A majority of Canadians oppose the monarchy. However, it’s unlikely the country will become a republic any time soon.
By Luke Sutton | Featured image via iStock
Less than two weeks prior to the coronation of King Charles, a poll by the Angus Reid Institute, released in late April 2023, found that 60 percent of respondents opposed recognizing Charles as king. Only twenty-eight percent had a favourable view of him, while just under half a favourable view of Charles, while nearly half (48 per cent) did not.
These numbers reflected another poll, released on September 15, 2022, seven days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Global News reported “the vast majority” of Canadians “have not been personally impacted by [the Queen’s] passing and feel no attachment to the monarchy.” An Ipsos Reid report found that 57 percent of respondents felt “Canada is not truly an independent nation if it continues to support the monarchy.”
For seven decades, the Queen had been a pillar in Canada, a symbol of stability and regality. She was the only monarch most Canadians ever knew—the face gracing our banknotes. An unwavering constant in Canadian life.
Following her death, countless bells were wrung, countless memorials published, and in Canada, an old question came to the fore: should we leave the monarchy?
On September 18, the day before Queen Elizabeth was buried, all musings on the monarchy were rendered moot, however, when Prime Minster Justin Trudeau said leaving is “simply a nonstarter.” Canada, he said, has bigger problems.
On March 16, Trudeau announced a special ceremony in Ottawa to commemorate the coronation of King Charles III on May 6. At 74, the new king’s coronation marked the longest-awaited crowning ceremony in England’s history.
“It’s entrenched tradition,” says Ashok Charles, 67, founder of the Canadian group, Republic Now. Many Canadians, Charles says, have difficulty conceiving of Canada without a monarchy—including our elected representatives.
Canada would hardly be the first nation to take the plunge. Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas intend to leave within the decade, while Barbados became a republic in 2021.
True, those countries’ colonial relationships with Britain were of a different strain, but the fact remains—they made a choice.
Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, claims most Liberal and New Democrat politicians are pro-republic.
The problem, Freda says, is the federal Liberals are afraid of trying anything as politically risky as republicanism.
Still, there are politicians in Canada who question the monarchy.
Foremost is Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party. In a 2021 interview with the CBC, Singh said he doesn’t see “the benefit of the monarchy in Canadians’ lives.”
Trudeau’s pragmatist argument, however, remains prevalent. Becoming a republic would barely alter the day-to-day lives of Canadians. What it could do is change how other nations see Canada, and how Canadians see ourselves.
“A country respected around the world,” says Freda, “yet we haven’t got the gumption to break our last colonial link to the United Kingdom? What does that say about us?”
For monarchists, leaving the Crown would weaken our national identity—our constitutional monarchy, which the Monarchist League of Canada calls “a source of pride for all Canadians,” poll results notwithstanding.
For republicans, it would create an identity worthy of pride.
“Egalitarianism and democracy are both core Canadian values, affirmed in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” says Ashok Charles, “and our office of head of state, not only does it not express or embody these values: it counters them.”
A Strong Republican Voice
Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, is one of the most prominent voices calling for Canada to discard the monarchy.
Born in 1956, Freda grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. An eighth-generation Canadian, his forebears were, ironically, Empire Loyalists. One of his ancestors even fought in the American Revolution—wearing a red coat.
After moving to Toronto in 1977, Freda studied photography, first at Sheridan College and then at Ryerson University.
Specializing in land-and-cityscapes, Freda has run his own company, Tom Freda Photography, since 1982. Many of the photographs on the Citizens for a Canadian Republic website started in Freda’s camera lens.
With his salt-grey beard, soft, steel-blue eyes and swept-back hair, Freda looks like an academic, but his manner of speech betrays his twenty-plus years dealing with the media—his tone casual, his every sentence turned to forwarding his cause.
While he’s held republican sentiments as long as he can recall, Freda didn’t get involved with the movement until the mid-90s. His inspiration? John Manley.
Manley, a Liberal MP and cabinet member under Jean Chrétien from 1995 to 2003 (deputy prime minister from 2002 to 2003), is an outspoken republican.
To get an idea of his attitude, in 2002 Manley said to reporters: “I don’t think it’s necessary for Canada to continue with the monarchy”—while serving as official government escort to the Queen.
This statement didn’t win Manley much love.
