Yuan Yi Zhu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford.
At 681 clauses over 430 pages, Canada’s Budget Implementation Act, 2023, No. 1, recently introduced to the House of Commons, is no one’s idea of light reading. The Government’s upbeat accompanying press release brags about such exciting provisions such as a one-time grocery rebate (a whopping $467 for eligible couples with two children) and “doubling the tradespeople’s tool deduction”
One had to scroll to clause 510 in division 31 to spot a curious item. Wedged between a clause amending Canada Post’s power to open the mail and an undecipherable one concerning the powers of the Public Sector Pension Investment Board is a provision entitled “Royal Styles and Titles Act”, providing for the title of the Sovereign as “Charles the Third, by the Grace of God King of Canada and His other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth.”
The King’s current Canadian title, first conferred upon his mother by the Parliament of Canada soon after her accession, reads as “By the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. What the King will lose, should the new measure pass, is any mention of the United Kingdom, as well as “Defender of the Faith”, conferred by Pope Leo X on Henry VIII for the writing of an anti-Protestant tract.
The styles of the Canadian monarch have always been tied to the development of Canadian nationalism. Sir John A. Macdonald’s attempt to proclaim Canada a kingdom and make Queen Victoria the Queen of Canada was vetoed by a horrified Colonial Office, determined to appease the republicans down south.
“British Dominions beyond the Seas” only made its tardy appearance in 1901, and then only through an act of the British parliament, not the Canadian one. After the death of George V, all Canadian diplomats cared about was whether foreign diplomats remembered to offer their condolences to Canadian legations as well as the British ambassies.
Canadian governments then were not keen to meddle with their monarch’s many titles. George VI remained “Emperor of India” in Canada until 1948, a year after Indian independence. He and his daughter remained King, then Queen of Ireland, but only in Canada, until 1953, five years after that dominion elected its first president.
That year, Louis St-Laurent, the half-Irish, half-French-Canadian Liberal prime minister, stood up in the House of Commons to introduce a new Royal Styles and Titles Bill (in those days prime ministers did not think it necessary to sneak changes to the monarch’s titles on page 325 of a bill).
“Her Majesty is now the Queen of Canada but she is the Queen of Canada because she is the Queen of the United Kingdom and because the people of Canada are happy to recognize as their sovereign the person who is the sovereign of the United Kingdom”, he said, in terms which are scarcely intelligible to most Canadians today.
And perhaps even more unintelligibly yet, he continued: “in our countries, there are people who have faith in the direction of human affairs by an all-wise Providence; and we felt that it was a good thing that the civil authorities would proclaim that their organization is such that it is a defence of the continued beliefs in a supreme power that orders the affairs of mere men, and that there could be no reasonable objection from anyone who believed in the Supreme Being in having the sovereign, the head of the civil authority, described as a believer in and a defender of the faith in a supreme being.”
At the end of the short debate (in which no dissent was recorded), St-Laurent suggested that the House should stand up and sing God Save The Queen, “whereupon the members of the house rose and sang” what was then Canada’s national anthem.
By the standards of the day, St-Laurent, who was a moderate but genuine nationalist, counted as being among those who sought to water down Canada’s British connection. Today no Canadian MP could give a speech such as this without meeting a blank wall of stares from their colleagues if most Canadian MPs still attended the House with any sort of regularity.
The Canada that the 1953 title represented was swept away a decade later, as part of a Liberal grand compromise designed to create a history-free binational country that French Canada could accept as its own. But this did not happen: English Canada lost its identity in favour of a tree leaf flag, while Quebec nationalism simply doubled down on its national aspirations. Even today, Quebec separatists still regularly mock English Canada as a land of little culture and of no traditions, not without reason.
It is telling that in the midst of all his political troubles, Trudeau still found the time to introduce a new title for the monarch who is but an afterthought to him and many Canadians. It is whispered that he first noticed the references to the United Kingdom and to God when he stood in front of cameras to listen to the proclamation of the accession of Charles III and found them wanting. There are rumours he wishes the country to have a new coat of arms as well, the present one being hideously British and French.
For Trudeau, such symbols are but obstacles in his quest to create “the first postnational state” where, in his own words “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada”, but only a list of vague shared values and shared public services everyone pays their taxes towards. And until he is forced out of office, no trace of Canada’s past, however small, will escape his quest.