The heirs of King George III have rarely left the script they were bequeathed more than two centuries ago. Because they found themselves encased within a constitution that is almost immutable, they are doomed—again and again—to embrace the absurdity of carrying on like Hanoverian demi-autocrats as the 21st century pushes on, democracy and common sense be damned. It’s the direct political heirs of King George III we are talking about here—the ones in the White House, not those duty-bound and sweetly dotty hereditary members of the House of Windsor who have somehow survived to this day regardless of media brickbats, republican detractors, the “wisdom” of policy wonks, and the logic of the times.
It’s those hereditary heirs, the official heads of state of Canada, which a new book just out is trying to get us to understand, in a more rounded way than we are accustomed to doing. Battle Royal, by David Johnson, is coyly timed to coincide with the final years of Queen Elizabeth II’s benign and mostly blameless reign. On the other hand, to understand the royals of today one must understand their predecessors, and to know what a powerful 18th-century British head of state was truly like, it’s useful to consider Donald Trump. Just like his Hanoverian antecedents, he has a cabinet of his own choice, responsible to no one but himself. The idea that cabinet members should be responsible to an elected legislature did not occur to the slave owners who framed the American constitution. Ditto on a sovereign’s traditional right to wage war. If a U.S. president has enough ready cash at his disposal, he can start a little bellicose action or put down an irritating, disobedient “shithole country,” just as King George III tried to do with his rebellious American colonists, and just as a succession of presidents did, from Woodrow Wilson (Mexico) and John F. Kennedy (Cuba) to Ronald Reagan (Grenada), Bill Clinton (Haiti), and Barack Obama (Libya). And, also like George, eventually they all had to go to a pesky legislative house to get more taxpayers’ loot when the personally controlled line of cash ran out.
The founders of the American experiment modelled their indirectly elected head of state on the mid-18th-century office in Britain that they knew best, giving it much the same powers and perquisites and making sure that constitutionally it was awesomely difficult to change. So things stayed relatively static in republican Washington while, in monarchical London, the sovereign evolved into a democratically condoned but politically neutral head of state, supplemented in the former colonies by appointed viceregal figures. In Canada, as Battle Royal amply illustrates, whether they are in Rideau Hall in Ottawa as governors general or in one of the provincial capitals as lieutenant-governors, they have been effectively powerless, but also trail-blazing representatives for the kind of country most Canadians cherish: unaggressive and dignified, a source of pride and hardly any trouble at all, symbolic shamans for dignified, responsible governance. Had the British government been wiser in 1776, and the American revolutionaries more astute, Oprah Winfrey could be ruling from the White House at this very moment, making Americans feel good about themselves, while her jumped-up Congressional First Minister—he of the swirling orange coiffure—would be fighting for his political life, had he even survived the exposure of his sordid sex life and office-compromising business arrangements.
This is not the sort of thing most Canadians ever think about. It sounds seriously silly. We are accustomed to think in other ways because we know so little about our own history and have such little regard for the quiet way our concept of democracy has evolved. And while the notion that the Americans keep re-electing King George III every four years is not quite the thesis of this highly commendable study of the Crown of Canada by David Johnson, the idea is implicit. This is the canny Cape Breton political scientist David Johnson, by the way, not the stolid former governor general named Johnston. Battle Royal is premised on what Johnson (probably correctly) assumes will be a national debate on the role of the Crown in Canada when Queen Elizabeth II, now into her tenth decade, dies and her heir, Prince Charles, succeeds to the throne. As such, the book—remarkably—will be useful to both those who cherish (or simply support) the Crown and those who wish it long gone as a colonial appendage that is an embarrassment to Canadian self-esteem.
Johnson is not a polemicist and the proof of this is that those who support the Crown will think he is trending republican, while Canadian republicans will be irritated by how easily he can make a case for the retention of the Canadian Crown. On the one hand, for example, he illustrates cogently how the drift away from a constitutional monarchy proceeded apace under successive Liberal administrations and that this drift will be hard to stop; and then again he shows—just as cogently—how easily enthusiasm for the Crown can be revived given the right personalities or the appropriate occasions. Johnson almost defies you to try and nail his preferences down.
