On Constitutional Monarchy

Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries, are constitutional monarchies. Constitutional monarchy is a form of monarchical government established under a constitutional system that acknowledges an elected or hereditary monarch as head of state. Modern constitutional monarchies usually implement the concept of trias politica or “separation of powers”, where the monarch either is the head of the executive branch or simply has a ceremonial role. Where a monarch holds absolute power, it is known as an absolute monarchy. The process of government and law within an absolute monarchy can be very different from that in a constitutional monarchy.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a Commonwealth Realm that formally recognizes Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada. Though the United Kingdom and Canada share the same Monarch, the Queen of the United Kingdom is a legally separate role from the Queen of Canada.

Today, constitutional monarchy is almost always combined with representative democracy, and represents theories of sovereignty which places sovereignty in the hands of the people, and those that see a role for traditions in the theory of government. Though the king or queen may be regarded as the head of state, the Prime Minister, whose power derives directly or indirectly from elections, is head of government.

Although current constitutional monarchies are mostly representative democracies, this has not always historically been the case. There have been monarchies which have coexisted with constitutions which were fascist (or quasi-fascist), as was the case in Italy, Japan and Spain, or with military dictatorships, as was the case in Thailand.

Some constitutional monarchies are hereditary but others, such as that of Malaysia are elective monarchies.

The Sixteen Realms of the Commonwealth of Nations

The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen Realms of the Commonwealth of Nations, all independent parliamentary democracies under Elizabeth II. Unlike the United Kingdom, almost all of the other countries in this family have written constitutions with complex processes for constitutional change. Through political crises, peaceful constitutional drafting and international debate, the Westminster conventions concerning the constitutional monarch have gained much clearer definition in the other fifteen Realms than in the United Kingdom. In many of these constitutions the monarch or her representative have been regarded as an integral part of the Executive and Legislative processes, and their positions are explicitly protected, at least in part, by the written constitution.

Unlike some of their continental European counterparts, the Westminster monarch and her representatives retain significant “reserve” or “prerogative” powers, to be wielded only in times of extreme emergency (e.g. Australia 1975, Granada 1983, Solomon Islands 1994), usually to uphold parliamentary government. On these occasions a lack of understanding by the public of the relevant constitutional conventions can cause controversy: for example, the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government in Australia.

Canada as a Constitutional Monarchy

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a Commonwealth Realm that formally recognizes Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada. Though the United Kingdom and Canada share the same Monarch, the Queen of the United Kingdom is a legally separate role from the Queen of Canada.

The role of the sovereign, which on paper seems to be all-encompassing, is contrasted with the reality that the Queen is bound by convention to very rarely exercise her powers, and is thus largely a ceremonial figurehead. Instead the great majority of the Monarch’s power, prerogatives, and duties are performed on a day-to-day basis by the Governor General at the federal level, or by the Lieutenant-Governors at the provincial level. While her formal political role has diminished, and the Governor General has taken on more of the Head-of-State functions, the Monarch is still the constitutional head of Canada. In that capacity, all government business, all laws, all elections, etc., are done or proclaimed in the Sovereign’s name.

The current Queen, Queen Elizabeth II, has reigned as Canada’s sovereign since her ascension on February 6, 1952, and she has been a far more visible Monarch than any in the past, visiting Canada 21 times as Queen (and once as a Princess), more than any other Commonwealth Realm except the UK itself.

In Canada, the Queen’s official title in English is: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. In French, the Queen’s title is: Élizabeth Deux, par la grâce de Dieu Reine du Royaume-Uni, du Canada et de ses autres royaumes et territoires, Chef du Commonwealth, Défenseur de la Foi. In common practice, Queen Elizabeth II is referred to simply as “The Queen” or “The Queen of Canada” when in Canada, or when abroad and acting on the advice of her Canadian ministers.

