Our Republic in America

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An expired monarchical legacy. Our Republic in America
in Le Devoir, July 10, 1999




This is an unofficial translation of an article entitled "Notre république en Amérique" published in Le Devoir on July 10, 1999.



The Finns, like Quebecers, have a vast boreal forest strewn with lakes and rivers. However, this small nation of five million inhabitants enjoys an advantage unknown to Quebecers: she lives in a republic, since this ancient duchy of the Swedish Crown emancipated from the tsars and Lénine in 1919. The Finns elect their own president, who incarnates and protects the sovereignty of his people. A guardian of the institutions, the president entrusts government to the Prime Minister, who is from the Parliament. Last June 2nd, in Belgrade, two emissaries of the allied countries, the Finnish president and the Foreign Minister of Russia, submitted a proposal for a peace agreement to Slobodan Milosevic. Let us picture the scene: the representative of a small republic, mandated by the Western World, looks the dictator in the eyes and says to him: take it or leave it. The rest is history. With what authority would Findland have spoken if she had remained a kingdom represented by a lieutenant-governor officiating for the Swedish Crown?

All of America is republican, except Canada, the last monarchy of the continent. The official name of the country still bares the trace of its origins, the Dominion of Canada, same for its Constitution of 1867, proclaimed by Queen Victoria. The question of the political regime, monarchy or republic, was at the centre of the debates that prepared the creation of the Dominion. An alliance of Loyalist Tories and French-Canadian Chouans triumphed over the opposition of the republican liberals of the time. This federal monarchy was composed of three elements: a legitimacy principle, a system of government and a political tradition.

For MacDonald and Cartier, the democratic principle could not by itself guarantee the new Canadian State a sufficient foundation and authority. One needed a higher principle of legitimacy: an imposing one. This principle would flow from the British sovereign, whose majesty was to be felt on all stages of the Dominion. Placed at its head, governors, in the beginning appointed by London, would have everyone feel this majesty, also communicated by the currency, the parliamentary rites and the oath of allegiance. Quebec then reappeared in the imperial shape of a "province" capped of its own viceroy, the lieutenant-governor.

The "founding" Fathers feared a too great influence of the people on public affairs, who they believed in any event unable to govern themselves. Admiring the mixed English Constitution, which divides power between the king, the Lords and the elected officials of the people, they wanted a Canadian equivalent. However, naturally democratic, the colony did not have any hereditary aristocracy. They chose a substitute: a non-elective federal Senate, composed of representatives of the wealthy class, appointed by the Crown. To moderate the elected power even more, the Crown was equipped with a panoply of unilateral powers.

Lastly, these monarchists fell under a political tradition, which remained after them. According to this tradition, the doctrine of the separation of powers, worked out by Montesquieu, then applied by the Americans in their Constitution of 1787, is an error. It is better to grant to the leader of the majority party in the House the direction of public affairs and the distribution of patronage, an essential practise to the proper influence of the Executive on the State. Moreover, the elected officials of the people are their substitutes; on their behalf, they can rule and deliberate, even reform the Constitution, without the people taking part in it directly. The Parliament is sovereign, while the people is not. As for giving a Constitution to the people, they better not count on it too much. A collage of laws, maxims and unwritten rules, understood by lawyers and judges alone, will be enough.

An evolving monarchy

Since 1867, the Canadian monarchy has evolved. The majesty of the sovereign no longer irradiate on the Dominion as it did formerly. The Crown was "Canadianized", the British sovereign having given up exerting his/her constitutional powers in Canada. It is the federal cabinet which appoint the federal and provincial governors of Her Majesty. In fact, the federal Prime Minister has almost evinced the Crown; he exerts all the prerogatives of the Crown: to dissolve the House, to appoint federal judges and senators, to form the government, etc. His empire goes even beyond that: elected by plebiscite in his party, brought to power with as little as 38 % of the votes cast by voters, he controls the Parliament and the governmental apparatus. The repatriation of 1982 increased the powers of judges, who consider themselves the heirs of the royal courts of justice of England, without the regime being changed. If they have less prerogatives, the Premiers of the provincial States nevertheless tend to want to govern as their federal big brother does. Thus, the Dominion derived toward a form of elective monarchy, thanks to the half-clearnesses of a half-written Constitution. Several elected monarchs marked the Dominion by their reign: Laurier, Mackenzie King, Trudeau in Ottawa; Taschereau and Duplessis in Quebec.

"The republican idea often appeared in our history; it never was systematically explored and defended", wrote André Laurendeau in Le Devoir in 1948. Quebec has a republican tradition, though hidden. It starts with the Patriots of the 1830s, who had the misfortune of aspiring too quickly to democratic modernity in a province of Guillaume IV. Honoré Mercier, Honoré Beaugrand, André Laurendeau and Premier Daniel Johnson, who in 1968 juggled with the idea that Quebec become a federated republic, passed along the frail republican flame. Yet, there remains a curious silence on our political regime, as unalterable as permafrost. Did one never hear the call of Louis-Joseph Papineau, who in 1849 hoped to see "the consoled and prosperous fatherland... and one day republican"?

