Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Political Science Constitutions

Battle Royal

Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada

by (author) David Johnson

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2018
Constitutions, Commentary & Opinion, Civics & Citizenship
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2018
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jan 2018
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


What is the future of the monarchy in Canada?

A strong republican movement in Canada stresses that the monarchy is archaic and anti-democratic, an embarrassing vestige of our colonial past. An equally vibrant monarchist movement, however, defends its loyalty to royalty, asserting that the Queen is a living link to a political and constitutional tradition dating back over a thousand years. But is the monarchy worth keeping?

Battle Royal answers this question and many more: What does the Queen really do? What are the powers of the governor general? Has the Crown strengthened or weakened Canadian democracy? If we abolish the monarchy, what do we replace it with? And will we have to re-open the constitution?

Charles will soon become King of Canada, but a Canada highly ambivalent to his reign. This presents the representatives of the Crown with the opportunity to build a better monarchy in both Britain and Canada, one relevant to the twenty-first century.

About the author

David Johnson, a professor of political science at Cape Breton University, has studied and taught Canadian politics, government, and the constitution for over thirty years. He is the author of Thinking Government: Public Administration and Politics in Canada, 4th ed, a leading university textbook. His columns appear regularly in the Cape Breton Post. He lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

David Johnson's profile page

Excerpt: Battle Royal: Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada (by (author) David Johnson)

They all knew they were making history that summer. Over the month of July 1764, some two thousand chiefs and sachems, holy men, elders, warriors, and family members representing twenty-four indigenous First Nations arrived for a Great Council at Fort Niagara. Also present was the personal representative of the British king, George III. This diplomat, Sir William Johnson, was the superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies of America. Although Fort Niagara had been built by the French, it was now in British hands, having been appropriated following their conquest of New France in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Now, the king requested that the leaders of all the indigenous peoples living in the northeastern regions of North America congregate at the place where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. There, amidst the beauty of nature and under the ramparts and guns of the British Empire, they would discuss and enter into a treaty setting out how all this land was to be governed.
The First Nations people came from far and wide. Some arrived from what is now Nova Scotia, while others journeyed from as far west as the Great Plains. Many more travelled south, from Hudson Bay, while others headed north, beginning their treks in the Adirondack Mountains. Leaders of the Algonquin, Cree, and Huron nations arrived along with representatives of the Nipissing, Pawnee, Mohican, Odawa, and Potawatomi nations, to name just a few. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy of the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga was also well represented. These leaders and their people had all been informed that the French were no longer a power in the land and that the British would be their nearest non-indigenous neighbours. They had also been informed that the British king had spoken of new rules regarding how the British would live with the indigenous peoples in the land now claimed by the British Crown. There had been a royal proclamation, and they desired to know more. The chiefs wanted to hear from the king’s delegate himself, to listen to how Sir William would describe the new order of things, so they could decide if the English king’s words were fair and just, and determine whether they would live in peace or war with the British.
Johnson, married to a Mohawk clan mother named Molly Brant, was a keen observer of indigenous traditions and political systems. He respected the oral traditions of the First Nations, the importance of symbolism, and the idea that these nations deserved equal respect and dignity from the British. Over the month of July, Johnson met separately with the leaders of each First Nation to discuss the future. He gave them details of George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763, whereby the British claimed sovereignty over the eastern half of North America. He stressed that this declaration recognized the existence of Indian nations and their pre-existing ownership of their lands. He further promised that the British desired free and fair trade with all First Nations and freedom of movement throughout all lands subject to the British Crown. And there was more. Johnson assured the chiefs, in the name of his king, that under British law the Crown had to respect indigenous land ownership, and that the only way for the British to acquire more land than they currently held was through treaties signed between the British Crown and First Nations. British subjects could never take land from “the Indians” without their consent and without the approval of the king. Furthermore, the British Crown promised to bring to justice any Briton who committed robbery or murder against indigenous persons and pledged that the Crown would protect and aid First Nations against their enemies.
By the end of July 1764, Johnson had secured a unanimous agreement from the chiefs present at the Great Council, and on July 29 the Treaty of Niagara was confirmed. This treaty was made real through the exchange of covenant chain wampum belts, which served as a symbol of the agreement between the British and indigenous First Nations to live in peace, friendship, and respect with one another, with each nation recognizing all the others as equals. The wampum belt that Johnson gave to the First Nations chiefs showed two figures — one British, one indigenous — linked by a chain of silver, signifying that the treaty required constant attention and polishing in order to remain bright and vibrant. The belt given in return to Johnson by the chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was a “two row” wampum. Ray Fadden, a Haudenosaunee scholar, describes the symbolic significance of this belt: “[It shows] two paths, or two vessels, travelling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian people, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs, and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, but in our own boat. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.”
While most Canadians have never heard of the Treaty of Niagara or the Royal Proclamation of 1763, these documents are recalled by First Nations to this day as reminders of the historic linkages between these nations and the British Crown, and of the ongoing constitutional obligations borne by Canadian governments to indigenous peoples. In 1763 and 1764 the Crown made legal commitments to First Nations, most of which were dishonourably broken and abused. The honour of the Crown still remains to be attended to, enhanced, and polished.

