Some will assert that the concept of royalty was long ago outmoded. Others oppose what Queen Elizabeth II represents – colonialism and the British Empire. It can also be argued that with an ever more diverse Canadian mosaic composed of peoples from around the world, the notion of a British monarchy likewise belongs not to the present but to history.
Yet others might argue that the cost of the monarchy is reason enough to abolish it, though this argument applies more in the United Kingdom than in Canada.
I’ll focus on the most powerful argument: because the monarchy represents a link to past British imperialism some Canadians despise, that alone is sufficient to oppose its existence in Canada today.
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But the anti-British Empire/anti-imperialism argument only works if you think history can easily be divided into bad guys and good guys, and linked to ethnicities or nations. That’s simplistic because good and evil aren’t the unique possession of one ethnicity or nationality but are displayed by all in history. That’s the tragic reality of humanity – we’re all flawed, and so were our ancestors.
British colonialism had its warts, and those are often discussed. But there were also benefits from British rule, and here’s one that should always be celebrated: the abolition of slavery. Slavery was effectively abolished in practice by 1820 in Canada and in law across the British Empire in 1833.
However, slavery lingered in one part of Canada – British Columbia – long after 1833 because some Indigenous peoples had long practised slavery and opposed British colonial attempts to abolish it. “Slavery was a permanent status in all Northwest Coast societies,” wrote anthropologist Leland Donald in his 1997 book Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. He notes that slavery in the Pacific Northwest developed between 500 BC and 500 AD, long before British contact.
Whenever the issue of British colonialism arises, too many in the chattering classes assume a simplistic divide: British influence all bad/Indigenous ideas and history all positive.
But that’s not lived history. Donald points out how James Douglas – later a governor of Vancouver Island but in 1840 commanding Fort Vancouver – encountered resistance to abolishing slavery from some Indigenous communities. Douglas’s strategies to abolish slavery included buying slaves from Indigenous communities and freeing them.
So British rule wasn’t perfect, but the British were the instigators of a worldwide movement to free slaves, including in Canada.
What has this to do with the monarchy in 2022?
Canada’s liberal democracy and its institutions didn’t appear out of thin air. Concepts such as the value of the individual, including the personhood of everyone – slaves and women, for example – came from thinkers in Great Britain such as John Stuart Mill and others.
Beyond abolishing slavery, the British brought other useful concepts to our world: parliamentary supremacy vis-à-vis the monarch. Or consider Adam Smith and his articulation of why free markets were superior to other economic models and integral to a free, flourishing society.
There was never anything wrong with British liberalism and its colonial-era ideas connected to freedom and flourishing. Those were always preferable to the collectivist impulse present in most societies throughout history. What was missing was a fuller sharing earlier of those ideals of liberty for everyone. Instead, women only gained suffrage in 1918 and Indigenous Canadians only received the vote in 1960, to give two examples of such egregious omissions.
In that sense, Queen Elizabeth is representative of and heir to such liberal ideas, traditions and their outworking in society over the centuries. Today we all benefit from such ideas no matter if one’s ancestors arrived 20,000 years ago across the Bering Strait from Asia, 10 years ago escaping a repressive regime in Syria or two weeks ago from Ukraine.
Beyond being a symbol of useful ideas such as freedom and its spread worldwide and in Canada, there’s another practical reason to retain the monarchy: It’s a reminder that evolutionary change is preferable to revolutionary upheaval. Many revolutions, like the French Revolution in 1789 or the Russian version in 1917, were spurred by notions that countries could be recreated from scratch. Thus, monarchs and others were overthrown with blood in the streets. That’s never been the Canadian way – Canada was created in part as a reaction to the American Revolution of 1776.
The 70-year-reign of Queen Elizabeth II should be celebrated because she represents continuity with the past. That includes the best developments in Canadian history: the rule of law, the abolition of slavery, the equality in law and policy that eventually arrived for all, and free enterprise. All of that is accessible regardless of whether your ancestors were Indigenous, Irish or Indian.
We should celebrate with a toast those positive aspects of Canadian history, and Queen Elizabeth and her links to that history, and to her 70 years as head of state.
Mark Milke is the executive director of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. His newest book is The Victim Cult: How the Grievance Culture Hurts Everyone and Wrecks Civilization.
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