As reported by The Globe and Mail, then-dominion chairman John Aimers of the Monarchist League called Manley’s words an “unpardonable breach,” while Conservative MP Elsie Wayne decried them as “an insult to the whole of Canada.”
It was this monarchist stranglehold on the media that partly inspired the founding of Citizens for a Canadian Republic.
According to Freda, whenever republicanism gained traction, the Monarchist League would tour the networks to quash such talk in the crib. The monarchist perspective dominated the conversation, so republicanism needed an organization of its own. (Attempts to interview Robert Finch, current Monarchist League dominion chairman, were unsuccessful.)
Republicanism has existed in Canada since before federation, going back to the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837 and 1838, but by the 1990s, the movement existed mainly in online chatrooms.
Freda, alongside co-founder Pierre Vincent, sought to change this state of affairs. In April 2002, they announced the formation of Citizens for a Canadian Republic (CCR).
Since its founding, CCR has worked to bring the nation on-board with replacing the monarch as head of state with “a resident, democratically-selected Canadian.”
In pursuit of this goal, the organization does media appearances and press releases, and posts regularly to social media to educate Canadians on the republican option.
“Back then it was taboo. You don’t touch this topic. Don’t rock the boat,” says Vincent, who believes Freda’s presence in the media gave Canadians the green light to talk openly about leaving the monarchy.
The Queen and Tom
On October 9, 2002, Tom Freda was within arm’s reach of the Queen.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were on their Golden Jubilee tour, stopping in at the Festival of Ontario exhibit in what was then the National Trade Centre at Exhibition Place, Toronto.
Where the Queen went, a crowd followed. A hundred strong had gathered by the Centre’s entrance, awaiting a regal appearance.
Freda was on the scene with a half-dozen of his republican colleagues, handing out flyers promoting the anti-monarchist position.
Suddenly, the crowd rocked to life: it was the Queen and Prince Phillip, and they’d just stepped out of the National Trade Centre onto the waiting red carpet.
“I stopped handing out my flyers,” says Freda, “and I’m standing there going, ‘there comes the Queen.’”
Utterly apathetic to the royal presence, Freda nonetheless found himself standing by the barricade. At his side, a middle-aged woman waving flowers, called out “Your majesty! Your majesty!”
And there she was—the Queen, decked out in a hot pink high-collar overcoat with matching skirt, come to speak with the flower-waver.
The camera flashes started up like an emergence of cicadas, and suddenly Freda realized “Whoa, I’m about to be photographed standing next to the Queen.”
His first instinct was to duck out of the way.
Freda doesn’t hate cameras; after all, he’s a photographer. The cameras weren’t the problem—it was the company. A photo with the Queen could have marred his reputation.
In retrospect, Freda says, he should have handed her a flyer.
A Royal Pain
“Ultimately, I believe that Canadians’ attachment to the monarchy has been built on the fact that Elizabeth was loved and admired,” says Jamie Bradley, 61, eastern director for CCR.
“We are against the institution, not the person,” says Bradley, who describes the late Queen as a strong, dedicated woman, of grace, humour, and intelligence.
Queen Elizabeth’s passing won’t make us a republic overnight, but the story has shifted. King Charles inherited his mother’s regal rank, not her reputation. For republicans, the proverbial iron seems red-hot.
Still, leaving the monarchy is, it seems, a slippery venture for Canadians.
“A royal pain” said Global News in March 2021. “Insurmountably complicated” concurred the National Post in July of that year.
Ad nauseum, the message echoes: it wouldn’t be easy.
Ian Greene, professor emeritus of public policy and administration at York University, holds a similar view. Like many Canadians, Greene questions if any motion to modify the monarchy could make it to fruition.
“In the foreseeable future, I don’t see any change as possible,” he says.
Thanks to the Constitution Act, 1982, any amendment to the role of the monarchy would require the unanimous agreement of all ten provincial legislatures (but not the territories), the House of Commons, and the Senate—what experts like Greene call the unanimity formula.
The unanimity formula is infamously difficult, but not as impossible as monarchists insist, Fred says. In his view, if the majority of Canadians want a republic, their elected representatives should be on board.
“It was difficult to patriate our constitution. It was difficult to change our flag,” he says. “To say ‘don’t bother,’ because it’s hard to do is defeatist. What kind of argument is that?”
