canada. This may suggest that Canadians fail to see members of the royal family as an important part of the Canada’s political institutions. The costs of maintaining the salaries, offices, residences, staff, and other costs associated with the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors are considerable, although if the current role of the Crown as head-of-state was replaced by a different model it is not clear that it would be less costly.

Personality, Apathy, and the Prince Charles Problem

Another concern is not about what the Crown does, but rather who acts as the embodiment of the institution. For instance, polls have shown strong continued support for Queen Elizabeth II compared to relevant support for Prince Charles. In addition, 47% of Canadians still believe Canada should cut ties with the monarchy when the Queen’s reign is over.

It is not clear, however, that there is a great deal of concern at all. Outside of parliament, attitudes among the broader public might be characterized by confusion or apathy, with a 2008 poll from Ipsos showing that at the time, only 24% of Canadians could correctly identify the Queen as Canada’s Head of State. Another survey showed that while 52% of Canadians expect Canada to remain a constitutional monarchy into the future, 28% said they don’t care either way. Indeed, the dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada said, “the greater threat to the monarchy in this country is not republicanism; it’s indifference.” All things considered, it seems that in the absence of some constitutional crisis or the revelation of exorbitant costs to taxpayers, Canadians are largely ambivalent when it comes to the Crown’s role in Canadian politics.

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Contributors: Mitchell Joseph Faguy, Debora Grosso, Angela McComiskey, Stephen Pierce, Sierra Van Tent