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The Monarchy in Canada

Many foreigners, and even some Canadians, are surprised to learn that Canada is a monarchy, which means the country’s political system is headed by a king or queen. Canada’s monarchy system is a bit more complicated and unusual than most other monarchical countries, however.

As we learned in the history chapter, Canada was once a colony of Britain, but unlike many of England’s other colonies, Canada never experienced a sharp, clean break with the motherland. Canadian independence evolved slowly under British colonial supervision, and Canada’s system of government was largely copied from Britain — including the role of the British monarchy.

Though Canada now has full political independence from the U.K., the British monarchy is still part of the Canadian political system to this day, in an unusual state of affairs that is sometimes described as a “shared monarchy” between Canada and Britain.

The Queen of Canada

Under the terms of the Canadian Constitution, the king or queen of the United Kingdom will always be recognized as the king or queen “of Canada,” as well. So the current Queen of Canada is Elizabeth II (b. 1926), and the future King of Canada will either be her son, Prince Charles (b. 1948), or, depending on how things go, her more popular and handsome grandson, Prince William (b. 1982).

This arrangement allows Canada to still be “under” the British royals, while simultaneously allowing Canada to argue it has its “own” independent monarchy. In other words, Elizabeth is supposed to consider her role as Canada’s queen distinct from her role as Britain’s queen, and so are the rest of us. She’s like an actress playing two different roles.

This unusual “sharing” of the British monarchy is not exclusive to Canada, however. About a dozen or so countries have a similar arrangement worked out with Britain’s monarch, notably Australia, Jamaica and New Zealand, as well as a few smaller island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific. At one time these countries were known as the dominions of the British Commonwealth, but in recent decades that term has fallen out of fashion and the Commonwealth has expanded into a much larger, more generic “make the world better” international organization featuring many member countries that have no links to the British crown — or even British history. Today, a country that shares the British crown is called a Commonwealth Realm. There are 15 in all.

Queen Elizabeth prepares to address the Canadian parliament in 1977.
Canadian Heritage

The Monarchy’s Political Role in Canada

Does the Queen have any power over Canada? It’s a common question, but the answer is complicated. On the one hand, the Queen doesn’t do much. She visits Canada only rarely — once every three or four years at best — and when she does, her primary activities consist of cutting ribbons, shaking hands and smiling for photographers. On the other hand, the Canadian Constitution grants sweeping political powers to the Queen, declaring that “the executive government and authority of and over Canada” is vested in her. Among other things, she is said to be the head of Canada’s parliament and the commander-in-chief of the Canadian armed forces.

These two seemingly contradictory situations work together because Canada operates as what is called a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch agrees to delegate her powers to the nation’s elected politicians, rather than use them herself. In Canadian law, the impressive powers of the monarch are thus formally held by Elizabeth II but lent to other people, mostly the Prime Minister of Canada (sometimes described as “her” prime minister), who governs on the Queen’s behalf and passes laws in her name using her authority. Canadian laws are often full of reference to Her Majesty requesting this, or Her Majesty wanting that; it’s ceremony and theatre to honour the idea of delegated royal power. In reality, the Queen doesn’t care one way or another, and is not personally involved in these decisions.

Formally, Queen Elizabeth II is described as being Canada’s head of state — a symbolic figure of political authority — but the prime minister is called the head of government — the actual ruler of the country. The Crown is often used as a synonym for the entire Canadian government itself, such as Crown-owned land or the Crown’s lawyers.

Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:

The first words of every bill introduced to the Canadian parliament.

The Canadian Monarchy Debate

Not everyone in Canada loves the monarchy. Polls suggest the country is actually split quite evenly on whether the institution is worth keeping. Is preserving constitutional ties to the monarchy something that benefits Canada? Or does it undermine Canada’s independence from Britain and bind the country to an out-of-date political system? It’s a debate that often pops up in the Canadian media, particularly whenever the royals come to town.

Though no major political party in Canada is officially in favour of cutting the country’s royal ties, there are two high-profile lobby groups that often debate the issue: the Monarchist League of Canada (pro) and Citizens for a Canadian Republic (anti). It’s not easy to generalize what sorts of Canadians support one side over the other. Support or opposition to the monarchy does not tend to be a neatly right or left wing issue, and on any given day you can find plenty of journalists, politicians, or academics willing to argue passionately for either side.