This silence is accompanied by inexhaustible discussions on the nature of Quebec as a political community: cultural or political nation, distinct or multinational society, one would believe hearing variations on a topic which we fail to set properly. However, this problem of definition is partly related to the same foundations of our political regime. Never in its history did Quebec experience a decisive political event by which the people, mobilized by a solemn act, take part in the choice of the ideals, the principles and the institutions of their community. Still without a written Constitution emanating from them, Quebecers grope in history, for a lack of having perhaps known one of the most formative experiments of citizenship. (Undoubtedly, if the Estates States of 1967-69 had ended with the democratic adoption of a Constitution of the State of Quebec and the replacement of the lieutenant-governor by an elected president, our collective life would have taken another direction.) If we are to make all Quebecers, by birth or adoption, in possession of the inappreciable happiness of governing themselves, and to define the political framework of their coexistence and their participation in a common citizenship, it will be necessary for them to collectively make their mark by the foundation of a new regime. And while we discuss all this, the Victorian Dominion will take advantage of time to maintain itself and, in its eyes, Quebec will remain a blanket of ethnic groups and individuals sowed to the larger fabric of a liberal, monarchist and multicultural society.

The birth of a republic

But then, how would the republic come? First of all, Quebecers will have to be impassioned for public affairs. This moment will possibly occur with for example the election of a constitutional convention, responsible to prepare a Constitution project. What would this republic look like? Here are some hypotheses. At its head would be a president, an official elected through universal suffrage or by an electoral college compose of members of Parliament and deputy citizens. The president would exert a useful counterweight to the power of the Prime Minister and would take care of the safeguarding of the Constitution and the institutions. By this, Quebecers would learn to distinguish the State from the government of the day, instead of confusing them. The Quebec Parliament would reach a new balance, with the creation of an elected Senate, proportionally or differently. Representing the regions and Quebec society in its diversity, the senators would take part in the legislation and the control of the Administration and State corporations. They would evaluate the conformity of the bills to constitutional freedoms and would dialogue with judges on the extent of these freedoms. The elections would take place at fixed date, except in case of a major crisis, their advent ceasing to be a discretionary prerogative. The republic would make a more frequent and more sophisticated use of referendums, when the voice of the people would appear the best procedure of decision. Acting on the initiative of the citizens, the president or the members of Parliament, the constitutional Council would control the validity of the laws and the elections. Judges would draw their authority from the Constitution alone, not from an antique crown. Here are as many ways to republicanize our State; there can be others and better ones.

The republic is more than an assembly of institutions and procedures. It is also a state of mind, a vision of politics. Throughout his career, Papineau, and several "rouges" after him, restlessly denounced "the spirit of servility" that monarchy would install in the Canadian political community. The republic, however, honours women and men who compete in address and intelligence to gain the confidence of the people and to serve the public good. The republican unceasingly fears that public affairs falls into the hands of acting minorities, the invisible hand of money, the iron hand of a magistrate, the felted hand of a civil servant or a lobby. This is why it is necessary to separate powers inside the State, as well as to clearly cut off the State from civil society. To be republican is also to think the balance, politically sought for, between a society and a State that both enjoy autonomy in order to contribute to the collective good.

By the devil, a Republic of Quebec! Here is an unrealizable Utopia for as long as Quebec remains attached to the Dominion. The amendment formula adopted in 1982 protects by the unanimity rule several elements of the Canadian monarchical system, of which the position of lieutenant-governor. Some will conclude from this constraint that only the sovereignty of Quebec traces the way toward a republican system. Others, on the contrary, will say that the hypothesis of a federated republic of Quebec was not really studied and deserves to be so. At all events, never in Quebec did we really consider the question of our political status from a republican perspective. The word "republic" has not yet returned from its banishment.

Can a people of America take pride in being a small crown inside a Dominion, reminiscent of old Europe? Let us not despair too much. Many Republics of Latin America can envy our democratic life, made of alternating parties and respect of the law, our standard of living and instruction, an wealth better distributed. The great misfortune of the Latin republics was to acquire early the status of republic without being able to realize their promises. While Papineau was pronouncing his speeches in the Assembly of Lower Canada, they were being born in chaos from the ashes of Spanish viceroyalties. Our chance, as Quebecers of all origins, it is to have achieved several of these promises. It is important that our small and clever nation succeeds in making the State which governs her compatible with the ideals and the achievements of which she is worthy. Rooted upstream in a founding past, our republic could, as the St. Lawrence river, grow wider into the future, and keep alive the ideal for which in the past great heroes fought for in all of America.

Who is Marc Chevrier?

After doing philosophy studies at McGill University, Marc Chevrier completed a degree in law at Université de Montréal and master's degree in law at the University of Cambridge, in Great Britain. He then worked for several years in constitutional affairs, immigration and public communication. He is currently working on a political science thesis on constitutional justice in Canada since the introduction of the Canadian Charter in 1982, which he intends to sustain in Paris. Mr. Chevrier collaborated in many Quebec journals, of which L'Agora, Liberté, L'Action nationale, Possibles, Les Cahiers d'histoire du Québec au XXe siècle and Argument. In addition to political questions, he took an interest in the reform of the education system and the impact of media on reality. He also wrote several ministerial studies, in particular on the linguistic policy of Quebec and Quebec democracy.


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