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Harry, Meghan, and the Canadian Conundrum

30 Jan 2020
By Dr Bruce Mabley

Canadians’ perceptions of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s proposed move to Canada are primarily divided along regional lines. Also worthy of consideration are Aboriginal affairs, and the financial imprudence of the monarchy’s representatives in Canada.

The recalibration of the British royal family, with Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan Markle deciding to relocate to Canada has dominated a portion of the Canadian news agenda during January 2020. It had to compete with strong competition from the impeachment of President Donald Trump, and the continuing Australian forest fire emergency but here, in North America, both US and Canadian media were also preoccupied by the royal conversations. This is not necessarily new since American media has always been insipidly curious about the British royal family and any intrigues or potential stories arising from their antics in the old country.

Canada’s reaction to the news reflects the diversified ethnic and social portrait of its communities. Like other developed Western countries including Australia, Canada has a radically different ethnic makeup than was the case 30 or 40 years ago. The new arrivals do not share the values of being a subject of the British crown and many are not aware of the Commonwealth link. What is different in Canada is that one of the founding nations is the French speaking nation of Québec, which does not share any of the historical or cultural links to England. Many Quebeckers are outright hostile to the British monarchy (I count myself among these fiends) and perceive the symbolic political power wielded by the royal family as illegitimate, outdated, and a barrier to Canadian unity. Talk of the British monarchy only stirs up old historical wounds such as the British victory over the French army of “La nouvelle France” on the plains of Abraham in Québec in 1759.

Moreover, Canadian unity is again under new pressure after the October 2019 election, which saw the rise of Western alienation and a resurgent Québec sovereignty vote for the Bloc Québécois, which potentially holds the future of Justin Trudeau’s minority government in its hands. On the other hand, English-speaking Canadians remain fairly apathetic and have little appetite for hearing about the latest episode in the continuing saga of the royal family.

A word about the Canadian Aboriginals is required. Before Canadian confederation in 1867, many tribes had concluded treaties directly with the British crown in an effort to secure guarantees against encroachment of white European settlers. Fading British dominance over the North American continent in the wake of the victorious American revolution made this tactic a win-win for the British crown. They had nothing to lose. Despite constitutional evolution away from anything more than symbolic oversight by the British sovereign in Canadian politics, Aboriginal tribes have rightly concluded that treaties with the Crown before 1867 do have validity. The fact that Canada has evolved constitutionally without providing necessary and agreed-upon consensus with the original owners of the land has resulted in a special status vis-a-vis the British crown for Aboriginal tribes.

So, Prince Harry and Meghan’s proposed move to Canada has evoked different reactions: most of English-speaking Canada could not care less, except for a dwindling minority of older persons of British origin with a more accepting attitude. In Québec, there is a mixture of apathy and resentment. The independence movement representing about 35 percent of French Quebeckers has used the royal falling-out to once again put Québec sovereignty on the front burner. Any royal tiff or miscue adds fuel to the fire of Québec’s claims for independence from a Canada still wedded to monarchic symbolism in Canadian politics.

In January, in the midst of the royal dust-up, a well-documented Angus Reid poll was published indicating that 73 percent of all Canadians are opposed to paying for Harry and Meghan’s security. After all, even if they are no longer working as such for the royal household, they still require a security detail and a whopping majority of Canadian do not want to pay. This is not new, however. Examples of spendthrift Canadian representatives of the royal establishment abound and have been publicly scrutinised. There was a Québec lieutenant-governor who held hugely extravagant receptions and parties and shipped her personal golf cart back and forth from Florida. There were two governors-general, one of whom to this day continues to spend huge amounts of money travelling on the taxpayer dollar with her star author husband (himself the beneficiary of many federal government contracts) and has been the object of a parliamentary investigation. The other was unable to seek re-election to the Francophonie establishment due to her bountiful, fulsome, yet dubious expenses. In Canada, the royal family does not have a clean slate in addition to its historical political stigma.

What the British royal family lacks in financial prudence, it makes up for in political contacts and friends. In Canada, Harry and Meghan are often guests of the Mulroneys, a Canadian political family which has spawned one prime minister and another provincial minister with potentially higher ambitions.

The royal recalibration has momentarily stirred up the Canadian political scene. What if, for example, a minority Liberal government was defeated in parliament while trying to pass a bill to provide for the security details for the not-so-royal couple? Both the Québec sovereigntists and the socialists who hold the key to power might take delight in defeating the government, especially now that they are in possession of an Angus Reid poll showing how unfavourably Canadians would view paying for an extended royal stay.

Much will depend on how and to what extent Harry and Meghan intend on integrating into Canadian life. For now, they can be somewhat forgotten in their golden glitter palace on Vancouver Island. All bets are off, however, if they decide to jump in the icy cold water and try to live as Canadians in an uncertain land, the contours of which illustrate longstanding complex ethnic, social, economic, and political cleavages. If this were to materialise, perceptions of the royal visitors may become toxic very quickly in a rapidly changing minority rule political situation. The rise of regionalism seen in the October 2019 election result is toxic to the royal link and its continuing presence in the public eye.

Dr Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group think tank based in Montreal devoted to analysis of international politics.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.