Monarchist Canadians argue that the monarchy is an important, unifying symbol of Canada’s history and heritage, and the Queen and her family are uplifting, positive role models — especially in contrast to divisive and unpopular politicians. Republicans, meanwhile describe the institution as something that makes Canada look like it’s still a colony without serving any important political function. The debate has been ongoing for decades, and for now, monarchists seem to have the upper hand. Most experts agree getting rid of the monarchy in Canada would require a constitutional amendment, and lacking much political pressure to initiate one, governments of both major parties have proven quite disinterested.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b.1959) sits under a portrait of the Queen in the cabinet room.
Stephen Harper/Flickr

Past Monarchs of Canada

Though some lists of “past Canadian monarchs” go all the way back to the French and English kings and queens of the 15th century — when the lands that are now Canada were first being settled by Europeans — the official government list only recognizes the post-1867 monarchs of the United Kingdom as true monarchs of Canada, since that was the year Canada’s modern-day Constitution — which enshrines the country’s current system of constitutional monarchy — was adopted.

Queen Victoria (served 1837-1901)

By the 19th century, Britain’s monarchs had already lost most of their political power, and Victoria’s (1819-1901) personal involvement with Canada came mostly in the form of naming cities and approving capitals. She remained highly venerated as a symbol of the British Empire’s glory, however, and Canadians still celebrate her birthday as an official holiday.

King Edward VII (served 1901-1910)

The eldest son of Victoria, Edward (1841-1910) made headlines in 1860 when he became the first British prince to visit North America, touring both Canada and the United States. Due to the length of his mother’s rule, he ascended to the throne as a relatively old man, and his reign was brief and mostly uneventful.

King George V (served 1910-1936)

The first monarch to be keenly aware of the power of the media, George V (1865-1936) helped popularize the modern idea of an image-conscious royal family. His reign also presided over an unprecedented transfer of political power to self-governing colonies like Canada, meaning a number of key constitutional laws from the era were passed in his name.

King Edward VIII (served 1936)

Edward (1894-1972) was a popular and charming prince, both in England and abroad, but he lacked a commitment to royal life. His desire to marry a twice-divorced American woman was considered scandalous in those more conservative times, and he was forced to resign less than a year after becoming king.

King George VI (served 1936-1952)

George (1895-1952) unexpectedly assumed the throne following his brother’s abdication. In 1939, he became the first British king to visit Canada, touring the country from coast to coast amid great spectacle. A symbol of perseverance during World War II (1939-1945), though he died young, his memory survived for a long time under his widow Elizabeth (1900-2002), the so-called “Queen Mother.”

Queen Elizabeth II (served 1952-present)

Following her father’s death, Elizabeth (b. 1926) became the first British monarch to be specifically proclaimed “Queen of Canada.” Her reign saw the final dissolution of the British Empire into the Commonwealth, which she has worked hard to keep relevant. Fond of royal visits, she has toured Canada an impressive 22 times and has participated in several historic Canadian ceremonies.

Future Monarchs of Canada

The order of succession to the throne of Great Britain is governed by the Act of Settlement, an 18th century British law that describes in which order relatives of the current king or queen inherits the crown. In normal circumstances, the monarch’s eldest child takes over after the king or queen dies, but if the monarch has no children it passes to his or her eldest sibling.

Because the law is so clear, we already know who the next three monarchs will be.

Prince Charles

The eldest son of Queen Elizabeth, Charles (b. 1948) is similar to Edward VII in that he has spent a very long time serving as heir to his long-reigning mother. Best known for his ill-fated marriage to the glamorous Princess Diana (1961-1997), Charles has often struggled to remain popular in the age of tabloids. He has visited Canada almost as often as his mother, usually in Elizabeth’s “off-years.”

Prince William

Charming Prince William (b. 1982), the eldest son of Prince Charles and his late first wife, remains the great hope for the future of the monarchy. Well-known for his quiet, unpretentious nature and glamorous wife, Kate Middleton (b. 1982), William remains far more popular than his father — meaning there is heavy pressure to skip a generation and let him become king when his grandmother dies.

Prince George

Little George, the first child of Prince William and Princess Kate, was born in 2013 amid much hoopla. He is now third in line to the throne, after his father and grandfather, though he’ll probably be waiting a while.

The Queen’s Representative in Canada

Preoccupied with her British duties, the Queen is only rarely in Canada. Yet her many constitutional obligations to Canada means there are still a lot of papers for her to sign and approvals to give, even if they’re just formalities. In acknowledgement that the real monarch can’t be relied upon to perform these functions, the Canadian government employs an officer known as the Governor General of Canada who performs the duties of “acting monarch” inside Canada’s borders. The governor general is authorized to ceremonially sign and approve things on behalf of the Queen, and in doing so ensures that Canada’s constitutional monarchy system continues to function properly, even in the absence of an actual monarch on Canadian soil.

To learn more, check out the Governor General of Canada chapter.