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David Coletto at Abacus Data recently X-posted this compelling one-sentence report on a new Canada-wide opinion survey : “Canadians Lack Basics of Civic Education and It’s Impacting Our Democracy.”

A shrewd respondent (@brucejameshayes) soon added: “This was fully on display during the convoy protest in Ottawa, where some folks were asking others to sign a petition to the GG which would force the PM to resign.”

In Canada today pursuing these two related lines of thought can lead in somewhat different civic education directions.

In the first case the new Abacus survey of “all Canadians” to which Mr. Coletto alluded is matched by a parallel Abacus survey of Civic Education attitudes among teachers across the country — “at the frontlines of our democracy.”

The teachers survey urges that: “Civics … includes the formal study of political processes, the role of government.”  But “citizenship education” … is also “about how we address social issues and engage in the democratic processes.”

All this concludes with such classroom-related recommendations as “Invest in training at all levels” ; “Support classroom discussion of civic issues” ; and “Promote democratic culture and values in schools and classrooms.”

As important (and often controversial) as it is, this classroom approach to strengthening civic education might not have had much impact on the Ottawa convoy protesters two years ago. And this raises a second kind of current Canadian civic education issue.

As CBC News explained in late February 2022: “Many protesters … came to Ottawa with a flawed understanding of … how the Westminster parliamentary system works … Many … signed a memorandum of understanding,” which foolishly “called on the Governor General and the Senate of Canada to somehow form a new government with the protesters themselves.”

Before altogether dismissing this convoy protester memorandum it is worth noting that it does bear some relation to what is now called the Constitution Act, 1867 — foolishly viewed as a document that actually means what it appears to say.

(See for example this passage from the current Government of Canada website: “The Canadian Constitution places executive power in the King. However, in practice this power is exercised by the Prime Minister and his ministers.”)

One problem is that, unlike the American republic next door, Canada does not have any single written constitutional document. The Constitution Act, 1867 — old colonial legislation passed by the 19th century Parliament at Westminster in London, England — is certainly no such thing.

To begin with it is now accompanied by the Constitution Act, 1982. This finally “patriated” the Constitution Act, 1867 from the United Kingdom, and gave Canadians a Charter of Rights and made-in-Canada constitutional amending procedures.

A deeper problem is that Canada’s constitution is nowhere entirely written down. Its general principle is simply noted in the Preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867. Canada has “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.”

It is part of how this kind of Constitution works that it has an important “unwritten” side — transmitted to successive generations of lawyers, political actors, and voting citizens by a kind of intellectual osmosis, once more rooted in everyday Canadian political culture than it is now.

Put in its most positive way, just “how the Westminster parliamentary system works” is nowhere entirely set down, because it is always in some important degree evolving to keep up with changing times and circumstances.

It does seem that in recent years this unwritten side of any Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom has lost some prestige. In the United Kingdom itself, the Westminster parliamentary system has tried to become somewhat more written down.

Yet most recently there have also been reasons for Canadians and others to take some solace in parliamentary democratic institutions more like the United Kingdom than the United States.

There are virtues to the flexibility and adaptability of the evolving unwritten side of any Westminster parliamentary system. But keeping the system effective does involve cultivating a democratic political culture that can communicate the subtleties of just how the system is evolving. And we used to have more of that in Canada than we apparently do now.

Legend has it, for example, that Canadian high school history teachers used to struggle to make clear to any students remotely interested just what the key differences were, between parliamentary democracy in Canada and presidential/congressional democracy in the USA.

Some revival of this tradition in the 21st century might finally bring at least some convoy protesters back into the classroom at last!

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


In his book on the War of 1812 the once-popular historian Pierre Berton noted that the 75,000 or so only recently arrived English-speaking settlers then living in what is now Ontario were “most of them Americans.”

Whatever else, they “certainly did not call themselves Canadian. (That word was reserved for their French-speaking neighbours … )”

More than two centuries later some parallel cultural hangover may help explain why it is only the Quebec National Assembly that has so far contested both a Canadian provincial legislature’s constitutional oath to the offshore British monarch, and the federal prime minister’s appointment of provincial lieutenant governors, theoretically representing the Charles III who now lives in Buckingham Palace.

On some similar channel it is a francophone Liberal MP from Acadian New Brunswick, René Arseneault, who has now tabled a private members’ bill making the constitutional oath to the offshore British monarch optional for federal MPs from coast to coast to coast in Canada (following the example of the Quebec National Assembly).

Mr.  Arseneault’s federal bill has not surprisingly attracted the attention of Canadian monarchists. They see it as part of a wider plot to turn Canada into “a republic by stealth.”

According to CBC News, to take just one case in point, John Fraser, president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada “and a noted monarchist” has recently attacked  René Arseneault’s bill as “a stupid idea,” rooted in a mindless new Canadian republicanism.

Mr. Fraser went on : “He said republicans are ‘foolishly’ trying to dismantle Canada’s Westminster system of government, a parliamentary structure that has served the country well for more than 150 years.”

Yet someone more familiar with current Canadian republican debate will appreciate that serious republicans are not at all “trying to dismantle Canada’s Westminster system of government.” They are trying to take it to its logical conclusion in Canada.

In the old world this system goes back at least to the 1688-89 Glorious Revolution in England. Its essential feature is not the “Monarchy” but “Parliament.”

As the Rump of the Long Parliament had declared on January 4, 1649  :  “the people are, under God, the original of all just power,” and “the Commons of England in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation.”