Distant Echoes of Regal Origins
The monarchy in Canada today is necessarily of British origin. Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada because she is also “Queen of the United Kingdom and of her other Realms and Territories.” She holds sovereignty over Canada because her ancestors laid claim to Newfoundland in 1497, the Hudson Bay watershed in 1670, and acquired Nova Scotia by treaty from the French in 1713. And, most significantly, the British won control of a large part of North America from the French during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63. The Citadelle of Quebec fell to the British in 1759, with the French government of Louis XV ceding all of New France, save for the little islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, to George III and his British Empire through the Treaty of Paris in 1763. While the British lost possession of the American Thirteen Colonies in 1783, they retained control of the northern half of the continent and its separate colonies and territories, eventually witnessing four of these jurisdictions — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario — form the nation of Canada in 1867.
We are our history, and the history of Canada has been shaped by the actions of the British Crown. But monarchies existed in what is now Canada long before the arrival of the English. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier set foot on the Gaspé, planting a crucifix while claiming all that he saw in the name of Francis I, the king of France. This act inaugurated over two centuries of French royal rule in North America. These years would witness the birth of a distinct French Canadian society in North America, centred upon the St. Lawrence River and the lands of Acadia.
Watching Cartier raise his cross to his king were indigenous peoples. Likely Haudenosaunee, these wary observers were members of just one of the First Nations spanning the continent. A significant number of these nations were themselves either monarchies or had governments strongly influenced by monarchical ideas of aristocracy and hereditary rule, a reality not lost on early French colonial leaders. The first international agreements between First Nations peoples and Europeans were military and trade alliances entered into between indigenous leaders, viewed by the French as kings, and representatives of the French Crown.
The arrival of the English into North America heralded a period of added complications and increased tensions to an already complex political environment. By the early eighteenth century, the British Crown was front and centre in the development of two crucial political realities in the history of Canada: one focusing on the power relations between the French and the British, the other the link between the British and indigenous First Nations. The historical narrative respecting both sets of relationships is fraught with contradictions. In the years before and immediately after the conquest of New France, agents of the British Crown were leading figures in some of the most shameful episodes of racism and discrimination against First Nations peoples and French Canadians in our country’s history. In the opinion of many Canadians to this day, these are chapters in Canada’s history that still bring the reputation of the Crown into disgrace. In the years after 1763, though, we observe the first signs of a willingness on the part of various Crown officials to marry English and French interests; to recognize and respect certain features of the distinct social, linguistic, religious, and legal culture found in Quebec; and to see French Canadians — former foes — become loyal subjects of the Crown, eventually setting the stage for Confederation in 1867. Even pre-dating these events, we see the beginning of a special, historic, and ongoing relationship between indigenous First Nations and the British Crown. Before the conquest of New France, the British were entering into treaties with First Nations in what are now the Maritime Provinces; these documents recognized indigenous nations as nations with legal personality and with rights to traditional use of indigenous lands. These treaties and the related Royal Proclamation of 1763 endure as valid legal documents. They are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as bestowing significant entitlements to First Nations and important obligations on the Crown. The relationship between the Crown and indigenous Canadians is one that is both as historic as the old treaties and as current as the struggle for indigenous self-government and social justice.

Editorial Reviews

Johnson examines the power and influence — or lack thereof — the monarchy retains in Canada.

Quill & Quire

An interesting look at the monarchist vs. republican debate in Canada and the future of the Canadian Crown.

The Maple Monarchists

Offers an engaging review of the republican versus monarchist debate in a way that helps us understand our journey from colony to independent nation. He details the republican arguments effectively while making a convincing case for retaining the monarchy now and into the future.

Andrew Heard, Professor of Political Science, Simon Fraser University

The book is so useful precisely because it looks at all sides and…his polemic is rarely prescriptive. It does what historians and political scientists do best: it sets the scene and lets us determine for ourselves what we think about the issue

Literary Review of Canada

Battle Royal is the most up-to-date and thorough account of the issues involved in considering the merits of converting Canada from a constitutional monarchy under a British sovereign to a Canadian republic. Although Johnson describes himself as a pragmatic monarchist, his book provides a balanced appraisal of each side’s case. He also sets out a forward-looking agenda for the strong likelihood that Prince Charles will become Canada’s head of state in the near future. Johnson’s book is a must read for Canadians who are interested in the monarchy vs republic debate.

Peter Russell, author of Canada's Odyssey

Battle Royal is thoughtful and smartly written, and so unvarnished in its treatment of Canada’s head of state it could never have been published in 1952.

Blacklock’s Reporter

Other titles by David Johnson

Related lists