In April 29, 2011, Prince William and Kate Middleton were married at Westminster Abbey in front of 1,900 guests—and a world that couldn’t look away. The wedding was broadcast in more than 180 countries, including Canada, where 12 million of us tuned in. Royal memorabilia, from tea towels to marmalade, flooded the market. After a difficult 14 years following the death of Princess Diana, media coverage was overwhelmingly positive. While a 2010 Angus Reid poll found that only 36 percent of Canadians wanted the country to remain a monarchy, by June 2011, when the newlyweds embarked on their first royal tour of Canada, a follow-up poll found there had been “a positive change in Canadian opinions of individual royals.” Amid all of the attention paid to the Windsors that year, 58 percent of Canadians believed Canada should remain a monarchy.
Things have since gone downhill.
By 2016, yet another Angus Reid poll found that while Queen Elizabeth II remained remarkably popular, fewer than half of Canadians—46 percent—were interested in one day recognizing her successor, Prince Charles, as king. And only 42 percent believed Canada should remain a constitutional monarchy.
Then came a very bad 2021. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave an internet-breaking interview with Oprah Winfrey, revealing that a member of the royal family had made racist comments about how dark their son’s skin might be, among other eye-popping details. Virginia Giuffre, the woman who accused Prince Andrew of sexually assaulting her when she was a teenager, launched a civil lawsuit against him. And Barbados announced it would be officially cutting ties with the Queen. By March 2022, the public opinion firm Research Co. found that only one in five Canadians “express an outright preference for Canada to remain a monarchy.”
There has long been talk of removing the sitting British monarch as our head of state, and with new factors coming into play—including Canada’s shifting demographics, the revival of anti-colonialism and the eventual ascension of Prince Charles—the issue will continue to be part of the national conversation. But what would it actually take for Canada to abolish the monarchy?
A quick refresher: Canada is a constitutional monarchy, which means the monarch (in our case, Queen Elizabeth) is head of state but does not have absolute power—her decision-making ability is limited by a governing body of elected officials (Parliament).
In total, the British monarchy remains head of state for 14 countries. Many of them are former British colonies, and all have discussed, to varying degrees, severing ties. Barbadian politicians had been considering republicanism since the mid-1990s, says Cynthia Barrow-Giles, professor of constitutional governance and politics at the University of the West Indies, and at least six other Caribbean countries say they also intend to remove the Queen as head of state. Elsewhere, Australia held a referendum on whether the country should become a republic in 1999. (The majority of Australians voted against the idea.) But Canada has never seen a significant mainstream movement to abolish the monarchy.
“Republicanism has ebbed and flowed in Canada since the middle of the 19th century, when a wave of reformist revolts swept Europe, including Britain,” says Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, an advocacy group that has been pushing to cut ties with the monarchy since 2002. “Fuelled by an influx of American settlers, the British colonies of what is now Canada were not immune to the same wave.”
The Upper and Lower Canada rebellions of 1837 and 1838 were about securing better representation for residents of the then British colonies. Up to that point, colonial politicians answered to British Parliament, not their citizens. But while both rebellions were inspired by republicanism, they resulted in responsible government—a system in which constituents could elect representatives who would, in turn, answer to them (the foundation of parliamentary democracy in Canada).
By the 1950s and ’60s, anti-monarchist sentiment became more common among the country’s intellectual elite, though public opinion remained mixed. In 1959, not long before Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip embarked on a six-week royal tour of Canada and the U.S., Joyce Davidson, the host of the CBC program Tabloid, was a guest on the Today show. When asked if she was looking forward to the tour, Davidson replied, “Like most Canadians, I am indifferent to the visit of the Queen. We’re a little annoyed at still being dependent.” The resulting uproar changed the trajectory of her career: According to a Globe and Mail obituary of Davidson, who died in 2020, the CBC received 593 phone calls (540 of them negative) and 1,861 letters (1,300 of them positive) about the interview. Despite the latter show of public support, Davidson lost sponsorships and was briefly suspended from the network. Chatelaine even reported on her experiences in a 1960 article titled “Must I Leave Canada?” (The following year, Davidson moved to New York.)
By the 1970s, however, republicanism had become a politically taboo topic in Canada, says Freda. “[That’s when] the Monarchist League of Canada was formed by conservatives, specifically to counter Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s progressive policies. Anti-Americanism was probably at its peak at this time, and any debate that was remotely perceived as making Canada ‘more American’ was widely shut down. “Canada was [also] a lot less multicultural in the 1970s,” he says. “But probably the biggest influence on republicanism remaining taboo was Quebec nationalism. The monarchy was the number 1 symbol of English Canadian culture. Therefore, any attempt to minimize its prominence was considered capitulating to francophones.”
Two decades later, cutting ties with the royals was back on the table. John Manley, who served in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, was an outspoken critic of the monarchy. In the late 1990s, Chrétien briefly floated the idea of removing the Queen as head of state, to coincide with the start of the millennium. The public outcry was swift, and he was the last Canadian leader to seriously consider it.
Attitudes toward the royals have always oscillated, notes Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based historian and royal commentator. “Early in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, royal tours were seen as events that brought people together,” she says. “Now, they’re often an opportunity to discuss and debate the history of the monarchy and its future in Canada.” That’s exactly what happened during the recent three-day Canadian tour of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The short visit prompted enough speculation about the future of the monarchy in Canada that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in, telling reporters that, regardless of polling numbers, Canadians aren’t “preoccupied” with constitutional change.
