Apr/98: Politics of Monarchy & Indigenous Sovereignty


Canadian Forum Magazine
April, 1998
Tony Hall

The news that powerful forces are at work in Australia to sever ties with the British monarchy has emboldened a few voices in Canada to promote similar measures here. For instance, in his weekly column in The Globe and Mail, editor William Thorsell urges his fellow citizens to just grow up and "cut the apron strings" to the "ridiculous anomaly" that is our Royal Mom - the Queen of England. All that is required of us, he explains, is to replace the Windsors with a made-in-Canada imprimatur, and "presto, we are wholly adult at last."

My central fascination with the subject has to do with the importance of maintaining constitutional continuity integral to the renewal of treaties with Indigenous peoples. I view imperial agreements with the First Nations as the only truly legitimate starting point for all non-Aboriginal claims of title and sovereign jurisdiction to the lands and waters of Canada. The debate over the place of the Crown is pivotal because it exposes so clearly how completely most activists on the right wing of politics, including Mr. Thorsell, have renounced the indigenous conservatism whose royalist hues were once so essential to the decorative tones of the Tory Party in Canada, Red, Blue or Purple.

Alternatively, the controversy illustrates how thoroughly the left, which has consistently hosted the most compelling proponents of constitutional monarchy, has become the only remaining home for the strategically essential Red Tory tradition in Canada. The jewel on the crown of this intellectual inheritance, of course, is the political philosophy of George Grant, who persistently demonstrated in his life and thought how Toryism and socialism were the entirely natural twins of Canadian conservatism. Another gem of the left's proud tradition of support for the monarchy as "a bulwark against cabinet despotism", is embodied in the work of Eugene Forsey. A resolute trade unionist, a dynamo of the League for Social Reconstruction and a founder of the CCF, the late Senator Forsey was also the author in 1943 of the classic text on the constitutional workings of parliamentary democracy entitled The Royal Power of Dissolution of Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Grant and Forsey were prominent among those intellectual activists on both wings of Canadian politics whose appreciation of the role of "the Crown" in our constitution was closely associated with their disgust at the governance of the Liberal party, especially under Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

The real agenda of this steady assault on the institutions of the Crown, however, was to interate Canada more fully into the American empire and the presidential style of marketplace politics. What motivated Grant and others was this practical recognition that the real threat to Canada's independence was not the British legacy in our constitution but rather the expansionist thrust of Manifest Destiny in the United States. In the early 1960s, WL Morton, the great historian of Manitoba, devoted particular attention to clarifying both the historic and continuing significance of the Canadian monarchy. For the architects of Confederation, Morton argued, the structuring of the new Dominion on the British monarchy was not some "bait for dim-witted Tory voters" but rather "the essence of the scheme".

In those years, the two extreme poles of governance were represented by the despotic monarchy of Czarist Russia and by the principle of popular sovereignty as embodied in the republic of the United States. While the example of the former was clearly unacceptable for Canada, the republican model in the US seemed unworkable in light of the horrors of the American Civil War. Thus, constitutional monarchy coupled to parliamentary democracy, seemed in the era of Confederation, like a sensible middle ground. This approach to governance was based not on a "covenant" between the state and the sovereign people but on a form of "allegiance" where, as Morton points out, "there is no pressure for uniformity." "Monarchy," wrote Morton, "made it possible to achieve all these things, whereas republican democracy would, it seemed, have ensured the victory of local interests and race antagonisms in British America, a victory ending in absorption to the United States."

The problem of maintaining a political culture in northern North America that is capable of resisting absorption into the US melting pot is as real today as it was in the era of Confederation. This was the case when Grant, Forsey, Morton and others lamented the Liberal invention of "national unity" as a useful facade to cover over their deeper designs of continental integration. Indeed, the PC Party's transition from Diefenbaker to Mulroney, who outflanked even the Liberals in his transformation of the job of Prime Minister into that of Governor of the #1 hinterland of the American empire, seemed like a classic fulfillment of Grant's prophesies in Lament for a Nation. Among the emblematic figures of Mr.Mulroney's regime was William Thorsell, a cosmopolitan Albertan whose view of the Canadian monarchy as "gothic clutter" needs to be seen in the context of his intellectual heritage of Kingian continentalism. It should be seen in terms of his newspaper's steady propaganda on behalf of a new rule of law vesting real sovereignty in global corporations through the authority of instruments like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization.

