As a student of history, it’s always fascinated me how actions taken in the past still impact our present. Sometimes it’s the only way to make sense of certain things that are such large parts of our laws and governance. As a former part of the British Empire, Canadians know this feeling well, as so much of our law, legal and governance traditions are built upon British examples. In the end, they created them and imposed them here and in the time since many of them haven’t changed. That may seem silly to some, but it is what it is.
Given the size of the former British Empire, Canadians are far from being alone in having the experience of dealing with the fall out of having traditions and governance imposed upon its lands from Britain. It was once said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, which tells you a lot about not only the vast territories it once oversaw, but the varied experiences each had with the Crown. And while Canada gained its independence from Britain much earlier than other part of that empire, we’ve seen many former British colonies gain their independence from the Crown all over the World.
From Asia, to Africa, to North American and to the Caribbean, these countries took their own paths towards independence and charted their own paths forward after getting it. And that’s not something that’s been static. In the decades since independence from the British Crown, many of these nations have questioned the governance structures they inherited and looked towards other models. But even as we’ve seen some of those natural evolutions, most haven’t taken the step to completely cut themselves off from the Crown and have kept the Queen has their head of state. Well yesterday some news came out of Barbados that struck like a thunderbolt on this topic, with a striking declaration during their Throne Speech:
I have to say, it’s quite something to see the representative of the Crown making a statement that basically says, “Goodbye Crown”. It’s an interesting argument that the government of Prime Minister Mia Mottley is making, or at least one that fits their specific circumstances. I’m as struck by the fact of the statement as the speed of this major move, promising that this major constitutional change to make Barbados into a republic will be done “in time for the country’s 55th anniversary of independence in November 2021.” A year to undo a major pillar of any countries governance? That’s either extremely ambitious or irresponsible, but in the end that’s part of being an independent country; to make these decisions and be held responsible for them. On that score, I believe it will be interesting to watch what happens there as very few former British colonies have taken the step to fully cut ties from the Crown. Stay tuned, I guess.
But for us here in Canada, this will be interesting to watch because there has always been a small, subset of people who have been either anti-monarchy/pro-republic or monarchist/anti-republic. On the scale of political issues we have in Canada, this issue is far, far down the list. The fact is that while some would be happy to see the Crown go in Canada, most Canadians could frankly care less. In the end, the Crown hasn’t meddled in our politics and beyond signing off on a bad Governor General choice or two, it’s a system that has worked. While we are a constitutional monarchy and the Queen is our Head of State, it’s hard to argue that we are effectively any less independent today than any republic with an elected head of state.
And if there is any reason for not changing the status quo in Canada, I would argue we do have a uniquely Canadian circumstance for not doing so; Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. The fact is that it’s the Crown with whom Indigenous Nations signed most treaties with, not the Government of Canada. The fact of that unique relationship and what it means to the legal structure of the country makes any decision to undo it that much more fraught. And of course that’s on top of the challenges that comes with making any constitutional changes in this country, which we know are very difficult.
So given that the current system is operating alright, the long standing relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, and the difficulty of change with the pandoras boxes trying so would open, why exactly would any government want to take on doing away with the status quo? I think the answer to that question is pretty self-evident, which is exactly why it’s not on the political agenda in Canada. Do most Canadians have any great love for the current arrangement? I don’t think so. But do they feel the need to change it either? Nope, the answer is pretty clear there. For the majority of Canadians, it’s a historical fact that we inherited that hasn’t held us back in achieving our own independence. It’s a quirk in our system, one that maybe we wouldn’t have put in place if we were to do it all over again from scratch, but it’s not one that causes a problem.
That’s why I find yesterdays news from Barbados so interesting. As someone who has little knowledge of politics in that country, I find it interesting that they have arrived at a point to take it on. I don’t think it’s going to set off a wave of such actions, but it will be interesting to watch what happens there in the next year. Like anything else, the devil will be in the details and we’ll see if this becomes a change with minor consequences or if what comes out of pandoras box swamps everything else in the process.