I am a little dismayed, but perhaps also strengthened, by the inability of both the Queen's defenders and opponents in this country to reflect seriously on what it means for Canadian culture to have a head of state who is a rather distant (non)presence. I never see anyone arguing whether it is good or not to have a relatively distant (non)presence at the centre of our culture, a centre to which Canadian politicians (or anyone else) cannot lay a claim, or give a figure. No, those who argue for or against the Monarchy always have to struggle to make the Queen into something else, something more, or something less. I rarely find these arguments, for or against, compelling; and I wonder if, perhaps, this is not the sign of the institution's great strength. The Monarchy only really creates a sense of great resentment among those who have to try really hard to be offended by this part of our Constitution, or so it seems to me.
Some might say the lack of compelling arguments, for or against the monarchy, is a sign of its irrelevance; but do we really want to be constantly fighting about what or who should be "relevant" to Canadians, like academics arguing that their study of the latest pop culture fad or personality is a mark of their intellectual "relevance"? Is it perhaps not best to leave some sacred centres relatively unfigured, that we actually might give serious thought to the deeper mysteries of what it is about our culture that works to bind us together?
Whatever the answer, it seems to me that a fundamental fact of Canadian culture and identity is that we are a people formed in a relative equality of alienation from the sacred centre of state and society, an equality guaranteed by the fact that our head of state does not represent some fashion or faction in our political popularity contests. And, we've never had a Prime Minister who acted like a would-be king or president. Whatever the powers of office, this makes the person of our leaders rather like you or me.
Were we to become a republic, we would be turning our backs on what we are, whatever the relative merits of republicanism, in the abstract. And turning one's back is always a risky business. Instead of coming across a great new creation, one is likely to find oneself lost.
The latest seemingly thoughtless crew to take the risk is BC Ferries, which is removing the long-in-place portrats of the Queen from its ships, on the grounds that this taxpayer-owned, but independently operated corporation is no longer controlled by the government, even though it is ultimately a creation of provincial legislation and of government subsidies and service contracts.
Andy Ivens, Canwest News ServiceIt seems that no one has told the MBAs at BC Ferries that the Queen, as head of state, is not merely one of the three houses of Parliament, and a symbol of government, but also the symbolic head of our (civil) society. This used to be well understood, in the days when private voluntary organizations would never forget to toast the Queen or King at their dinners and banquets, or when charitable and other organizations would solicit a symbolic patronage from members of the Royal Family. But today, we just make bad jokes about being not amused.
Published: Monday, February 11, 2008
VANCOUVER - The Monarchist League of Canada is not amused that portraits of the Queen are disappearing from the B.C. Ferries fleet.
"It is important that we assert Canadian sovereignty on the Pacific coastal waters, and there is no better way to do that than with a picture of Her Majesty," said Keith Roy, chairman of the group's Vancouver branch.
He called the removal of the portraits, which usually were displayed in general seating areas, "a stealth manoeuvre by B.C. Ferries" over the past few years.
Company spokeswoman Deborah Marshall says the decision to remove the pictures was made five years ago when the former Crown corporation evolved into "an independent commercial company" - albeit owned by the taxpayers of B.C.
"We certainly mean no disrespect to the Queen," Marshall said. "It's a symbol of us not being part of government anymore."
Since 2003, the portraits have been taken down from vessels as they have been brought into dock for refits. It's unclear how many remain and on which vessels, or what has become of the old portraits.
Roy, a Vancouver real estate agent who grew up in Powell River, said he was always inspired by the Queen's portrait on board the ferries he remembers sailing on as a child.
"It's an important part of Canadian heritage and it's an important part of Canada as it is today," he said.
In forgetting this idea that Society has a symbolic, albeit distant and unclaimable, head, it's not altogether clear whether we are becoming freer, or just less in touch with the culture whose successful articulation must be the basis for our freedom. I tend to think the latter. In any case, would we be any freer if we spent our time arguing whether the President truly represented us, or those other guys? The Queen represents all of us precisely because she is not part of our popularity contests. She is a model for how each of us can make self-sacrificing attempts to represent the nation, as a matter of duty, in times when someone must step forward to defend the Constitution, or our bonds of trust and shared faith, without which no system of democratic rule, however rational, can long work to protect itself against human desires, resentments, and frauds. Each of us can represent the nation, after the model of the Queen, without our trying to lay claim to the centre, just as the Queen doesn't really dominate the centre of Canadian life, notwithstanding what the more silly resentments of our monarchy would lead us to believe.
If I'm ever on a sinking BC Ferries ship, I want to be with people who know it's time to do their duty. And that's what the portrait of the Queen should remind us to do. So, shame on those who would make the monarchy into a question of human popularity contests. God save the Queen.
UPDATE: The Queen is Back