Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Will the head of state in Canada please stand up?

Several years after you read Peter Russell’s excellent book on the evolution of the Canadian constitution (now in its 3rd edition), you will be forgiven for forgetting the details of the many twists and turns of Canada’s constitutional odyssey. You will likely remember, however, Russell’s anecdote in the preface in which he describes the motivation for the book. It seems that Walter Berns had turned to Russell in a seminar they co-taught to declare, “Peter, you Canadians have not constituted yourself as a people.” Ouch.

It is interesting, then, to cast our eyes now and then to the seemingly endless debate about Canadian sovereignty. There is a lot of good public opinion research on the subject, most of it suggesting increasing support for a proper republic over a monarchy, and perhaps the chance that Canadians will “constitute themselves as a people.”

Recently, I ran across an even more interesting survey item. The survey asked respondents simply to identify the head of state of Canada (not the person, the office). Easy, right? Well, apparently Canadians not only do not agree on who should be head of state, they don’t even agree about who — formally speaking — IS the head of state. Is it the Queen (25% say so)? The governor general (32%)? The prime minister (43%)? Really, the prime minister?

I take this as more evidence that Canada is the place to study constitutional design, which might explain why some of the best constitutional scholars hail from or reside there.


3 responses to “Will the head of state in Canada please stand up?”

  1. Ran Hirschl Avatar

    Thanks, Zach. Could not agree more on the last point . . . But more seriously, Canada is now without a functioning parliament until early March, as the House of Commons has been prorogued by Prime Minister Harper, who despite the confusion you note, is the one who calls the shots of late. This is the second time in the last 12 months he deploys such a strategic maneuver, designed to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Harper and the Conservative Party head a minority government, which the Liberal Party has threatened to topple until it looks at the polls. In all of this, the Governor General has taken a deferential role. The last time a GG took a substantive act against the will of the Prime Minister was in 1926 (the so-called King-Bing Affair). Since then, the GG has been a symbolically important but largely ceremonial position. And the Queen, may God save her, is indeed on our $20 bills, the Crown (R) is the prosecutor, but little more than that since 1982.

  2. Don Clarke Avatar

    I’m not sure how much the poll shows. “Easy”? Should we really expect average citizens to understand the distinction constitutional scholars make between “head of state” and “head of government” and to understand that “head of state” is not a synonym for “most powerful person”? I wonder what the results would be in England if you gave such a quiz.

  3. Zachary Elkins Avatar

    Ran, that is indeed much more troubling. That’s not the flexible parliamentarism that Juan Linz extolled, I don’t think.

    Don, I agree that the poll reflects mostly the confusion that comes with the embarrassment of riches that is three executives (each with disparate amounts of formal and informal power). The citizens can’t be blamed for any of this, if blame is even due.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *