How Our Canadian Monarchy Works Within the Constitution

You’ve probably played or watched a soccer or hockey game. To make sure that the players obey the rules of the sport so that both teams have a chance to win, there is always a referee – someone who doesn’t take sides but assures fair play and makes the difficult calls about penalties and off-sides. In many ways, The King’s role today is similar to that of a referee or umpire. Thus, we call our way of government “constitutional” monarchy.

Centuries ago, kings and queens were “absolute” monarchs: they ruled, and their personal word was law. This did not always seem fair to their people! Think back to when you were younger. A parent sometimes told you “Go to bed,” or “No, you can’t go out.” Probably you wanted to keep watching television, go to a movie or hang out at the park. But your folks’ word was “law.” However, you gradually grew up, and your parents slowly gave you more freedom. And they probably reminded you that with more freedom comes more responsibility.

In much the same way, as society evolved and wanted more freedom, and to have elected persons take on the responsibility of governing, many countries chose to become “constitutional” monarchies. This term means that the monarch’s first duty is to maintain the laws which elected members of a parliament have passed.

So the monarch now became not a ruler giving orders, but more like a referee, acting to preserve the rule of law, within the rules of the Constitution – a basic law which lays out how a country is governed. Just like the rules of baseball or lacrosse. The monarch cannot simply say “my way or the highway!” The ref can’t decide “I like Stephanie, so she can high-stick.” What could easily happen to a game played without a referee?

To symbolize our free and inclusive way of life in Canada’s democracy – which many throughout the world envy – our King or his representative must officially open each session of Parliament or a provincial legislature; and nothing approved by Parliament or a provincial legislature becomes law until it has received The Royal Assent. This is another way of making sure that “the rules of the game” (in this case, of our Constitution) are followed.

Canada’s Monarchy is important because it guarantees responsible government in our country. “Responsible government” means that a Prime Minister (or Premier, in the provinces) and cabinet only hold office so long as they have the support of the House of Commons or legislature, whose members the people have elected.

In this way, a Prime Minister or premier can never become a dictator, who says, “I am so popular that there is no need to have an election. The people love me. I will stay in office for the good of the country.” This, together with phony elections, actually happens in many countries around the world. The Crown would not permit this to occur in Canada, and would either cause an election to be held or the Prime Minister to be replaced.

Can you think why it would be dangerous for even an elected leader to hold all a country’s power?

So you might think of the Monarch and her vice-regal representatives acting as an Epi-Pen in our knapsack or school office, or a fire extinguisher or in our home, school or place of work. Most of us will never need to use these devices. But we’re very glad they are there! Their presence reminds us all of our responsibility for safety in respect of allergies and fire.

In the same way, these “reserve” powers of the Crown are seldom used; but the fact that they exist is a reminder to our leaders that Canada’s democracy expects them to play by the rules!

Here is a more detailed explanation of Constitutional monarchy suitable for older students.

Here is the text of the most important part of Canada’s written Constitution, The Constitution Acts 1867-1982

Some of the reasons Canada is a monarchy are as follows:

  • It reflects our history: First Nations, then French and British settlers, all brought to Canada their experience of a chief or of royal authority.
  • It works well for Canada. Canadians chose twice to be a monarchy. The first time was in 1867, when the new country of Canada was formed. The second occurred in 1981, when a revised Constitution, basic law, was adopted.
  • It helps to show we are an independent nation and yet it reflects our character by sharing our monarch with 14 other diverse countries in the Commonwealth such as Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Belize.
  • It promotes a stable political process, where the results of an election determine who will govern, not a violent act such as war or revolution.
  • It reminds Canadians of our special identity and way of life. This is important because of the huge influence of our friendly but much larger neighbour, the USA. So we have to work that little bit harder to appreciate our own institutions, in the same way as we have to work extra hard to obtain the best grades we can, to contribute to the team or the drama club or to find a good college, university or job.
  • The monarch promotes Canadian concerns such as tolerance, playing by the rules, protecting the environment and giving service to the community. This shows a commitment to the country that is not selfish, and not linked to any political party.
  • It makes clear the important but different roles of the monarch (the head of our nation who represents the things we all agree about) and the prime minister (the elected head of our government) whose policies we can argue about, and whose government we can re-elect – or not – about every four years.

Here is a series of brief points as to why Canada is a monarchy rather than a republic such as the United States. They are mainly written for older students.

An interesting feature of our form of government is that not all the rules are written down, but some are based on what is called conventions – a word which means something that everyone agrees is the normal and right thing to do.

Examples of conventions in our ordinary lives? There are no laws that say you must say please and thank you, watch your language around your younger siblings, avoid chewing food with your mouth wide open or stand up when the National Anthem is played at an assembly or sports event. But they are the small important acts which help to define a civilized society.

Can you think of some conventions that pretty well everyone follows at your school or in your family?