Does monarchy policy signal Harper's cultural agenda?
Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen arrive at a garden party at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Wednesday June 30, 2010. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Sunday, January 1, 2012 1:37PM EST
TORONTO - Depending who you ask, the Conservative government's high-profile attempts to strengthen Canada's ties to the monarchy over the past year are either a savvy attempt to lure votes or a finger in the eye of Quebec.
Whatever the pundits may think, however, they agree on one thing -- the strategy is rooted more in a vision for the country's future than deference for its past.
Political observers of all stripes believe the revival of interest in Canada's colonial history is part of a broader Conservative effort to rekindle patriotism and reshape Canada's culture more in the government's own image.
Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper who now teaches at the University of Calgary, said that vision took root many years ago -- and originated at the top.
"Stephen once said to me that a conservative party in any country ought to be party of patriotism," Flanagan said in an email.
"He is now creating a conservative version of Canadian patriotism."
Harper's brand of national pride relies heavily on elements common to many right-wing political movements, including unwavering support for the military and a push to lay claim to the country's far-flung northern regions, Flanagan said.
But strong affiliation with the monarchy is another key building block of that vision, one that received considerable attention over the past 12 months.
Ottawa greeted news of Prince William's engagement with enthusiasm, issuing a silver and crystal commemorative coin in honour of the event. Harper himself was slated to attend the nuptials and was prevented only by a federal election.
When the Duke of Cambridge and his new bride Kate made their inaugural visit to Canada as a married couple, the government spared no effort in promoting their visit. Officials even whisked the newlyweds to Harper's personal retreat at Harrington Lake, Que., for a reprieve from the unrelenting public spotlight.
The most controversial move, however, came in August when the government rechristened Canada's military institutions to reflect their royal heritage.
The land and maritime divisions of the armed forces both had the word "royal" added back into their title, resurrecting the nomenclature last used in the 1960's.
Opponents decried the move as a needless expense -- the government has resisted releasing the cost of the switch -- and a retrograde step.
Carolyn Harris, a Queen's University PhD candidate specializing in the monarchy, said the move marked a surprising about-face for a government that initially took a more diffident approach to the royal family.
Harris said the government had deliberately refrained from inviting royal representatives to the anniversary of the founding of Quebec City in 2008, adding the move would have been politically damaging.
Harper was focused on wooing the Francophone vote at the time, and Harris said a royal presence would have been perceived as a slap in the face by the many Quebecers who regard the royals as a symbol of an oppressive colonial past.
That priority has clearly shifted now, she said, adding the Tories have done more than any other modern Canadian government to foster royal connections by promoting the monarchy's presence in the country, both on state and charitable visits.
"It's difficult to tell what approach the Conservative government may have going forward, but they certainly seem to be encouraging royal visits and royal involvement in Canadian institutions," she said.
The Department of Canadian Heritage declined requests for an interview, but a spokeswoman emphasized the Queen's role as Canada's head of state in an email.
"As an enduring institution, the Crown serves to safeguard Canadians' rights and freedoms," wrote spokeswoman Dominique Collin.
Bryan Evans, associate professor of politics at Ryerson University, said the Conservative government's growing emphasis on royal involvement is just one phase of a project to shift Canadian society in a new direction.
By emphasizing English symbols at the expense of French-Canadian history and making them the focus of the Canadian narrative, Evans said the government is trying to undercut the traditions of bilingualism and multiculturalism that flourished under generations of Liberal leadership.
"This is very much an ideological, cultural campaign," he said. "It's not so much about the monarchy in and of itself. It's about a reshaping of Canadian identity along more Conservative lines."
Flanagan dismissed the notion that Harper was trying to uproot the Liberal legacy, but acknowledged it will take a back seat to the Prime Minister's emerging narrative.
"Except for anti-Americanism, he has not repudiated the Liberal version of patriotism, but he is layering the Conservative elements on top," he said. "Get used to it."