Still, there are several factors that help explain why public opinion has ebbed so much in recent years, including Canada’s increasingly diverse population and recent conversations about racism, colonialism and inequality.
“By 2031, it is estimated that one in three Canadians could belong to a visible minority, while one in four will be foreign-born. The latter is the highest proportion since the conclusion of the last wave of mass immigration that originated around 1913,” explains Kimberley Ducey, associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s department of sociology and co-author of Revealing Britain’s Systemic Racism: The Case of Meghan Markle and the Royal Family. Many also have roots in countries that were exploited or mistreated by the British under colonialism and, as a result, have what Freda calls “a less indoctrinated view” of what the monarchy represents.
Perhaps more relevant, though, are the younger generation’s socially conscious political views. “George Floyd’s murder revived anti-colonialism, including in western Europe,” says Ducey. “I think this is part of the story. These protests build on centuries of international abolitionist and anticolonialist protests.”
Just look at the reaction to William and Kate’s royal tour to the Caribbean earlier this year, when terrible photo ops, protests by Indigenous groups and the news that Jamaica was looking to join Barbados in removing Queen Elizabeth as head of state only drew attention to what many see as the monarchy’s inherent inequality—not to mention its history of subjugating Indigenous, Black and other racialized people. As Karen Attiah argued in the Washington Post, the optics of that tour were so bad, it may have been a boon for the republican cause. “Maybe it’s good for the world to see the British monarchy for the symbolic mess that it is,” she wrote. “And it provides us an opportunity to bear witness to Black and Indigenous rebellion against the spectacle.” To this point, when Charles and Camilla were in Canada, they met with the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, RoseAnne Archibald, who called for the Queen to apologize for the Crown’s “ongoing failure to fulfill its treaty agreements” as well as “to survivors and intergenerational trauma survivors” for the abuses that took place at residential schools.
And then there’s the impact of tabloid culture. Ducey believes such coverage “only superficially impacts Canadians’ opinions on the monarchy,” but she acknowledges that some news events—the Oprah interview among them—are “extreme” enough to gain traction.
While countless polls have shown that an increasing number of Canadians support removing the monarch as head of state, Cristine de Clercy, an associate professor in Western University’s political science department and director of the school’s Leadership and Democracy Lab, says this could change if pollsters noted the potential negatives—in the form of legal wrangling and expense—that doing so could have. “If you make people think about the tangible downsides of change,” she says, “I think a lot more people would be like, ‘No, we like the current system.’”
A change of this magnitude would require the federal government, all provincial and territorial governments and the Senate to agree not only that Canada should institute a new head of state, but also exactly how that alternative would work—across party and political lines, no less.
Changing the Crown wouldn’t only require amending our Constitution, but substantially rewriting it. This isn’t impossible: India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Guyana, among others, have all done it. But in Canada in particular, doing so is complicated.
For example, what about Quebec? As John Fraser, founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada, points out, Quebec isn’t part of our constitution. In 1982, Canada took the Constitution Act of 1867 back from Britain, which meant the country’s highest law was now subject to the authority of the federal and provincial governments instead of British Parliament, a change that came with various amendments and a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
During the 18-month legal struggle to craft a document that all of the provinces could agree to (many were concerned that it would centralize power in the federal government), Quebec was eventually cut out of negotiations. As a result, Premier René Lévesque wouldn’t sign it, and subsequent attempts to bring the province into the Constitution via the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords failed—the latter of which was ultimately rejected in a public referendum. “These were constitutional-change proposals that were, in many senses, smaller than what is proposed by replacing the Crown,” says de Clercy. “Both went down in flames after citizens spent years debating their merits.” (It’s worth noting that Barbados did not hold a referendum before deciding to sever ties with the monarchy, and its governing party holds all 30 seats in its national legislature.)
Another consideration: How would such a change impact the existing relationship between Canada and First Nations? As Cree lawyer Delia Opekokew explained in an October 2020 episode of TVO’s The Agenda, “The original treaties were signed with the representatives of the Crown in early years in the right of Great Britain and later on in the right of Canada . . . and for those reasons, symbolically, it’s very important for many Indigenous people, especially the Elders, to maintain that relationship with the Crown.” But, she notes now, that sentiment is changing. This is partially due to the monarchy’s relative silence on the “assimilation and genocide of Indigenous children” and partially due to the federal, provincial and territorial governments’ commitment to “honour, respect and comply” with treaties. (Jennifer Cooper, spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, confirms that “after 1867, the Government of Canada assumed all control over Indigenous affairs, including the signing of treaties with First Nations. The Crown is the legal name for the British and later Canadian governments: federal and provincial.”)
Finally, in de Clercy’s thinking, there’s one particularly compelling reason why she doesn’t expect to see this change actually take root: “Our system of government works very, very well,” she says. “The necessary ingredient that usually drives such dramatic changes is that the existing system is falling apart. So, lacking really deep dysfunction, I really don’t think I’m going to see Canada move to a republican system in my lifetime.”
Of course, this conversation is happening in one context: The Queen, who is still very popular in this country, is the monarch in question. But what happens when the throne passes to Prince Charles—a monarch about whom Canadians are decidedly meh—as our increasingly diverse country continues to grapple with its own legacy of colonialism? What’s currently viewed as a needlessly risky political move may eventually seem entirely necessary.