Succeeding to the Canadian throne


Succeeding to the Canadian throne

The Queen holds 16 different offices, embodying 16 distinct sovereign authorities.

Photograph by: STEVE PARSONS , AFP/Getty Images

We learned this week that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their first child. The news was greeted with the usual mix of republican derision, monarchist fawning and celebrity gossiping. In governments across the Commonwealth, a more serious discussion has been taking place. News of the “royal baby” has highlighted the importance of changing the rules of succession.

At the 2011 meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government, member states agreed the rules of succession should be amended to repeal the penalty of marriage to a Catholic and replace the principle of male primogeniture with equal (i.e. gender-neutral) primogeniture. This will ensure that if the royal couple’s first child is female, she will be third in line for the succession, regardless of whether they have a son in the future.

Since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Parliament — rather than the monarch — has controlled the line of succession to the throne through legislation, such as the Act of Settlement, 1701. There is therefore no question that the British Parliament must enact a law to amend the rules of succession. But what of Canada? Must we do the same? Indeed, we must, a reality that dispels any notion that the Crown is a mere symbol of Canada’s history as a British colony, and that highlights how deeply entrenched the Crown is in the Canadian constitution.

The Statute of Westminster, 1931, made the British Crown divisible by establishing the Crowns of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. as legally and constitutionally separate corporations. As such, the “British monarch” has not been Canada’s head of state since 1931. Although the 16 independent Crowns are represented by the same individual through a “personal union,” legally speaking, they each have distinct sovereigns as their head of state.

One woman, Elizabeth Windsor, holds 16 different offices of Queen, embodying 16 distinct sovereign authorities. She is separately the Queen of the United Kingdom, the Queen of Canada, and the Queen of 14 other realms. As a result, each state whose unique Crown is personified by their particular Queen must change their line of succession pursuant to their own laws and/or constitutions.

By most accounts, it will be relatively simple for Canada to change the rules of succession to the Canadian Crown. Parliament will enact a bill and the matter will be settled — at least that’s the hope. Unfortunately, there are good reasons to think it might be more complex.

In the 2003 O’Donohue case, Justice Rouleau ruled that the Act of Settlement forms part of the Constitution of Canada, since as constitutional lawyer Peter Hogg noted, “The rules of succession to the throne were essential to the proper functioning of the system of government.”

A change to the rules of succession necessarily amends the Constitution, whether implicitly or explicitly. The question is whether the federal Parliament alone can do so without consulting the provinces.

According to s. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, any amendment to the “office of the Queen” requires the unanimous consent of Parliament and the provincial legislatures. Arguably, the succession to the throne touches on the office of the Queen because the Crown is a corporation sole.

The Crown as corporation sole means the office and office-holder, Crown and Queen, are conceptually divisible but legally indivisible. The office cannot exist without the office-holder; the hereditary principle of automatic succession ensures that the Crown immediately transfers to the next person in the line of succession upon the demise of the sovereign. The Crown is never disembodied, as it were.

Succession must therefore pertain to the office of the Queen because any change to the rules that govern the line of succession affects who will one day personify the Crown, and because the office and office-holder are one and the same under the law.

Of course, admitting that succession falls under s. 41(a) invites all sorts of unwanted political complications. It would allow any provincial legislature to block or slow a change to Canada’s rule of succession, and there is one particularly antimonarchical provincial government that might see this as a perfect occasion to create controversy.

Thankfully, this is unlikely to happen and would not cause all that much harm in the short term, since the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge will be next in line for the throne regardless.

What’s more, any legislature that attempted to stonewall such a self-evident and pro forma constitutional amendment would look rather crass. And if the aim is to undermine the monarchy, opposing the change would have the ironic effect of highlighting the centrality of the Crown in the Canadian Constitution.

James W.J. Bowden and Philippe Lagassé are, respectively, an MA candidate and an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

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The Queen holds 16 different offices, embodying 16 distinct sovereign authorities.

The Queen holds 16 different offices, embodying 16 distinct sovereign authorities.

Photograph by: STEVE PARSONS, AFP/Getty Images


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