Reviewed in this essay: John Fraser’s The Secret of the Crown (Anansi, 2012)
Whatever else one can say about John Fraser’s newest book, it is certainly an invaluable opportunity to learn about a certain form of Canadian monarchism that has, it seems, gained a new lease on life. Fraser argues that with the spectacular popularity of the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middelton last year, followed by a Canadian tour that left us downright swooning, the time is right for Canadians to renew their faith in the British monarchy. Fraser’s book is thus a valiant effort at convincing us that being part of the Crown places us in a “lucky continuum that gives definition and continuity to our beloved country.”
Fraser devotes five witty chapters to winning readers over to the monarchist cause, and his meanderingly serene approach is welcome. Not so much a critical history as a warm love letter, his book is stocked with human portraits of royal figures and their viceregal representatives; scathing critiques for journalists who hound the royals with such ferocity; and deeply personal memories from Fraser’s own life that illustrate the importance the monarchy has had for him.
Throughout it all, Fraser defends the royals from the charge that they are nothing but aristocrats living off unearned wealth. For Fraser, they are exemplars of dutiful service to a people who should be so lucky to have them. Building on such a view, Fraser’s book presents a straightforward narrative. First, there was an old, good Canada that, up until the 1950s, was quiescently deferential to the monarchy. Then came the 1960s, a period that looms as the political unconscious of Fraser’s thinking: a baffling time of social, cultural, and sexual radicalism that was “part and parcel not only of the decline in deference but also the decline in identification with the [royal] symbols that had once bound the country together.”
One does wish Fraser had spent more time delving into Canada’s postwar social history, which would have added rigour to his understanding of how the monarchy waned so much in national life. Fraser gestures to the impact of a whole range of historical changes—de-colonizing immigration to Canada, the new Canadian nationalism of Expo 67, the social radicalism of the Quiet Revolution—without ever really stopping to consider why they were so forceful in diminishing our connection to the crown. Engaging such issues could have forced Fraser to ask some important questions that remain with us today: How can a self-respecting nation have, as its head of state, an unelected foreigner? Is the idea that an unelected sovereign who is anointed by nothing less than God Himself to rule over us—even in ceremonial terms—not an affront to the notion of the individual sovereignty of every Canadian?
These were real questions that post-war Canadian nationalists had to reckon with. These questions certainly played a role in convincing Canadian leaders from Trudeau onwards to downplay Canada’s relationship to the monarchy, an institution that went against the sovereign populism of a post-imperial world. In providing insufficient answers to such questions, Fraser’s book will be unlikely to win over any Republican foes. Still, its downright metaphysical deference for its subject will be welcomed by those nostalgic for the grand old monarchical past. Whether the majority of Canadians in the twenty-first century share this nostalgia remains very much to be seen.