18 May 2009

Feudal Influences of the Canadian Crown

Along comes another Victoria Day, with the requisite toasts from supporters of monarchy and calls from its detractors to establish a republic.

Yet there is one feature of the Crown-in-Canada so subtle as to go unnoticed by friend and foe alike.

In Lament for a Nation, George Grant distinguished between the rise of the Canadian and American nations: Canada, either as a collection of French or British colonies, enjoyed a governing tradition with roots stretching back to mediaeval times; whereas the United States was born in revolution to many of these same traditions.

Feudalism was the prevailing political system in the Middle Ages, and for all of its pejorative connotations and real failings, noblemen were expected to provide the lower orders with the necessities of life. Motivations weren’t entirely altruistic, since it was the peasants and labourers who worked the land and maintained the feudal lord’s vast property-holdings. Still, over generations, a theory of noblesse oblige evolved that informed habits and customs.

At the apex was the prince, and by the eighteenth century the prerogatives of the monarchy included such activities as granting monopoly charters and overseeing a mercantilist system of international trade.

The thirteen American colonies were at the receiving end of this British imperial policy and, having imbibed the Enlightenment zeitgeist of individual initiative and free-market economics more so than their northern neighbours, they rebelled and achieved sovereignty. British North America, meanwhile, remained loyal and slowly over time achieved responsible government and independent status.

Even to-day, however, elements of our respective pasts are evident: there is an ease among Canadians with government economic intervention and provision of welfare programmes that are still largely considered anathema in the United States, where civil society trumps the State. Part of our comfort level, I suggest, is an unconscious holdover attributable to our constitutional monarchy, born of feudal sensibilities.

If Canada were to become a republic, severing its ties to the British Royal Family, would these welfare provisions end? Would we suddenly become less amenable to government assistance for those in need and adopt a harsh social darwinism?

Hardly, but a not insignificant pillar in the social structure would have been pulled away, since the Crown — either in the person of the reigning monarch or the serving governor-general — personifies as ‘Head of State’ in a duo-manner unmatched by an interchangeable holder of a constitutional office. This is also why monarchists highlight royal patronage of charitable foundations, since it emphasises our reciprocal responsibilities apart from the beneficial ministrations of the State.

So, establishing a Canadian republic may not be such a benign constitutional reform, as cutting our links to the Crown may bring with it the loss of social influences integral (no matter how unsuspected) to our national character.

Thoughts to ponder this Victoria Day.

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