Mitchell Sharp: External affairs and the monarchy

Mitchell William Sharp, PC, CC (1911 - 2004) - Member of Parliament (1963 - 1978), Minister of Trade and Commerce (1963-1965), Minister of Finance (1965 - 1968), Secretary of State for External Affairs (1968-1974), President of the Privy Council (1974-1978), Leader of the Government in the House of Commons (1974-1978), prime ministerial advisor (1993 - 2003). He was a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Excerpt from: Which Reminds Me A MEMOIR, Mitchell Sharp

1994 University of Toronto Press

ISBN 9780802071521

External affairs and the monarchy

I am not an anti-monarchist. If I were a British subject living in the British Isles I would be staunch defender of the monarchy. I admire Queen Elizabeth, with whom I had the privilege of spending many enjoyable hours in the course of my ministerial activities. I also believe that we should continue to model our system of government on that of Britain. Nor, to make it quite clear where I stand, do I favour the election of a head of state, as the president is elected in the United States. It would be sufficient that the Canadian head of state be selected by the government of the day for a fixed term, with the appointment confirmed by parliament; in other words, a governor general by another name who would be head of state not vice head of state.

I have held these views for some time and was confirmed in them by my ministerial experience, particularly as Secretary of State for external affairs.

An official visit was arranged for Governor General and Mrs. Michenor to the then Benelux countries in April 1971. Prime Minister Trudeau asked me, as Foreign Secretary to the company them. We were received most hospitably, and Their Excellencies conducted themselves with grace and dignity. The presence of a Governor General of Canada did, however, pose a special problem for our hosts. How was he to be treated - as vice-royalty or as full head of state? Queen Juliana and the government of the Netherlands decided to accord full head of state honours, and the Belgians and Luxembourgers followed suit.

These were generous gestures of the part of our hosts, but they illustrate the ambiguity of our institutions from an outsider's point of view. To the people of the Netherlands and Belgium, Governors General are colonial officials, such as were appointed in the Netherlands East Indies and in the Congo. Maybe Dutch and Belgian people probably believed, when they saw our governor general in their midst, that Canada had not yet achieved full independence from Britain. In a private conversation at an official affair in Amsterdam, my dinner partner, a devoted admirer of Canada, didn't think that a visit by the governor general was worthy of us. I agreed.

A similar perplexity occurred during the ministerial visit to Latin America in 1968. Our purpose was to promote the sale of Canadian goods and make political contacts with the governments of those countries. We learned, after the trip was arranged, that Her Majesty would also be visiting some countries of Latin America at the same time. Her visit was intended, among other things, to promote British interests, including the sale of British goods. We couldn't ask her Majesty to perform the function for Canada that she was performing for Britain on that Latin American trip because the Queen is never recognized as Queen of Canada, except when she is in Canada. When in the United States, for example, she is the Queen of Great Britain and promotes good relations between Britain and the United States.

The resulting confusion became very clear one day during the 1976 Montreal Olympics when her Majesty visited the games after having spent a few days in the United States. An American reporter who had been with her on the American leg of her trip and who was ignorant of the subtleties of our Constitution, said on Canadian television that the Queen of England was in the stands.

Gradually, step by step, the governor general has taken over functions that were previously exercised by the monarch, so that within Canada the governor general is virtually head of state. Nevertheless, constitutionally the governor general is only the representative of the monarch.

Hence my strongly held view that Canada should have its own head of state who is not shared by others. The Queen and her successors could then have a special place as head of the Commonwealth as well as queen or king of Great Britain. In that capacity, the monarch would be received with a enthusiasm and acclaim by Canadians in all parts of the country, including places Queen Elizabeth is now reluctant to visit.

My views on the monarchy were well-known to my colleagues in both the Pearson and Trudeau cabinets. They were also known to some others. So far, however, I have obviously failed to rally a significant following. One would think that my views would have appealed to French Canadians like Trudeau. Perhaps they did. But, he did not act on them. He was prime minister when the monarchy was confirmed in our patriated Constitution.

A few years after I had left the ministry, I was asked by Prime Minister Trudeau to except appointment as governor general. One of the reasons I declined the honour was my well-known attitude towards the institution.

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