A recent royal tour has intensified the spotlight on Britain’s colonial history, renewing questions about how much longer a double-digit list of Commonwealth countries – including Canada – will have a monarch at the helm of the State.
The week-long tour, which ended last weekend, saw Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, visit Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas with the aim of strengthening ties between Britain and these countries.
Instead, the trip sparked public protests and demands for reparations for slavery, and saw unexpected news from Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness that his country intends to become fully independent.
By doing so, Jamaica would become the second Caribbean country to sever ties with Queen Elizabeth in recent years – after Barbados, which did so in 2021.
But more countries in the region seem to be considering this possibility.
Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper last week that he thinks “every Caribbean country in the Commonwealth all aspires to become a republic”.
The question of the future of the monarchy is also on the minds of many Canadians, including those who are already convinced that it is time for a new direction.
“Jamaica and Barbados are ahead of Canada,” tweeted Kulpreet Singhreacting from Vancouver to headline news from Jamaica.
“Go Canada. Give up the monarchy.”
“It Can’t Go On”
Selwyn Pieters, a Toronto lawyer and civil rights activist, said he saw no reason for the monarchy to stay in Canada.
“[Canada] doesn’t need a monarchy to oversee it,” he said in a phone interview last week.
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A recent poll by the Vancouver-based Research Co. suggests that many Canadians would agree.
Just under half of respondents said they wanted the country to have an elected head of state, according to online survey of 1,000 adults which was taken over a three-day period in February.
Mario Canseco, the president of Research Co., said that figure – now “by a hair’s breadth of 50%” – has risen in polls he has conducted in recent years.
“That’s the highest we’ve ever had,” Canseco said, referring to its previous polls.
Another 18 percent of those polled said they had no preference on whether or not Canada would remain a constitutional monarchy. Only 21% of those polled said they preferred Canada to remain a monarchy.
CBC cannot accurately calculate a margin of error for online surveys. A probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
A spokesperson for Canadian Heritage told CBC News that “the Crown in Canada contributes to a sense of unity, stability and pride among Canadians. As a constitutional monarch, the Queen is Canada’s head of state and an essential part of Canada’s system of government.
The spokesperson added that “no change to the role of the Crown in Canada is contemplated”.
But Ashok Charles, the executive director of Republic Now, a group campaigning for Canada to become a republic, said he believes that day will come.
“I find it appalling that we are clinging to the remnants of monarchy in the 21st century,” Charles said.
“It can’t go on.”
The pandemic may be a factor
Canseco said there have been fewer royal visits during the pandemic and he believes that is a factor in what is reflected in the polls.
“They always find an opportunity to say the monarchy has been popular because there are a lot of people lining up to shake their hands,” he said.
“But because of COVID and lack of travel, they haven’t been able to make that emotional connection to the monarchy. And I think that’s also partly to blame for the drop in numbers.”
There have also been fewer public appearances.
On Tuesday, the Queen made her first major public appearance in five months at a memorial service for her husband Prince Philip. She missed a Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey earlier in the month while still recovering from COVID-19.
It would have been her first in-person public engagement since being advised by her medical team to rest after being hospitalized for undisclosed reasons in October.
There are those in Canada who believe that moving away from the current system is not the answer.
Rob Wolvin, who lives in Toronto, said he believes a constitutional monarchy provides stability which is one of its advantages as a system. But that doesn’t mean it should remain static.
“We have to allow our system to be changed,” Wolvin said, adding that he believes a move to a republic does not guarantee a stronger or better democracy.
A not so distant story
While in Jamaica, Prince William spoke of the “deep sadness” he felt about the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
The second in line to the throne said ‘slavery was abhorrent and should never have happened’, although his remarks ended short of an apology.
His words were followed closely by many people, including in Canada.
In Winnipeg, O’Neil Reece previously told CBC News he thought the royal visit to Jamaica had made people even more upset.
“If there were an apology, I really think it would allow us to see them in a different light,” said Reece, who travels frequently to Jamaica to visit family.
“Of course you can’t change the past but, I mean, it’s this generation that’s going to be the change.”
In Toronto, Pieters said he and others were still “processing and reflecting” on what the prince had to say about the painful history of transatlantic slavery.
Singh said he considered an apology to be “the bare minimum” of what was needed.
“If we’re talking about Prince William’s ancestry, it’s not that far off that he can just say…it was something in our ancient history,” Singh said, explaining that some of his own western ancestors of the Punjab were displaced by the actions of the British Empire.
“It wasn’t – it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. And so he benefited from the legacy of that slavery.”
“It’s not going to be that easy”
If Canada were to pursue a split in the monarchy, it would involve changing the constitution to replace the Queen as head of state. To do this, it would be necessary to enact section 41(a) of the Constitution Act 1982which requires majority approval of the “Senate and House of Commons and Legislative Assembly of each province”.
“It won’t be that easy, but it might be worth exploring if we continue to see this climb in the rankings,” said Canseco, who intends to continue tracking the issue in the polls.
As difficult as this process is, Republic Now’s Charles said he believes it’s an “inevitable” step for Canada and he hopes the current moment can help spur the desire for change.
“We need more committed action to facilitate change,” he said.
Singh said he doesn’t expect that kind of change to happen in the short term, in part because of the extent to which Canada is mired in its colonial traditions.
“I think we’re still late in breaking free from these shackles,” Singh said.