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Op-Ed - "Diminishing the Crown" by Serge Joyal, The Globe and Mail


An institution that is continually depreciated either by design or ignorance, like the Canadian Crown, will eventually wither and die, and with it an integral part of our Constitution.

For more than 40 years, Canadian prime ministers have undermined the Crown's legitimacy and authority in the eyes of the public and the political class. This trend has been ceaseless, but the lack of majority government in recent years has provided additional opportunities, such as the use of prorogation during this Parliament.

This depreciation is not entirely one-sided. Initiatives taken by the office of the governor-general itself have also contributed to weaken the Crown's status and symbolic value.

Even the general objective of "Canadianizing" the Crown, laudable in itself, seems to have had the unintended consequence of weakening it. Appointing distinguished Canadians as governors-general, enhancing their role as functional heads of state, on behalf of the Queen seems perversely to have diminished its symbolic and substantive value.

Can anything be done to restore a rightful appreciation for the value of the Crown?

Polls taken last year found that Canadians respect and admire the Queen, but that a majority have reservations about the future of the monarchy in Canada.

Since the sovereign does not live here, we see her as remote. Although her visits have been relatively frequent, the Queen has only very rarely exercised her powers and prerogatives under the Canadian Constitution. The fact is that virtually all of them have been wholly assumed by the governor-general. And the symbolism of royal visits is of limited impact.

Since our first Canadian-born governor-general, Vincent Massey, was appointed in 1952, we have created a sort of hybrid system, where the actual Crown continues to reign on paper while its representative exercises the reality of the office's powers and attributes. This hybridization did not happen by accident.

Through precedents, governors-general have on several occasions found themselves in the unpleasant position of being prevented from acting and then from countering the resultant public criticism because they were kept dangling by the prime minister and his government. Jeanne Sauvé and Adrienne Clarkson experienced such situations. Moreover, our prime ministers have disregarded the sovereign's representative and the representative's constitutional role, which, according to recognized convention, is "to be consulted, to encourage and to warn."

Successive prime ministers have found it convenient to limit the term of office of governor-general from seven years to five. By having its term whittled down, the office's prestige has been placed at the mercy of successive changes of government.

Three recent prime ministers appointed former cabinet colleagues to the office. As Prof. Peter H. Russell wrote last year, "Admittedly, much of [the]advantage of the monarchical system is lost in Canada when prime ministers recommend partisan colleagues to be appointed governor-general and represent [the Queen]here."

Finally, the independence required by the function of governor-general is framed by its underlying financial conditions. The governor-general is completely dependent, in every way, on the prime minister's whims and on the will of Parliament.

Other practices are also distorting Canadians' perception of what the Queen's representative is and does. Some of these result from decisions made at Rideau Hall. According to their official commission, justices of the Supreme Court have at times substituted for the governor-general in giving royal assent to bills passed by Parliament. By being replaced too often in the exercise of this important constitutional function, the governor-general leaves the impression that it is not sufficiently important.

The identity of the sovereign is even problematic on our own currency. On the $20 bill, there is a portrait of the Queen, but neither her name nor her title appears.

If we continue, by small repeated negligences, to undermine the very institution that is the cornerstone of our Constitution, we are allowing the most powerful players in the system - the executive power represented by the prime minister - to tighten a personal and partisan stranglehold around the office of governor-general. The recent prorogations, agreed to by the governor-general, did not end in greater powers for the House of Commons or for Members of Parliament. They simply confirmed the dominance of the executive over the elected House.

Every democratic political system is made up of checks and balances. No single one of its components should have all the powers to hold the others to ransom.

The Crown represents everything that is stable in our society, and as the representative of the Crown in Canada, the governor-general has an obligation to make sure that the respected institutions continue to be meaningful.

How can we protect the principles of responsible government, which is at the heart of our democratic system? As the late Eugene Forsey wrote, "Only the Queen can stop irresponsible government."

The objective of the "Canadianization" of the Crown, formulated in the middle of the last century, lay beneath an objective that was spontaneously endorsed by the majority of Canadians: to make the Crown into an institution which reflected the particular identity and nature of the country.

In spite of the best of intentions, the unintended consequences we see today have in fact weakened the Crown. It has become urgent to consider the values represented by the Crown as a means to strengthen the democratic nature of our parliamentary system.

Senator Serge Joyal is editor of Protecting Canadian Democracy. He gave the opening presentation to the Conference on the Crown in Ottawa on Wednesday.