Some Notable Features of the Canadian Constitutional Monarchy

Although Queen Elizabeth II is also monarch of the United Kingdom and several other Commonwealth countries, each nation, including Canada, is sovereign and independent of the others. The identity of the sovereign is determined by the conditions set out in the Act of Settlement. As a result of the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the dominions acquired the right to be considered equal to Britain rather than subordinate; an agreement that had the result of, in theory, a shared Crown that operates independently in each realm rather than a unitary British Crown under which all the dominions were subordinate. The monarchy thus ceased to be an exclusively British institution, although it has often been called British since this time (in both legal and common language) for historical reasons and for convenience. The Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927 was the first indication of this shift in law, further elaborated in the Statute of Westminster, 1931. Under the Statute of Westminster, 1931, Canada has a common monarchy with Britain and the other Commonwealth Realms and cannot change the rules of succession without the unanimous consent of the other realms, unless Canada explicitly leaves the shared monarchy relationship by means of a constitutional amendment.

Succession to the throne has been by male-preference primogeniture and governed by the provisions of the Act of Settlement and the English Bill of Rights. These documents are now part of Canadian constitutional law. In 2011, the Commonwealth Realms agreed to amend the rules governing the line of succession to the Throne. The changes will enshrine gender equality and freedom to marry an individual of another faith in the laws governing the Royal line of succession.These changes are expected to be adopted in 2013.

Although the Queen’s Canadian title includes “Defender of the Faith/Défenseur de la Foi,” neither the Queen, the Governor General, nor any Lieutenant-Governor has any religious role in Canada. There have been no established churches in Canada since before confederation in 1867. This is one of the key differences from the Queen’s role in the United Kingdom where she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

On all matters of state to do with Canada, the monarch is advised solely by the Canadian federal and provincial first ministers. Effective with the Constitution Act, 1982 no British government can advise the monarch on any matters pertinent to Canada.

All powers of state are constitutionally reposed in the Queen, who is represented at the federal level by the Governor General of Canada and at the provincial level by Lieutenant-Governor. The Governor General is appointed by the Queen upon the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada. The ten lieutenant-governors are appointed by the Governor General, in the name of the Queen, upon the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada though the Queen is informed of the Prime Minister’s decision before the Governor General gives assent. The Commissioners of Canada’s territories of Nunavut, Yukon, and Northwest Territories are appointed by Governor in Council at the recommendation of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. But as the territories are not sovereign entities, the commissioners are not representatives of the sovereign. They receive instruction from the said federal Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Royal Assent and proclamation are required for all acts of Parliament and of the provincial legislatures. Territorial legislatures are subject to the oversight of the Government of Canada. Provinces and their legislatures, as sovereign entities, are not.

The legal personality of the monarch in Canada is referred to as “Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada,” and likewise for the provinces and territories (i.e., “in Right of Ontario,” etc.). For example, if a lawsuit is filed against the federal government, the respondent is formally described as Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Of course, the Queen herself takes no more role in such an affair than in any other business of government. Indeed, in cases in which, for example, a province sues the federal government, it would formally be Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Prince Edward Island v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.

As in the UK, the Queen’s role is almost entirely symbolic and cultural, and the powers that are constitutionally hers are exercised wholly upon the advice of the elected government. In exceptional circumstances, however, the Queen or Governor General may act against such advice based upon her reserve powers as when Governor General Byng refused a demand by Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King for a dissolution of Parliament and call for new elections, because King’s request was blatantly unconstitutional, and it is the first order of the Crown to defend the constitution (see King-Byng Affair). For the most part, however, the monarch functions as a rubber stamp and a symbol of the legal authority under which all governments operate. It has been correctly said since the death of Queen Anne (1714), the last monarch to head the British cabinet (when almost all of Canada was still French colonial territory), that the monarch “reigns” but does not “rule”. In Canada, this has been true since the Treaty of Paris (1763) ended the reign of Canada’s last absolute monarch, King Louis XV of France.

Queen Elizabeth II, as is common for all her other non-UK realms, is generally regarded as “Queen of Canada” only when she is actually present in Canada or when she otherwise performs ceremonies relevant to Canada, such as conferring Canadian honours in the UK or participating in the Canadian World War II memorial ceremonies in France. Except for a few duties which must be performed by the Queen (e.g., signing the appointment papers of governors general and lieutenant-governors, which no governor general can do), or which require assent by the Queen as well as the Governor General (as when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney expanded the number of Senate seats to assure passage of the Goods and Services Tax), all of the Queen’s federal duties are performed by the Governor General and all of her provincial duties are performed by the pertinent Lieutenant-Governor.

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