William and Kate – and Canada’s complex relationship with the crown

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met by Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau. Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Canada is hosting a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the first few days of the trip have proven to be a huge pictorial success. The photogenic royals and their equally glamorous hosts, prime minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie, have provided the world’s press with plenty to splash over the weekend newspapers and bulletins. But, pretty pictures aside, this trip is prompting some interesting constitutional questions.

This isn’t just a visit from the British royal family – Queen Elizabeth II is queen of Canada and, as such, Kate and William are part of the Canadian royal family. Under Canada’s quite separate constitutional law, this is an institution differentiated from the British monarchy.

As with Australia – which has had a well-documented debate on the merits of republicanism versus monarchism – Canada’s relationship with the crown is complex. Many have argued that the politics of Canadian monarchism are not properly understood – and a 2015 poll found that while less than half (39%) of respondents wanted to abolish the monarchy, nearly three-quarters (73%) believed the head of state should be born and/or live in Canada. The queen is considered Canadian according to law, but this doesn’t change the fact that she’s primarily the British monarch. The official royal website reads:

Canada has been a monarchy for centuries – first under the kings of France in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, then under the British Crown in the 18th and 19th centuries, and now as a kingdom in her own right … The territories which now form Canada came under British power at various times by settlement, war or cession.

The blasé and uncritical phrasing completely overlooks the history of colonialism. It might now be a “kingdom in its own right” but what does it mean when this kingdom’s head of state is a white, British woman? If these territories were ruled by Britain “by settlement, war or cession” what are the politics of retaining an Anglo-Canadian monarchy?

Further colonial memories are evoked with William and Kate’s trip. Their itinerary includes visits to groups such as Heiltsuk First Nations: a community of tribal groups in British Columbia. However, as critics have pointed out, this visit fails to acknowledge a violent colonial history between the crown and these communities – the consequences of which are still being felt today.

Broken promises made to the communities during treaties has led to widespread poverty, homelessness, disease, violence against women and a massively inflated suicide rate. These communities have been protesting against alleged abuses of indigenous treaty rights by the Canadian government, as well as organising an Aboriginal Day of Action in 2007 aimed at ending First Nations poverty.

Regretful past

What role are popular culture heroes William and Kate playing in this history then? Some have suggested they will be “confronted” by the horrors of Britain’s colonial past – but to what extent will they actually face up to the realities of empire?

They are to be greeted by Heiltsuk First Nations with a welcome celebration, where we’ll no doubt be treated to more images of royals getting “involved” with traditional culture by standing by in Western dress watching natives dance around them, perhaps being carried on homemade thrones like they were in Tuvalu in 2012.

Game of thrones: William and Kate in Tuvalu in 2012. Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA Archive/Press Association Images

If they do acknowledge the history of the region, it’s incredibly unlikely that this will include an apology or even a recognition of Britain’s involvement. In 2011 the queen made a well-publicised “apology” to Ireland, but all this apology entailed was her saying that “with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all”. That’s more a commentary than anything else.

All forgiven: Prince Harry and Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson Miller in 2012. John Stillwell/PA Archive/Press Association Images

In 2012, Prince Harry was due to visit Jamaica when the prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, invited Britain to apologise for the “wicked and brutal” slave trade. She further suggested Jamaica would be looking to replace Elizabeth II as head of state. Upon Harry’s arrival, all controversy appeared to have been forgotten. Harry and Simpson Miller hugged, kissed and held hands for an official photocall and there was no sniff of an apology for the duration of the trip.

If Britain’s former colonial possessions are happy enough to go along for the ride on these royal visits – as they mostly appear to be – then there is little pressure for an apology, which suits the royals just fine.

Question of sovereignty

As far as I can find, there is no official protocol for these royal “apologies”. The monarchy’s relationship with decolonised territories is strange and varied. The Commonwealth still has many troubling relations to empire which don’t perhaps attract the attention they might. The queen herself has never attended an independence ceremony upon decolonisation, but always sends a royal representative – an odd procedure when the monarchy is the very institution the territory is distancing itself from.

But this raises interesting questions about the constitutional role of the monarchy today. At the time of historical settlement and war in Canada, the British monarchy was absolute – and solely responsible for the development of treaties and law. Now the relationship is constitutional, how is the British government implicated in this history? We know that the British government reviews – and sometimes even composes – all of the queen’s speeches except her Christmas speech. If she had ever apologised for colonial misdeeds, this would have been with the express permission of the British government. How does the British constitution function – and who really controls the crown as an institution: the queen or Theresa May?

Even though her role as queen of Canada is independent of her British sovereignty, this Canadian visit raises interesting questions about remnants of colonial rule in modern states. If William and Kate should apologise for violent histories, what are the implications for Canada’s royal family? Will the Canadian monarchy be abolished upon the queen’s death? How does British constitutionalism function alongside the queen’s other sovereignties?

They may try and distract us with cute photographs of the royal grandchildren, George and Charlotte, but these are the questions that need to be asked.