The Monarchy in Canada

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

Portraits of the Queen remain a common sight in most Canadian government buildings, including libraries, schools, city halls and community centres. But few are as big as this one, seen in the lobby of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Many foreigners, and even some Canadians, are surprised to learn that Canada is a monarchy, but it’s true. The only one in North America, in fact!

As we learned in the history chapter, Canada was once a colony of Britain, but unlike many of England’s other former colonies around the world, Canada never experienced a sharp break with the motherland. Canadian independence evolved slowly under British colonial supervision, as opposed to rising in opposition to British rule, as was the case in America and Kenya and elsewhere. This is the main reason why the Canadian system of government still has such a distinctly British feel; the system was largely British-made.

The most prominent lingering legacy of Canada’s British connection is the Queen. Though Canada now has full political independence from the U.K., the nation never cut its ties to the British royal family, resulting in an unusual state of affairs that is sometimes referred to as the “shared monarchy.”

The Queen of Canada

Queen Elizabeth with Mounties

The Queen's periodic visits to Canada tend to be huge media spectacles, with many high-profile photo ops across the country. Her exact tour routes are meticulously planned by the government.

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 make the argument that it actually 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 actor 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 this group of countries was known as the “British Commonwealth,” but in recent decades that group has expanded into a more generic “make the planet better” international organization, and now includes many countries that have no links to the British crown — or even Britain — at all. The more proper name for countries that share the crown is the “Commonwealth Realm,” and Her Majesty’s site has a complete list of those 15 nations that exist within it.

The Monarchy as a Political Symbol

Does the Queen have any power over Canada? It’s a common question, but the answer is a little 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 purpose is simply to cut ribbons, shake hands and smile for photographers.

A Canadian citizenship ceremony

Canadian immigrants are required to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen before they can become citizens. The same oath of loyalty must be taken by judges, politicians, soldiers and other high-ranking officials.

On the other hand, the Canadian Constitution grants sweeping political powers to the Queen, and declares 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 is what they call 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, 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 all a bit of ceremony and theatre relating to this 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, especially in terms of property, such as Crown-owned land, or law, such as the Crown’s defence team.

The Republic vs. Monarchist Debate

Not everyone in Canada loves the monarchy. In fact, according to many polls, the country may be split 50-50 or worse. There has been rising debate in recent decades as to whether or not retaining ties to the monarchy is actually useful to Canada, or whether it simply undermines Canada’s independence from Britain, and ties the country to an old-fashioned, out-of-date political system — even if only symbolically.

Debate over the future of the monarchy in Canada

Every time a member of the royal family visits Canada, the media tends to run a lot of stories about the future of the monarchy, and whether it has enough public support to survive.

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 in the media: the Monarchist League of Canada (pro) and Citizens for a Canadian Republic (anti). It’s not easy to generalize what sorts of people 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 no shortage 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. Though these points are obviously debatable, for now, the monarchists definitely have the upper hand. Getting rid of the monarchy in Canada would require a constitutional amendment, and lacking much political momentum for such a move, the goal still seems a long way off.

Past Monarchs

It can be a subject of some debate regarding how many monarchs have historically ruled Canada. The government of Canada’s official list jointly recognizes both French and British monarchs as being “sovereigns of Canada” from the mid-1400s until 1775, and then solely British monarchs from there on out. This means that the first English monarch of Canada was Henry VII (1457-1509, ruled 1485-1509) and the first French monarch was Francis I (1494-1547, ruled 1515-1547). Of course, to say “Canada” existed in the 15th century is obviously quite charitable; at best, these kings merely presided over a tiny smattering of colonial settlements occupying an extremely small fraction of the country’s modern-day borders. More reasonable lists will therefore only recognize the post-1867 monarchs of the United Kingdom as true sovereigns 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 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 Empire’s glory, however, and Canadians still celebrate her birthday as an official holiday.
King Edward VII 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 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 sovereignty to self-governing colonies like Canada, meaning a number of key constitutional laws from the era were passed in his name.
King Edward VIII 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 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, 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 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.

Heirs to the Throne

Prince Charles Prince Charles

The eldest son of Queen Elizabeth, Prince 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 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 beautiful young wife, Kate Middleon (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 Prince George

Little George, the first child of Prince William, 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

Queen Elizabeth giving the throne speech.

Queen Elizabeth ceremonially opened the Canadian Parliament in 1957 and 1977. It may say something about the growing controversy of the monarchy that she's never been asked to do it since.

The Queen is very rarely in Canada for obvious reasons, but there are still a lot of papers and things for her to sign, even if they are just formalities declaring “I agree with what the politicians say.” In acknowledgement that the real monarch can’t be counted on to perform these functions, the Canadian government has always employed an officer known as the Governor General of Canada who basically performs the duties of “acting monarch” in Canada. The governor general is authorized to ceremonially sign and approve things on behalf of the Queen, and in doing so ensures that the entire “monarchy system” continues to function properly, even in the absence of an actual monarch on Canadian soil.

The Governor General of Canada is often an interesting and dynamic political figure in his or her own right, so let’s turn the page and learn more about that job.

Links About The Monarchy:

Quick Facts:

  • Though Canada is an independent country, Britain's Queen Elizabeth remains the nation's head of state.
  • The Queen does not play an active role in Canadian politics, and her powers are mostly symbolic.
  • In recent years, Canadians have become more critical of the monarchy and often debate its future.
  • Since the Queen only occasionally visits Canada, her day-to-day symbolic duties are performed by the Governor General of Canada.