Indeed, one of the great sleights of hand of these global corporations is to have constituted themselves as "natural persons" or citizens in the laws of nation-states, whose governance they now dominate through their ability to blackmail countries and subvert democracy by controlling the lion's share of the world's investment capital. In this milieu, the power of most human citizens is overwhelmed by that of corporate citizens, making all appeals for "popular sovereignty" that fail to take this huge inequity into account highly suspect.

On the other hand, the persistence of monarchical sovereignty beyond the direct control of so-called popular sovereignty maintains a potential bulwark against the executive despotism of global corporate rule. I cannot but be suspicious, therefore, that for the William Thorsells of the world their real unease with the persistence of the monarchy is their instinctive sense that this inheritance from the past may be used sometime in the future to challenge the emerging global regime that situates true sovereignty in the power of money rather than peoples.

This brings me back to my first point, namely the importance of monarchy in the negotiation of those treaties with First Nations that in theory laid out the ground rules for all future colonization and non-Aboriginal settlement of Indian lands. This is an area beyond the frontiers of scholarship pursued by those elders and teachers who convinced some of us to take the significance of the Canadian monarchy seriously. They thus tended to ignore the immense geopolitical importance of what transpired in 1763, when the British monarch asserted the exclusive power to negotiate with the Indians the terms and pace of the western expansion of British North America. This feature of the constitution, which remains entrenched to this day in Canada's supreme law, had a great deal to do with the decision of many Anglo-Americans to rebel and to declare their own inherent rights to sovereign self-government outside the framework of the British Empire. The result was the creation of the USA.

Among the primary characteristics separating what remained of British North America from the USA was a quite different orientation to Indian Country. The treatment of First Nations as treaty allies of the Crown became an essential strategy in defence of British Imperial Canada, especially during the War of 1812, and later in preserving the western territories of the Dominion of Canada from annexation by the United States. This same basic scenario is currently being replayed in the treaty with the Inuit of Nunavut. The first citizens of Nunavut are the primary bearers of Crown sovereignty over the eastern Arctic, that part of Canada which, as the Polar Sea incident demonstrated in 1984, is most vulnerable to US intrusion. Similarly,the James Bay Agreement with the Cree of northern Quebec, the first of the Crown's modern-day treaties with Aboriginal peoples, created in 1975 a new axis of alliance between the sovereign of Canada and an important First Nation that may be crucial once again in establishing a basis for yet another defence of Canada from rebels who want to create their own sovereign indentity through a New World extinguishment of Indian Country.

This living heritage of Crown-Aboriginal treaties, past, present and future, must not be made victim to the kind of "presto-you're-an-adult" immaturity that would malign Canada as some sort of pimply-faced adolescent thinking she could prove she is grown up by smoking a cigarette and telling Mom where to get off. In fact, that kind of sophistry supporting this colony-to-nation reductionism of Thorsell tends to be the same genre of thinking inclined to find no problem in asserting as inevitable: presto, your government department has been privatized; presto, your health and education have been cut; presto, your Aboriginal title to your ancestral lands has been extinguished; presto, you're not Blackfoot now; presto, your reserve is on private property; presto, you're a landless but "equal" Canadian.

The way we construct our principles of sovereignty is a grave and complex business, and we in Canada have a responsibility to participate at the centre rather than at the periphery of the very important discussions, that must take place about how to transform the institution of royalty. In my view, there is a chance to undertake this renovation in ways that, paradoxically, uphold the rights of peoples over the otherwise unbounded powers of corporations.

Tony Hall teaches Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge. He can be reached by e-mail at: hall@uleth.ca

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