Does Canada Need a New Head of State?

Prince Charles, who will likely become the symbolic role of head of state [glossary] of the United Kingdom when his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, passes, is visiting Canada this week. His eleven-day visit, which began on Monday in Newfoundland, will take him across Canada, from the Maritimes to Ontario, to Canada’s Pacific coast, and back to Quebec and Ontario for Remembrance Day ceremonies before returning to the United Kingdom.

But Princes Charles faces some challenges during his visit. On his first day in Canada, Charles called on Canada to exhibit greater leadership in the climate change debate. The Canadian government, currently headed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephan Harper, has been criticized for its foot-dragging on the climate change debate.

The visit comes at a time when the British monarchy in general and Prince Charles in particular face growing unpopularity in Canada. Like many former British colonies, Canada’s political system separates the ceremonial position of head of state and the position which yields real political power, head of government, [glossary] into two separate posts. In the United States, the two offices are fused into a single position, the president of the United States. But in Canada and many other former British colonies, the ceremonial position of head of state is occupied by the reigning British monarch (currently the Queen Elizabeth II), who is represented in Canada by the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the parliament.

But according to recent polling data, the British crown facing declining popularity in Canada. While Rosie DiManno criticized Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General Michaëlle Jean for their poor protocol during Charles’ speech in Newfoundland, most Canadians appear to be apathetic about the whole visit. According to the CBC, while 80 percent of respondents agreed that the monarchy had an important place in Canada’s history, more than 60 percent felt the constitutional monarchy at the heart of Canada’s political system was outdated. The Societe St-Jean Baptiste, an organization pushing for sovereignty and independence for Francophone Quebec, went even further, demanding that before he would be welcomed in the province, Prince Charles apologize for a litany of British offences, including acts of “cultural genocide” committed against Francophone Canadians during British colonialism. Based on the polling data, a plurality of Canadians (41%) would prefer to see Charles passed over for his son, Prince William, rather than succeed Queen Elizabeth himself, while a minority (31%) believes he should be king.

The polling data suggest that Canada’s political system may be in for reform in the future. Does an independent, ceremonial head of state have a role to play in the political system? In many states, such a position exists and often plays an important role. In Belgium, King Albert II lacks any real political power but has played a central role in efforts to maintain the fragile unity of the country amid efforts to divide the country along linguistic lines. In Germany, the President performs a largely ceremonial function, while real political authority is vested in the Chancellor. Japan maintains its Emperor, Luxembourg has its Grand Duke, and the Netherlands its queen, all reminders of the historical legacy of the monarchy and important cultural references for the people. But the model used in many states of the British Commonwealth is unique insofar as the head of state is not a national of the country itself. Can a British King serve as the ceremonial leader of Canada? It’s a question many Canadians seem to be asking.

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