When Barbados’ then-Governor General Sandra Mason uttered a few words on a low stage in National Heroes Square in the early morning of Nov. 30, she did more than change the country.
As she was sworn in as president, she was no longer a representative of Queen Elizabeth, but head of state herself. That shifted Barbados from a constitutional monarchy into a republic — and reopened an old debate.
Barbados is the first country to remove the Queen as sovereign since Mauritius did the same 30 years ago. Now, Canada is among the last 15 countries — of the 32 total since Elizabeth began her rule — to continue to hold her in their highest office.
And as Mason uttered the few words pledging herself to her new role, and for the first time putting a person born in the country as the head of state, it raised a pertinent question: If Barbados can do it, why can’t Canada?
Barbados’ move from a constitutional monarchy to a republic was aided by a sweeping election win in 2018. Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Barbados Labour Party won all 30 seats in Parliament — paving the way for a vote, for which Mottley only required a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament
And while some citizens were upset there was no public vote on the issue, they were able to enact the change in little over a year.
Philippe Lagassé, a constitutional expert and associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, explained that it would be much more difficult to do the same in Canada. For the country to amend the Constitution and replace the Queen as head of state, they would need to enact article 41(a) of the Constitution Act of 1982. That statute requires a majority approval from “Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of each province” — meaning all ten provinces would need to agree (though not the territories).
And while a referendum is not legally required, he said it’s incredibly unlikely any — let alone all — would move forward without one.
Even then, that’s far from the only thing standing in the way. First, as Canada’s current governing party is far from the majority that Mottley’s enjoyed, it would be virtually impossible to change Canada’s governmental system — even if a vote did pass.
“As we saw when it came to efforts to amend the Constitution in the past,” Lagassé said, “individual members have mechanisms at their disposal where they could delay or potentially derail that effort, even if a majority of members who might be in favour.”
But even getting to that point would prove unlikely. While a recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute found 52 per cent of Canadians said the country shouldn’t remain a constitutional monarchy indefinitely, Canada continues to enjoy a unique relationship with the Crown.
Carolyn Harris, a Toronto historian and author specializing in the history of the monarchy, explained that Canada is the country that has received the most royal visits of any of the commonwealth realms — the Queen has visited Canada more than any other country outside the United Kingdom.
And while many Canadians don’t want to see the monarchy go on forever, there is still a favourable view of Queen Elizabeth herself.
There have been fewer visits of late as Elizabeth, who is 95, has had declines in health — but after “waxing and waning” interest between the 1960s and 1990s, Harris said interest in the Queen and the monarchy in general actually increased after she visited for her Golden Jubilee in 2002, then celebrated Canada Day on Parliament Hill in 2010.
Canadians’ interest in and loyalty to the Royal Family may fade when her son Prince Charles takes the throne after her death, she said, but even then it’s unlikely it would trigger an overhaul of our system of government. Instead, if there were a strong republican sentiment in the country — which both Harris or Lagassé say doesn’t exist — there would likely just be fewer royal visits and a less prominent role for the monarchy to play, instead of a removal.
“There are so many other issues that matter to Canadians at this time, that it seems unlikely that the future of the monarchy would be made the focus of any of a politician’s electoral platform,” Harris said.
Another complicating factor, Harris noted, is the status of the various treaties the Crown has made with Indigenous people.
But Gordon Christie, an expert in Aboriginal law at the University of B.C.’s Allard School of Law in Vancouver, said that fear is overblown.
From as far back as 1701, the British Crown entered into treaties with Indigenous groups in what is now Canada, meant to define the respective rights for both those of European descent and Indigenous people on the lands.
While many of those treaties were signed before Canada became a country, the positioning of the British Crown as being “in charge” of Canada is so completely symbolic that it is effectively meaningless, said Christie. If Canada were to transition to a republic tomorrow, he said, these treaties would likely be honoured in the same way as before — when one government supplants another, they inherit the treaties and agreements their predecessor made.
What would need to happen if Canada were to become a republic, Christie said, is for consultation with Indigenous people to make sure the government upholds the treaties as they’re written — something Canadian courts have found Canada has failed to do numerous times.
“The courts have said that the treaties are very important documents, but the government itself has tried to minimize its obligations under the treaties,” Christie said. “What we want to do if we step into the shoes of the British Crown is now take an opportunity to go back to the treaties and implement them appropriately.”
But what most likely stands most in the way of Canada moving forward into a republic is apathy. Mia Mottley was able to move Barbados to a republic by sidestepping a referendum, despite the fact her party passed a bill in 2005 stating that one would be held — and that Mottley herself said that she was committed to giving “Barbadians the opportunity to make that judgment individually, as we promised to do.”
It was mostly likely a canny decision. Of the three most recent referendums on whether to keep a monarchical system, in Australia, Tuvalu and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, all saw a majority vote to retain their current system.
And while many Canadians don’t want to see their constitutional monarchy continue indefinitely, few are motivated to see it change in the short term.
Dion and Vimla Beg, a Canadian couple living in Barbados, fall into that camp. While both have spent considerable time in both Australia and Canada, neither have strong views about the monarchy either way — or witnessed much interest from their peers.
For both, their parents and grandparents felt a strong connection to the monarchy. And though they don’t feel the same connection, changing things for Canada doesn’t feel worth it.
While Barbados’ shift was rooted in a repudiation of slavery that England enforced on the island for centuries, Canada’s would be more like a routine update — and that’s really not worth the effort required.
“It’s not something that’s necessarily important. It’s just something that’s there,” Vilma said.
“I just don’t understand the importance of these figureheads … from the English taxpayers perspective,” continued Dion. “[But] I think there are bigger problems to solve, right?”