If you ask Canadians who Canada's head of state is three out of four people will get it wrong. According to a poll taken last year, 50 per cent thought it was Steven Harper and one-third thought it was MichaÃ«lle Jean, the governor general. Neither are correct, of course -- Canada's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.
In case you didn't know that fact yourself, don't worry. In October, the website for the governor general stated that Jean was Canada's head of state: a mistake that underscores the lack of understanding Canadians have about their government, including those within it. The Queen infrequently visits, and is even less likely to be seen representing Canada abroad. But this past week the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has been touring Canada in what some are calling a move to introduce himself as the future king.
It won't be long before Charles inherits the throne, but before he's welcomed with open arms, Canadians should consider a different choice: abolishing the monarchy in Canada altogether. The head of state is, among other things, the representative of a country to the rest of the world. The core of democracy is that citizens should choose who that representative is. Presently, our representation is forced upon us by the inheritance system of the British crown. The Queen never represents us abroad -- that role is left for the governor general, who is also not elected, but appointed by the prime minister. It's an insult that Canadians are robbed of this choice, and having a more local representative does nothing to soften the blow.
Canadians rightly hold equality of opportunity as a value. Every citizen, regardless of sex, race and religious affiliation, should be allowed to run for office. If the head of state is to successfully represent Canada abroad, a minimum requirement is residency in Canada. The present head of state fails to meet that criterion, of course. Discrimination gets no worse than when the head of state must also be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This rules out all believers who are not Protestant and all non-believers, and is a good example of a bad tradition that should no longer be endorsed.
Many argue that the queen does an adequate job as Canada's head of state, and in any case too much work would be required to amend what's essentially a symbolic position. The important point is that it only matters in passing how well the monarch is doing as our head of state. Assessing qualifications before assessing the validity of acquiring the position is, so to speak, putting the victory before the vote. Regardless of the job performed, it is first crucial that decision is left to Canadians. Representation has to be a choice; a system of inherited rights such as the monarchy is undemocratic and conflicts with Canadian values.
Reforming the position of head of state in Canada will be no small matter. Unique among constitutional reform, amending the head of state requires the unanimous consent of all federal and provincial legislatures. A number of polls suggest that despite the legal difficulties, Canadians support abolishing a foreign sovereign as our head of state, but the process will be arduous and lengthy. Much discussion will be necessary among Canadians to decide the type of republic best suited for our country, as many different forms exist and each one will shape Canada in a variety of ways.
Most importantly, the result will be one which is not forced upon Canadians, but is instead made by its citizens. A number of other Commonwealth countries have achieved this goal and it is past time that Canada did as well.