In a monarchy, the Crown is an abstract concept or symbol that represents the state and its government. In Canada, a constitutional monarchy, the Crown is the source of non-partisan sovereign authority and an integral part of the legislative, executive and judicial powers that govern the country. Under Canada’s system of responsible government (or democracy), the Crown performs each of these functions on the binding advice, or through the actions of, members of parliament, ministers, or judges.
As the embodiment of the Crown, the Queen serves as head of state in Canada’s constitutional monarchy. The Queen and her vice-regal representatives — the governor general and lieutenant-governors — possess what are known as prerogative powers, which can be made without the approval of another branch of government, though they are rarely used. The Queen and her vice-regal representatives also fulfill ceremonial “head of state” functions. Territorial commissioners represent the federal government in the territories but perform similar duties to lieutenant-governors.
Monarchical government has existed in what is now Canada since 1534, when Jacques Cartier claimed land in what is now Québec for King François I of France, an absolute monarch. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, New France was passed to Britain, a constitutional monarchy. In 1848, Nova Scotia established responsible government, a system in which ministers selected from elected representatives govern in the name of the sovereign and are held to account by the legislature (similar to modern Cabinet). The Province of Canada (Ontario and Québec) also adopted responsible government in 1848. It was granted in other Maritime provinces in the 1850s.
According to the Constitution Act, 1867, “The Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.” As such, Canada’s system of government was modeled on Britain’s. The British Crown served as a unifying principle in Canada’s Confederation, as shared loyalty to the monarch brought together provinces with very different political interests (see Monarchism).
The Statute of Westminster (1931) codified the divisibility of the Crown. Although the Dominions — semi-independent states such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand — continued to share a common monarch, she or he would only act on the advice of the ministers of each Dominion for matters concerning these individual nations. When George VI and Queen Elizabeth made their Canadian tour in 1939, they therefore toured as King and Queen of Canada. Queen Elizabeth II was the first monarch to be crowned Queen of Canada, in 1953.
The Canadian constitution was patriated in 1982, ending the British Parliament’s power to legislate for Canada. Paragraph 41a of the Constitution Act, 1982 states that changes to “the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province” may only take place with the unanimous consent of the Senate, the House of Commons and the Legislative Assembly of each province. This structure for amendment entrenched the Crown in Canada’s constitutional framework (see Constitution Act 1982: Document).
The current sovereign of Canada is Queen Elizabeth II. The sovereign retains certain prerogative powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. These powers are almost always exercised in accordance with the advice of the prime minister. The Queen’s powers to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, summon, prorogue and dissolve parliament, and grant royal assent have been either delegated to or conferred upon the governor general by the Letters Patent, 1947 and the Constitution Act, 1867. The Crown’s other prerogative powers, such as the authority to grant pardons and ratify treaties, are exercised by the Governor-in-Council (Cabinet acting through the governor general). When the sovereign is present in Canada, particularly on historic occasions, she or he can exercise the Crown’s constitutional powers in person.
According to 19th century constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot, the rights of a constitutional monarch include the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. In turn, vice-regal representatives retain the rights to consult, encourage and warn — and can exercise those rights in meetings with first ministers (the prime minister and provincial premiers).
The Governor General
According to the Letters Patent, 1947, the governor general can exercise all of the sovereign’s powers except for the appointment of the governor general. The Letters Patent do not change the monarch’s status as Head of State; however, it does give the governor general the authority to act as Head of State both domestically and internationally.
The duties of the Governor General include representing the Queen in Canada, acting as Commander in Chief and representing Canada both nationally and overseas. The governor general also recognizes the achievements of Canadians, presenting a wide range of awards, including the Order of Canada, the Order of Merit and the Order of Military Merit. The constitutional and ceremonial duties of the governor general are undertaken by lieutenant-governors at the provincial level.
Canada’s Parliament is comprised of the Crown (Queen), the Senate and the House of Commons, and each institution (Crown, Senate, Commons) must agree with a given law before it is enacted. While the government of the day acts in the name of the Crown — which is largely a symbolic and ceremonial institution — it derives its authority from the Canadian people who elected it and is therefore a “representative” government.
In each of the 10 provinces, the provincial legislature consists of the lieutenant-governor and the members of the elected assembly.
The current system of parliamentary democracy under the Crown emerged from the councils that advised medieval English monarchs. The earliest took place in 1265 and contained noble representatives from cities and boroughs. As parliamentary representation expanded, common citizens were included in parliament — as was the case by 1295. The political franchise gradually expanded to include widespread male suffrage in the 19th century and women’s suffrage in the 20th century.
Critiques and Defenses of the Crown
Canada’s system of constitutional monarchy has been critiqued in recent decades. The royal succession is determined by the 1701 Act of Settlement, which restricts the position of sovereign to the Protestant descendants of Sophia of Hanover (mother of King George I). The position of Canada’s Head of State is therefore restricted to members of a single, non-resident family and religion. The importance of the Crown as a ceremonial level of government has also been a matter of debate.
Advocates of Canada’s constitutional monarchy observe that critiques of constitutional monarchy are often based on misconceptions about the Crown’s role in Canadian government and confusion of the person of the sovereign with the constitutional functions of the Crown as a non-partisan overseer. Arguments in favour of the current system of government include the successes of constitutional monarchies around the world, according to measures set by the United Nations Human Development Index. Others argue that maintaining a level of government that is above party politics helps constitutional monarchies lessen partisan divisions (see Party System).