This deep background underlines the extent to which our northern North American Westminster system itself goes back to the 1848 “year of revolution” in Europe. This marked the birth  of “responsible government” in Canada (including Nova Scotia) — or what we now call parliamentary democracy —  in the wake of the 1837–38 Canadian rebellions.

Canadian parliamentary democracy finally adopted its own flag in 1965 and its own charter of rights in 1982. Serious Canadian republicans just want to turn the current office of governor general into a more democratically selected independent Canadian head of state.

(And, just for example, this has already been done in Canada’s fellow former British dominions of Ireland and India — and in such similar parliamentary democratic republics outside the old anglophone global empire as today’s Germany and Iceland.)

All this finally raises the noted monarchist John Fraser’s at first impressive claims about “Canada’s longstanding link to the Crown, an institution above the whims of partisan politics.”

For Canadians, Mr. Fraser goes on,  this link is  made real through the “Governor General, the King’s representative in Canada,” who is “a check on political power — ensuring the prime minister commands the confidence of the House of Commons.”

Yet the inescapable and very big practical trouble here is that, thanks to William Lyon Mackenzie King long ago, the Governor General of Canada is nowadays effectively appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada.

In this real world of politics Mr. Fraser’s high-minded philosophy must grapple with such questions as : How can someone appointed by a partisan politician be seriously said to be above the whims of partisan politics? How can someone appointed by a prime minister act as any realistic check on a prime minister’s abuse of power?

Whatever happens to René Arseneault’s MP oath bill in 2024, it will (as John Fraser sensibly enough fears) finally aid and abet the Canadian future at the bottom of the 2023 Abacus poll which found  “2 in 3 Canadians would vote to eliminate the monarchy in Canada.”

And when this does ultimately happen the “free and democratic society” in Canada (as in the Constitution Act, 1982) will still have the same Westminster system of parliamentary democracy it first embraced more than 175 years ago.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


According to an Abacus Data poll taken April 28–May 3, 2023, “2 in 3 Canadians would vote to eliminate the monarchy in Canada.”

This tracks nicely with an Angus Reid poll taken a year before on April 5-7, 2022. It suggested that 67% of Canadians would oppose “Prince Charles as King and Canada’s official head of state.”

Canadians are nonetheless still in the early stages of talking about just what it would mean to leave the monarchy that resides in the United Kingdom.

And now that King Charles III has been properly crowned, we at least ought to start talking about alternatives to the monarchy that make sense for Canadian institutions.

To take one glaring case in point, some recent polls ask about “cutting ties with the monarchy and having the prime minister become both the head of the government and the head of state, replacing the Governor General who is the representative of the Canadian monarch.”

Yet in the Preamble to what we now call the Constitution Act, 1867 Canada has “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” And one distinguishing feature of this kind of “Westminster” constitution is a ceremonial head of state above the ordinary partisan political struggle, separate from the head of government.

Having the prime minister become both the head of government and the head of state is to effectively try to Americanize Canada’s Westminster constitution, in a way that raises too many questions about just how government would work under the new order.

The only fellow former self-governing British dominion to try to leave the monarchy in this way is South Africa. And it seems fair to suggest that the consensus is this has not worked well.

More durable transitions to Westminster parliamentary democratic republics have taken place in Ireland and India.

The strategy here has been not to replace the Governor General, but to turn the office into an independent ceremonial head of state, that plays effectively the same role “above politics” as the monarch in Canada’s “Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.”

Ireland and India offer two different options for selecting the new democratized governor general or ceremonial head of state — paralleled, for example, by Iceland and Germany as similar parliamentary democracies formally outside the Westminster tradition. And these options have worked well since 1938 (Ireland), 1944 (Iceland), 1949 (Germany), and 1950 (India).

In Ireland the democratized ceremonial head of state is directly elected by the people of Ireland for a seven-year term.

Any Irish citizen over the age of 35 can seek nomination as a candidate. But a candidate must be nominated by at least 20 members of the Irish parliament or no less than four county councils. And this takes any extreme populist edge off the popular election principle.

In India the democratized ceremonial head of state is indirectly elected for a five-year term by an electoral college composed of the elected members of the federal parliament and the elected members of the state (and territorial) legislative assemblies.

Iceland is a parliamentary democracy outside the Westminster tradition, with a ceremonial head of state selected by direct election as in Ireland. Germany is a similar parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial head of state selected indirectly by federal and state legislatures, as in India.

In all of  Ireland, Iceland, Germany, and  India the new democratized ceremonial head of state is called a president.

There are reasons, however, for wondering whether this would ultimately make sense  in Canada. And most of them involve the prospect of confusion with the quite different kind of president in the United States next door, who is both head of government and head of state.

Similarly, one attraction of leaving the monarchy by following the Westminster parliamentary democratic rather than the Washington presidential model, is that very little in Canada’s current federal and provincial governments has to change.

The Governor General (as even a democratized version of the ceremonial office might continue to be called) just takes over the role of the monarch. (Or more exactly the reformed Governor General would be Canada’s head of state in theory, as well as the head of state in practice the Governor General already is now.)

If we’re going to keep talking about leaving the monarchy (and no doubt we are : look at the polls), we ought to be talking about alternatives that follow Canada’s traditions of parliamentary democracy since the middle of the 19th century.

Trying to “Americanize” our current Westminster-style democracy that has served us well for more than 150 years is not a realistic option for the Canadian future.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.