Royal Again

John Blattler

The Public Policy and Governance Review asked current and former students to write a series of posts on the major policy events of the summer as we begin the fall semester. Today is the second of the series.

In a traditionally slow news month, the announcement on August 16, 2011 that the federal government would return the military services to their pre-1968 designations – the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Canadian Army – generated a fair bit of attention.  For several days afterwards, leading news organizations across Canada devoted precious page space – both analog and digital – to the story.  The Globe and Mail’s editorial of August 17 2011 was enthusiastic – opining that the name change was a “mark of respect” for the heritage earned by the three services in the First, Second, and Korean Wars. Conversely, Senator Colin Kenny (L) in The Toronto Star was less impressed, tartly remarking that a funding announcement for the military would have been more appropriate.

Understandably, monarchists, traditionalists, some nationalists, and some scholars were delighted with the name change. Critics, however, were not wanting and immediately questioned the relevance of these historic names to contemporary Canada. From the resulting debate, it is apparent that the real argument at hand is not so much the aesthetics of the name change, but rather defining the appropriate role of the monarchy for Canada.

Many winced on August 16 when Peter MacKay, the Minister of National Defense, used his “reveal” to interpret the name change as a sympathetic nod to Canada’s historic ties with the United Kingdom. His predecessor Paul Helyer, who in 1968 removed the royal designations from two services and rebranded all three of them as Maritime Command, Land Command, and Air Command respectively, blasted the new nomenclature as returning Canada to a “semi-colonial” status.

Jack Harris of the New Democratic Party condemned the move as divisive and anachronistic. “The government should be focused on bringing Canadians together,” he told the CBC, “but with these Conservatives, the priority is to divide Canadians and turn back the clock.”

Unnamed but widely understood, was the concern that this action would strain Canada’s unity by antagonizing Quebec.

Purely by itself, however, the act to rename the services was not improper. The Constitution Act, 1867 specifies: “The Command-in-Chief of the Land and Naval Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.”

Furthermore, warrants issued by King George V in 1911 and 1924 styling the Navy and Air Force as ‘royal,’ are still outstanding (for reasons of constitutional convention, the Army is not considered fully ‘royal’ because of the English Parliament’s struggle for power with the Stuart monarchs during the 17th century). Hence, Buckingham Palace’s permission was not needed to readopt to the “royal” usage this past summer. There was nothing undue in the armed services returning to these designations. In fact, as political blogger Dale Smith astutely wrote, the restored names are completely apt:

“The real lesson here is that restoring the “royal” title reinforces the fact that the Canadian Forces report to the Crown (and not Parliament), and that the Queen of Canada is the commander-in-chief. It is a reflection of our constitutional reality, not a vestige of the past.”

This is not to deny the substance of the criticisms leveled against the move. Many are uncomfortable with the link between Canada and a monarchy, which is widely seen internationally and within the country as more “British” than “Canadian.” Some nationalists view this international lynchpin – a sovereign shared with 16 other Commonwealth realms – as compromising Canadian identity.

Others view the symbolic weight of the monarchy as inappropriately imperialist and elitist. Cumulatively, this invites legitimate questions as to how the world will evaluate Canada in the future. History reminds us that after the Suez Crisis of 1957, Gamal Abdel Nasser rejected Canada’s offer of peacekeepers  because our flag, institutions, uniforms, and regimental names were ‘too’ British to serve the required role of honest brokers.

Despite the concerns of pundits – which, by observation, seemed more common than praises – popular reception was surprisingly warm. According to a Canadian Press commissioned survey conducted by Harris/Decima, 56 per cent of respondents approved of the name change while 31 per cent opposed.

Rather oddly, the survey seemed to hint that the name change was not as unpopular in Quebec as anticipated. Doug Anderson, a vice-president with Harris/Decima explained to The Globe and Mail “… among all the rest of the voters in Quebec who are either considering a federalist party or not considering the Bloc Québécois, there must necessarily, mathematically, be overwhelming agreement with the move.”

It could be that the government of Stephen Harper is sensitive to a hitherto underestimated royalist chord in Canada’s psyche. There have been three recent royal tours in as many years. Post-tour, polls show that national support for the monarchy has slowly waxed past the halfway point in polls. Even in Quebec, traditionally the most hostile constituency to the monarchy, dislike seems to have mellowed into distaste. Worries that the recent tour of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would angrily provoke Quebecers – as happened with the Queen’s 1964 visit – proved unfounded when only mild protests occurred.

It is no accident that the monarchy’s visibility is growing.  Weeks after the armed services were rebranded, the Minister of Foreign Affaires directed Canadian missions around the world to prominently display the Queen’s portrait – alongside those of the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and other Canadian notables – in their public reception areas. This seems to confirm reports that the Prime Minister and many of his aides and ministers are solid monarchists. Like John G. Diefenbaker and his government, Mr. Harper and his staff view the monarchy as elemental to Canada’s historic sense of self and direction. The new Citizenship Guide published by the government departs from previous editions in declaring “Her Majesty is a symbol of Canadian sovereignty, a guardian of constitutional freedoms, and a reflection of our history.”

Highlighting the monarchy to a wattage not seen since mid-century nets the governing party some shrewd political tricks. It pleases their base while vexing their rivals. Currently, the New Democratic Party is unsure on how to handle the monarchy: casual reports suggest that the late Jack Layton was a monarchist but a large – and new – Quebec caucus now makes the issue sensitive. For similar reasons, the Liberals are also uncomfortable with the monarchy’s growing prominence. Ultimately, these unsteady dynamics, tied to the vagaries of political turnover, should prompt one to wonder: today the armed services operate under their historic, royalist monikers – but will they continue to do so when a new political day dawns?

John Blattler is a second-year student in the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. He holds a Master’s of Arts in English Literature (Toronto), a Bachelor’s of Education (British Columbia), and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Classical Studies (British Columbia). 

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