On January 30, 1649, Charles, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, lost his head. Literally. The king, believing he had a divine right to rule, tried to shut down parliament and reign as absolute monarch. He was arrested, tried by parliament for treason and publicly executed.
First, the republicans of Oliver Cromwell took control. Then the monarchy was restored. Then there was another revolution. After 40 years of civil war and religious upheaval, Mary II, the granddaughter of Charles I, assumed the throne, ruling alongside her husband and cousin, William III. But the era of absolute monarchy was over. In 1689 England adopted a Bill of Rights which severely curtailed the power of the Crown and entrenched the powers and privileges of the elected parliament.
It’s a shame we don’t learn more about this history in school or via popular culture. The more “romantic” French Revolution gets all the attention in the curriculum and the public imagination. Still, the power of parliament was enshrined in 1689—a proud tradition that Canada inherited in 1867.
It’s a shame we don’t learn this history in school. The more “romantic” French Revolution gets all the attention.
So I’ve been intrigued, amused and a little frustrated by a tendency among Albertans and other Canadians to demand, when it’s convenient to them, that the Crown intervene in our politics; that the Queen or her designates ride to our rescue when we don’t like what our elected officials are doing.
In 2016 George Clark tried to launch his “kudatah” against Rachel Notley’s NDP government, petitioning Queen Elizabeth II to throw Notley out. At the time, it seemed laughable, a clownish attempt at revolution, launched from the parking lot of a Walmart at Calgary’s Westbrook Mall.
These days, though, it’s more often those who oppose Jason Kenney who insist that the Crown should solve our problems.
Last July I posted on Twitter a picture of myself with Alberta lieutenant governor Salma Lakhani. The responses were both comical and alarming. “Can you ask her to get us a new provincial government? Seriously, at what point does that become a thing? Asking for several thousand friends,” posted a commenter with the handle The Notorious PFG. I’m pretty sure he was joking. But other replies to Lakhani’s tweets were insistent and angry, with people blaming the lieutenant governor for Alberta’s political situation. “Are you having daily long talks with Premier Kenney about how he has lost the moral authority to govern and needs to resign and dissolve his government for the good of the people? If not, why not? How many more people will have to die before you say ‘Enough’?” someone asked on September 25. “You need to force an election. If you don’t, you can’t in all good conscience ever refer to yourself as an Albertan. You’ll go down in history as someone who could have done the right thing and saved lives but instead chose to do the wrong thing,” wrote another. On October 1: “Please dissolve the legislature. The people have no confidence in this government to lead, and we need a new one.”
“Sorry, I don’t believe you are doing what is necessary to protect Albertans,” someone posted a week later. “You have the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to sit down with the premier and tell him his policies are failing the people of this province, to be better. And yet you fail to do this. Complicit.”
But even some politicians don’t seem to understand the rules and roles of a constitutional monarchy—as we saw when federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh asked Governor General Mary Simon to refuse to grant Justin Trudeau the right to call an early election.
We’ve become a society of “Karens,” demanding to speak to the manager, imagining the Queen or her federal or provincial surrogates can somehow absolve us from the consequences of elections. (Is it because all three are female? Are we somehow expecting our mother or super-nanny to come to save us?)
It’s true that in 1937 Alberta lieutenant governor John C. Bowen refused to grant royal assent to three bills passed by the Aberhart government, including legislation to censor the press and to interfere with federal control of banks. Those bills were blatantly unconstitutional. Bowen’s extraordinary, unprecedented action was the exception to prove the rule.
No matter how frustrated we get with any elected government, we shouldn’t want the Crown to usurp them—any more than we should want the Senate to exceed its constitutional authority and start killing bills willy-nilly. Nor the federal government to override provincial jurisdiction, even in a public-health crisis. The constitution is there for a reason. It protects our rights and the integrity of our political institutions. We can’t simply wish it away, no matter how frightened or frustrated or furious we feel.
If we don’t like the governments we elect, the answer isn’t to lose our heads and demand that some external constitutional actor save us. It’s to take responsibility for our choices—and our actions. No fairy godmother, no shining knight is coming to our rescue. Our democracy is in our hands, and ours alone. Right where it belongs.
Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.