The Prince and I: The British Crown and Canadian Identity

A couple of weeks ago, I shook the hand of Prince William, and it was awesome.

He came to Yellowknife as part of the royal couple’s Canadian tour. During their visit, the prince made a speech and took part in some cultural activities, much to the delight of locals. For weeks before the royal visit the town buzzed with anticipation. Rumours flew this way and that: Where would they stay? What would they wear? Who would get to meet them at the airport? In university I had been the student who had decried Canada’s relationship with the British monarchy, declaring it irrelevant and archaic. In spite of myself, I eagerly played hooky from work to go get a glance of Wills and Kate. This personal dichotomy got me thinking. What was it that inspired my newfound enthusiasm for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge?

I have to admit that until recently I didn’t quite understand the significance of the British Crown in Canada. A cursory visit to Wikipedia reveals:  “The responsibilities of the sovereign and/or governor general (the Queen’s representative in Canada) include summoning and dismissing parliament, calling elections, and appointing governments.” What makes this controversial is the fact that many believe that the Governor General really has no power at all, and simply signs off on what the Prime Minister of the day demands. A recent and notable example of this was when previous Governor General Michaëlle Jean allowed Prime Minister Stephen Harper to shut down parliament for two months to avoid addressing controversy over torture and Afghan detainees. This kind of behaviour has led to the widespread belief that the monarchy’s relationship to Canada is symbolic only. In addition to this, I have never particularly liked the idea of a portion of my tax dollars going to support a family living in another country, who have little effect on my life.

If I had previously openly professed that I thought Canada should have nothing to do with the monarchy, why did I get up at four in the morning to watch the Royal Wedding? Why did I stand outside in the hot sun for two hours just hoping to get a glance of the man and woman who would be king and queen? On some level I believe it has to do with Canadian identity.

Canadians are often challenged with the idea that they are without a unique culture ““ that as a group of people, we have never made coherent sense of the many people who have come to call Canada their home. Any creative impulse we have in terms of creating something that is singularly our own is overshadowed by our behemoth brother to the South, the United States of America. This may not be entirely untrue. Canada does struggle with reconciling the differences between the cultures that have taken root here, and the United States is unquestionably a cultural powerhouse. Our relationship with the monarchy is something that has the potential to define Canada as different.

It’s not that Canada is the only country with a strong relationship with the Crown. There are fifty-four countries in the British Commonwealth, though America is not one of them. Depending on who you speak to, having something that America does not is how some define Canadian identity anyway. In terms of the visit from Prince William and Kate Middleton, there is a great amount of pride in the fact that their first official visit as husband and wife was to come see us. Regardless of who was actually behind the decision for the couple to do an official tour of Canada, it was still thrilling for a great many of us that one of the most famous couples in the world chose us first.

My encounter with the prince was brief. I happened to be lucky enough to be in one of the few spots he stopped for handshakes. What I found remarkable is that with each hand he shook, he took the moment to stop, look at the person and say something. When he reached me, he shook my hand with a handshake that obviously signalled he had been trained to do this sort of thing, and said, “It is so nice to meet you.” He didn’t move on until I responded with, “It’s such a pleasure.”

I felt as if I had just taken part of something deeply important ““ a future king, greeting his future subject. This is the guy whose mug will one day grace the “heads” side of our pennies, nickels and dimes. I would like to say that with the grasp of a hand I had been changed from skeptic to believer, converted by a combination of celebrity, pride, and the feeling that I had taken part in something uniquely Canadian, but unfortunately it’s not that clean of a break. While I certainly like the Duke and Duchess and how they have presented themselves, speaking from an intellectual standpoint I find their family’s involvement in Canadian politics a hard pill to swallow. It’s a conflict that doesn’t end with a handshake and a kind word; though it’s an experience I will treasure and carry with me for a very long time.

4 thoughts on “The Prince and I: The British Crown and Canadian Identity”

  1. I’ve lived in Australia for the past 2 years and the most common opinion I encounter was one of apathy. It seemed to me that most didn’t know and didn’t care what role the monarchy played. Every now and then there is a push to become entirely independent but it usually fails. Honestly, I think people just like having an extra day off too much (Queen’s birthday)!

    1. Yeah. Australia seems to lean towards republicanism much more than Canada does. It’s an interesting dynamic there. Canada and Australia have very different “origin stories” no to mention the difference in geographical proximity. I wonder if Canadians feel closer to the Crown as a whole simply because we are closer than many other Commonwealth countries.

  2. William and Kate didn’t stop in my home city on this tour. But I was quite surprised when my Mom waited in cold rainy weather to see the Queen when she passed through Edmonton a few years ago. I think for Canadians, the royals function as sort of a celebrity leadership, that people can look up to and admire. In the USA presidents and their families seem to hold that same kind of currency. Our political system does not have that with the prime minister- partially, I think, because the office holds a lot less power. (Also- I can definitely understand not admiring Harper and his flagrant disregard for parliament and his collection of stray cats that he takes in at 24 Sussex and then poses for pictures with his creepy creepy smile)

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