Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that his government won’t engage in constitutional talks about scrapping the monarchy while a pandemic is still raging and the country faces unprecedented economic disruption.
“Obviously, I wish all members of the Royal Family the very best. But my focus, as we’ve said, is getting through this pandemic,” Trudeau said when asked if Canada should rethink its ties to the House of Windsor after Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, made some bombshell allegations in an interview.
“If people want to later talk about constitutional change and shifting our system of government, that’s fine. They can have those conversations. But right now, I’m not having those conversations,” Trudeau said.
In a sensational sit-down interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle described the Royal Family as a tabloid-obsessed group that failed to protect their young son, Archie, and made racially tinged remarks about his skin colour.
The couple also described the royals and their coterie of advisers as cold, distant and indifferent to Meghan Markle’s mental health as she grappled with bad press.
In the interview’s aftermath, some republican-minded members of the Commonwealth have called on countries like Canada to do away with the institution of the monarchy altogether.
“I think it’s clear. I’ve said it in the past. I don’t see the benefit of the monarchy in Canadians’ lives,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters.
“There’s no benefit to them and now even more so with concerns about racism in the institution that were raised, and pressures that were placed on Meghan Markle.”
Abolishing the monarchy in Canada would be difficult. Under the Constitution, all 10 provinces and both chambers of Parliament would have to agree to such a change. There has been little political appetite for constitutional amendments of any sort in recent years.
Trudeau said he wouldn’t comment on the specific allegations raised by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “I won’t comment on what’s going on over in the U.K., but I will continue to endeavour to fight against racism and intolerance every single day in Canada,” he said.
Trudeau said that while many of Canada’s institutions, including Parliament itself, are built on a legacy of systemic racism, the solution is not to dump them altogether but to reform them from within.
“The answer is not to suddenly toss out all the institutions and start over,” he said. “The answer is to look very carefully at those systems and listen to Canadians who face discrimination … to understand the barriers, inequities and inequalities that exist within our institutions that need to be addressed, that many of us don’t see because we don’t live them.”
The prime minister himself has had to apologize for wearing blackface makeup in the past. A former Liberal MP, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, has said the government also hasn’t done enough to address anti-Black racism in Canada and the systemic barriers that racial minorities face, particularly in politics.
‘A guardian of our country’s traditions’
The prime minister is known to have a warm relationship with the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, having met with her a number of times at Buckingham Palace and at Commonwealth summits abroad. He previously met her when his father, Pierre, was prime minister.
On her 94th birthday last year, Trudeau said Canada was “grateful for her leadership and steadfast commitment to our country and to the Commonwealth” and praised her “extraordinary service, strength and enduring grace.”
Trudeau also called the Queen “a guardian of many of our country’s traditions” and said “many Canadians feel a deep appreciation for the Queen” on her 93rd birthday in 2019.
During a 2018 town hall with young voters in Etobicoke, Ont., Trudeau said he takes a “pragmatic” approach to the monarchy.
“Right now, I think it’s fairly convenient and even nice to have a head of state that actually does not engage herself in the politics of the country,” Trudeau said.
“We now have 150 years of a tradition that has worked, that isn’t directly harming us or preventing our success and our self-determination as a nation. It would be very difficult and complicated to make this change,” he added. Ending the constitutional ties, however, “wouldn’t actually have a massive impact on our daily lives,” he said.
He said “cracking open the Constitution” and “rewriting it” would prompt many questions apart from whether Canada should have the Queen and her heirs as our heads of state.
‘They have a knack for getting past these things’
John Fraser is the author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Affair with Royalty. He said Buckingham Palace must address allegations of racism or risk permanently damaging the brand in the eyes of Britons and Canadians alike.
Some of what Meghan Markle said is verifiably untrue, Fraser told CBC News, but talk of possible racial animus could be harmful to the family’s standing. Markle claimed the Royal Family withheld the title of “prince” for Archie — but according to royal protocol, he doesn’t have a right to that title until Prince Charles himself ascends to the throne.
Markle told Winfrey that Harry relayed to her that a member of the family had “concerns” about how the baby would look when he arrived, given that his father is white and his mother is biracial.
Fraser said that, with Harry himself ruling out the Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, it leaves observers to wonder whether it was Prince Charles or Prince William who made the racial remark.
While Charles has grappled with damage to his reputation in the past — “Some people don’t think very highly of him since the Diana business,” Fraser said — few people would tolerate someone who’s racially insensitive as the head of the Commonwealth, which is composed of many African and Caribbean countries.
“Harry and Meghan mean zilch constitutionally but because the racist question affects the nature of the head of state or the future head of state, it’s a serious issue that has to be dealt with,” Fraser said. “If it’s the heir to the throne, it’s a problem.”
The Sussex interview also has the potential to derail the search for Canada’s next governor general, Fraser said, as it may be hard to recruit quality candidates to be the Queen’s representative in the midst of this scandal.
“I don’t envy the prime minister trying to find our governor general in this stressful moment,” he said, adding Black, Indigenous or other people of colour might be reluctant to take the job in the current context.
The comments will rock the institution and draw considerable media attention, but, Fraser said, he doesn’t believe it’s enough to bring down the monarchy or fuel a republican movement in Canada. He said the Royal Family has proven to be a resilient institution.
“There’s trouble in Dodge City but they’ve certainly survived crises worse than this. I don’t think this is the tipping point,” Fraser said, adding the family has endured the abdication of King Edward VIII, the misadventures of Princess Margaret, the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana — and her subsequent death — and Prince Andrew’s questionable relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier who was accused of various sex crimes.
“I think they have a knack for getting past these things. People didn’t think they’d survive the death of Diana, but they did,” he said. “When the dust and chicken feathers settle they’re always there, and I think that’s what will happen this time, too.”