You can tell right from the early pages that this study of the Crown in Canada is different from most others by the way Johnson handles the crucial issue of the Crown and First Nations. It is something most of the members of “settler communities” in Canada (that would be all non-Indigenous Canadians, if you are unfamiliar with the phrase) don’t get at all, or haven’t for a long time. In a moving and detailed account of how the Crown and First Nations made mutual use of each other at every stage of the history of Canada, Johnson has made a major contribution to our understanding of how we got where we are today.
[It shows] two paths, or two vessels, travelling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian people, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs, and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, but in our own boats. Neither will try to steer the other’s vessel.
Would that it had happened that way, but in fact for much of our post-Confederation history, it has been left to the Crown—the sovereign him- or herself, or the viceregal appointees—to evoke the better treaties and their commitments. The non-Indigenous, and their elected representatives, were far too busy pulling the First Nation heirs from their lands into apartheid-like reservations and deculturalizing them and their descendants out of the goodness and forbearance of their well-intentioned (and only occasionally vindictive) hearts.
1. “It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings.”
2. “Now we must all admit that the condition of the Indian Question in British Columbia is not satisfactory…The government of British Columbia [has neglected] to recognize what is known as the Indian title. In Canada, this has always been done: no Government, whether provincial or central, has failed to acknowledge that the original title to the land existed in the Indian tribes and the communities that hunted or wandered over them. Before we touch an acre, we make a treaty with the chiefs representing the bands we are dealing with, and having agreed upon and paid the stipulated price, oftentimes arrived at after a great deal of haggling and difficulty, we enter into possession, but not until that moment do we consider that we are entitled to deal with a single acre.”
The first is from the noble, forward-thinking Egerton Ryerson in 1847 and it sets out quite clearly a high-minded and principled approach to dealing with Indigenous people (he never uses the word “nation”) and which, with other high-minded initiatives, led inexorably to reservations, the Indian Act, and residential schools—all of which constitute a scabrous wound we are all only now trying to come to terms with.
And the second? It’s from the governor general of Canada, Lord Dufferin, in 1876. Although a man of his times in many ways, the governor general in his lacerating condemnation of the British Columbian government went on to imply that if Canadians failed to do this, if British Columbia failed to partake in honourable negotiations, it also would fail to honour Canadian promises, thereby trashing its own laws, breaking faith not just with established constitutional practice, but also with an equitable future for Canada. There will be an onerous price to be paid one day, he warned. And indeed that day is upon us now and we are finally coming to terms about just how onerous that price is going to be.
All we need to take from this is the knowledge that what seems obvious rarely is. It struck Ryerson and all right thinking Canadians what was right and appropriate in dealing with “our Indian problem.” It struck the Crown, in the person of Lord Dufferin, what was just and honourable. The psychological and legislative distance in between these two poles is almost unfathomable, but the fact that there was from the beginning an understanding by the Crown about what exactly was caught up in its own “honour”—now the country’s honour—provides a sliver of hope that we can build upon, if we choose to.
Johnson’s account of early relations between Crown and Indigenous nations makes a compelling opening to his account. He has put everything else in logical chronological succession and gets us through past controversies, changes, and evolutions to the present day. His assumption is that the death sometime in the next few years of the second-longest reigning sovereign in our history will precipitate a “battle royal” over the constitutional governance of Canada. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t put as much faith in the vagaries of polling as he does. Nevertheless, the book is so useful precisely because it looks at all sides and, apart from some suggestions on how the successors to the Queen—either in the person of her hereditary successors or the viceregal representatives in Ottawa and the provinces—can personify their roles better, his polemic is rarely prescriptive. It does what historians and political scientists do best: it sets the scene and lets us determine for ourselves what we think about the issue.
It just so happens that the book comes out when the republican system appears to be looking particularly fragile and tattered south of the border, but in the end that is neither here nor there. The Crown either has to continue working for Canada, and in Canadian constitutional interests, or it will certainly wither away. As Prince Charles has often said, such an eccentric institution has to be seen to be worthwhile to survive. Johnson’s great contribution to this looming debate is to set out the precise and most productive terms on which we can engage the issue—for both republicans and monarchists. He does, however, suggest what I suspect will hugely irritate republicans, that there will be a King Charles III of Canada. It will happen the very second the Queen dies, just wait and see.
John Fraser is the executive chair of the National NewsMedia Council of Canada.