A Royal Visit By Canada's Head of State

Queen Elizabeth II, Canada's head of state, is widely admired by her transatlantic subjects.
Queen Elizabeth II, Canada's head of state, is widely admired by her transatlantic subjects. (By Kirsty Wigglesworth -- Associated Press)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

TORONTO, May 16 -- As the government of Canada teeters toward possible collapse this week, its queen will be on a tour of the Canadian west, watching native dancers in buckskin and feathers, unveiling a museum plaque and admiring a statue of herself on a horse named Burmese.

If the Ottawa government falls in a no-confidence vote in Parliament Thursday -- and the vote looks as if it will be very close -- Prime Minister Paul Martin will call on the queen's representative in Ottawa to formally launch a federal election.

The queen's schedule of dinners, dedications and parades in Saskatchewan and Alberta should remain undisturbed, however. The head of state will have nothing to do with the state of affairs.

The coincidence of the potential fall of the Martin government and the nine-day visit that starts Tuesday by Elizabeth II -- whose other titles include queen of England -- is serving as a reminder of the British royal underpinnings of this country's government.

"I'm happy the queen will be here when the government may fall. It's a great civics lesson," said John Aimers, head of the Monarchist League of Canada, a group of defenders of the royalty.

The lesson is needed, he said, because so many Canadians remain unaware that their vibrant democracy is still headed by a queen. This ignorance persists despite the ubiquitous reminders: Elizabeth's silhouette is on every coin; criminals are charged by Crown prosecutors after arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; immigrants who obtain citizenship pledge their "loyalty and allegiance to Canada and Her Majesty Elizabeth II, queen of Canada."

While its southern neighbor evicted British rule with violence, Canada's own independence has been evolutionary. In 1867 it became a semi-autonomous "dominion"; in 1931 it was formally sanctioned as an independent member of the Commonwealth; in 1964 the British Union Jack came off the Canadian flag; and in 1982 Canada took complete control of its laws. The sovereign receded to a figurehead role.

The relationship between Canada and the royals is "a delicate balance of reciprocal illusions," author Peter C. Newman observed bluntly a decade ago. "The Royals would visit Canada once in a while and pretend to enjoy it, and Canadians expected nothing much of them."

Still, enough Canadians have fond remembrances of life as British subjects that the visit this week by Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is creating a stir in the two western provinces that celebrate their centennials this summer.

Schoolchildren are practicing their performances, soldiers of the King's Own Calgary and two other Canadian regiments of which the queen is colonel-in-chief are polishing their boots for an inspection, and scientists at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon are fine-tuning a giant microscope to show her.

There is enough goodwill toward Elizabeth that the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, accused Martin of delaying the vote on his government until Thursday "so that the prime minister can use the queen as a prop" in photo opportunities.

Undoubtedly, Martin will do that, but the votes by lawmakers in Ottawa are unlikely to change. Political nose-counters say the prime minister's government may -- at best -- survive on a tie vote broken by the speaker of the House, a member of Martin's Liberal Party. More likely, they say, the government will fall by one or two votes in the 308-seat House.

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