But what about our political divides? It’s difficult to imagine, say, Alberta voting in accord with the federal government.
“They would object to it,” Freda admits, “just because Justin Trudeau thought it was a good idea.”
Which, it should be noted, Trudeau doesn’t.
Freda believes it would take a multi-partisan parliamentary committee—with the prime minister keeping quiet—to get the job done.
“Then, I guarantee you, the provinces will come to an agreement.”
For Freda, leaving the monarchy isn’t just a goal—it’s an inevitability. Eventually, he says, the status quo will give, and Canada will enter the final stage of its symbolic maturity.
It’s not just republicans who believe becoming a republic is inevitable—even Greene, a staunch monarchist, concedes the monarchy won’t last forever.
“It’s based on personal loyalty to the royal family,” says Greene, and the royals are, after all, only human. “They have their own personal problems.”
Greene feels republicans should focus not on leaving the monarchy, but on what to do once we’ve left.
“It is important for us to come up with a way of choosing the vice-regal positions,” such as the governors general, Greene says, “so when ties with the monarchy are eventually cut, we have a replacement system.”
He’s got a point: if the governors general are to become the new heads of state—as Freda wants—shouldn’t the politicians figure out how to select them?
Freda claims focusing on the process—on what Canada will do once the monarchy is gone—is a tactic monarchists use to distract and divide republicans.
Through such tactics, Freda says, monarchists defeated Australia’s 1999 republican referendum by splitting the republican vote.
For Freda, it’s better to have only two options: monarchy in, or monarchy out.
Were such a referendum to happen, Freda says, “There’s not a bone in my body that is unsure of the result.”
Still, Greene stresses how vital the vice-regal positions are.
“Although most of their duties are ceremonial,” says Greene, “they have the legal responsibility to protect the constitution.”
For Greene, this task is too vital to leave in the hands of the electorate or the prime minister, since either option would politicize the position.
“It needs to be a nonpartisan process,” says Greene, “one all the parties buy into.” Republicans, in his view, have yet to offer a suitable solution.
Philip Resnick, professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia, agrees there’s a need for a new system in advance—but he has a solution in mind.
Resnick advocates for Canada to adapt the German system. In Germany, the head of state is elected by an equal number of federal and state-level parliamentarians—meaning, in Canada, the provinces would have equal say with Ottawa.
“Some of the key issues and tensions which can arise in Canada, we’ve seen with respect to both Quebec and Alberta, involve federal-provincial relations,” says Resnick.
A head of state selected using the German system, Resnick says, “could play an important mediating role.”
Resnick isn’t the only republican worried about unity under the monarchy. In their April 24 press release, CCR detailed their suggestion for a similar system in Canada.
“To me, it’s an issue of national unity,” says Vincent. For him, the colonial monarchist symbols inundated throughout Canadian society are another serious problem.
“Think of the colonial symbolism to Irish Canadians of Catholic origin, to Jamaican Canadians, Barbadian Canadians, Acadians,” says Vincent. Not to mention the myriad other peoples brutalized by the British Empire.
“The majority of Canadians,” Vincent says, “have some kind of beef with this institution.”
However, some experts in Canadian politics believe Canada won’t become a republic without outside influence.
Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University, who has served as an advisor to the government, says Canada has no real chance of becoming a republic in the near future.
Lagassé, who considers himself “agnostic” on the issue, says “Canada will become a republic if the [United Kingdom] becomes a republic,” and argues Canadian republicans should focus on aiding their British brethren.
But for Ashok Charles and Republic Now, leaving the monarchy is something Canada can do without deferring to its Commonwealth cousins.
“I don’t think we’re a deferential country,” says Charles. “I don’t think Canada is the kind of country that’s always looking around to see what other countries are doing, and only falling in line.”
As the Monarchist League of Canada website reminds, “In 1867, the Fathers of Confederation unanimously chose constitutional monarchy as Canada’s form of government.” The key word there is chose.
It’s been over a hundred and fifty years since confederation, and Canada has changed.
“Getting our own national anthem, our own national flag,” says Vincent, “those are republican initiatives that made Canada a better place; a more sovereign nation.”
For Canada, Vincent says, “there’s only one last step left.”
Freelance writer Luke Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.