Saturday, December 31, 2011

Canada's Suddenly Monarchist Prime Minister

MONTREAL — Hanging a portrait of the head of state in embassies and consulates abroad is the sort of thing most countries do as a matter of routine. For Canada, though, the move has proved controversial, not least because the country’s head of state lives thousands of miles away, in London.

Don’t fret if you didn’t know that, thanks to a quirk of incomplete decolonization, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain moonlights as Canada’s head of state: most Canadians don’t know it either. A 2008 survey (pdf) found that just 24 percent of them did, with 42 percent thinking that the head of state was the prime minister (in fact, merely head of government) and another 33 percent that it was the governor general (only the queen’s ceremonial stand-in in Ottawa).

The monarchy isn’t exactly a hot topic in Canada. But the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, having decreed such ignorance unacceptable, has decided to raise the monarchy’s profile in Canadian life.

First, there was the order to display of the queen’s picture in diplomatic missions abroad; then, plans were announced for elaborate celebrations for her 60th anniversary on the throne (that’s Feb. 6). Paintings by a prominent contemporary Quebec artist were replaced with the queen’s portrait at the Department of Foreign Affairs. And the word “royal” was inserted in the Canadian air forces’ name. Only after the announcement was made in English did the government realize that the French version — Force Aérienne Royale Canadienne — would share an acronym with FARC, the Colombian rebel army, sending military officials scurrying for an alternative. (They eventually settled on Aviation Royale Canadienne, ARC.)

Some think that snafu shows the government’s blithe disregard for opinion in Quebec. I go further: I think Harper’s newfound enthusiasm for the monarchy is all about irking the one quarter of the country that speaks French.

In English-speaking Canada, the monarchy symbolizes the kind of traditional authority and deference to a settled social order that conservative voters warm to. To French speakers in Quebec, having a British grandma as head of state rankles: it’s another reminder of the long history of animosity between the region’s largely Francophone, working-class population and its Anglophone, colonial (and, later, commercial) elite. Royal visits to the province are infallibly protested by a hardcore separatist fringe. They bring grimaces even to the “soft nationalists,” a resurgent force in Quebec politics – they’re for independence but instead of shouting that from rooftops work at minimizing the federal government’s role in Quebec’s day-to-day life.
Read the rest here.

I think this is one of the sillier op-eds I have read in a while. That said I am pleased by the undeniable deference Mr. Harper is showing to Canadian heritage, and yes, that includes the monarchy. Part of me almost wishes this was being done to spite the Quebecois. I have been there on a number of occasions and can't remember a trip where I didn't get the feeling that my presence was at best tolerated and that they were looking down their noses at me. Not all of them to be sure. But a lot of them are insufferable prigs who really don't like Anglophones, and have no qualms about making that known.


Subdeacon David Gould said...

It is great to see the Canadian Prime Minister acknowledging the crucial significance of the monarchy in Canada and the symbolism of the photos in embassies of the Queen is wonderful. Here it is not such plain sailing for us monarchists but the opinion polls tell us that we Australians have no stomach for a republic anytime soon.

Chris Jones said...

Part of me almost wishes ...

I hope that it is only a small part of you. I too have spent a fair amount of time in Québec -- and have had Québecois colleagues when living and working in Toronto -- and have never found them anything less than friendly and welcoming.

As for their political stance, I have more than a little sympathy with it. While the Canadian Constitution is supposed to guarantee that English and French Canadians are two equal peoples within the Confederation, in practice the French Canadians have been a subject people through most of Canadian history. If they go to a little trouble to assert their own nationhood and to try to ensure that their nation and culture thrive, I think that is understandable. (Of course I don't support the use of violence towards those ends, as did the FLQ back in the 1970s. Thankfully that sort of militarism seems to be in the past now.)

In any case I doubt that Harper's moves in support of the monarchy (which I applaud) have anything to do with the Québecois, and I hope that they do not take it that way. The Queen is their sovereign just as much as she is that of the Anglophones.

Jon Marc said...

They have good reason to dislike the anglophones - prior to the conquest they were on the front lines of the French colonial efforts in North America and since then they've been occupied, only more recently becoming second-class equals with their conquerors via the dominion's establishment. Elizabeth II is my sovereign, but I can understand why Quebec wants independence.

David Di Giacomo said...

I have been there on a number of occasions and can't remember a trip where I didn't get the feeling that my presence was at best tolerated and that they were looking down their noses at me.

Your prejudice stinks to high heaven. Having grown up an English-speaker in the heart of francophone Quebec, and in my early adulthood having moved to very anglophone Ottawa, I have been on the receiving end of both kinds of racism: the Quebec anti-English kind and the Anglo anti-Quebec kind. Believe me, the latter is far more ugly and vicious than the former. Anglophones are only too eager to vent their contempt and hatred for Quebecers at the slightest opportunity, as you have just demonstrated in this surprisingly petty and spiteful post.