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British royalty visit tests Canada's national identity

Decades have passed since Canadians  replaced "God Save the Queen" with "O Canada," but the royalty-lovers among them are in for a thrill when Britain's newest royal couple visits.
Chief Frank Pelletier is shown in 1973 with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in Thunder Bay, Ontario
Chief Frank Pelletier is shown in 1973 with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in Thunder Bay, OntarioAP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Decades have passed since Canadians abandoned the Union Jack and replaced "God Save the Queen" with "O Canada," but the royalty-lovers among them are in for a thrill when Britain's newest royal couple come visiting on Thursday.

Meanwhile, those who leaf through the government's updated guide to good citizenship will notice that the oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II has been moved from the back of the pamphlet to the front.

Royalty seems to be making a comeback of sorts in Canada.

Part of it is simply the afterglow of the sumptuous wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton two months ago. But something deeper is afoot than mere stargazing: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the most pro-monarchy Canadian leader since the 1950s, and his ambition is to foster a national identity that is more conservative and more aware of its historical roots. He has just come out of a general election greatly strengthened, and now he gets to bask in the aura of William and Kate on their first official overseas trip as a married couple.

"He thinks that emphasizing Canada's monarchical traditions is key to refashioning Canadians' self-image," said Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto.

Bringing the crowds out
Ordinarily, most Canadians are indifferent to the monarchy, even though 85-year-old Queen Elizabeth II is their titular head of state, is portrayed on their coins and stamps, and has visited them 22 times as head of state. But a royal visit usually brings out the crowds, and Heritage Minister James Moore reckons this one will be the most-watched in Canada's history.

The monarchy is "part of our fabric, part of our future and it's one of the central institutions to our identity as Canadians," Moore told The Associated Press.

Many in the French-speaking province of Quebec disagree, and small groups have taken to the streets on past royal visits to show their displeasure. The visiting couple will be in Quebec City, where a militant French separatist group has vowed to demonstrate, and may face similar protests in Montreal.

The group's spokesman, college student Julien Gaudreau, said "The monarchist symbol is a right-wing symbol ... It's not really democratic, it's not representative of the population."

Overall, the antiroyal movement in Canada is minuscule, meaning that William, now 29, will almost certainly be king of Canada one day. One reason is that abolishing the monarchy would mean changing the constitution. That's an inherently risky undertaking, given how delicately it is engineered to unite a nation of 34 million that embraces English-speakers, French-speakers, indigenous tribes and a constant flow of new immigrants.

The royal itinerary
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as they are formally known, will encounter many of those faces of Canada during their nine days of travel, from the sub-Arctic to oil-rich Calgary, Alberta, from busy Montreal to bucolic Prince Edward Island of "Anne of Green Gables" fame. They'll sit around a campfire with young people, dress casual for the Calgary rodeo, join a cookout in Quebec City, and hand out flags to newly minted Canadians at a citizenship ceremony.

Harper, five years in office, will meanwhile be pushing ahead with his long-term goal of shifting the country's ideological bearings from center-left to center-right — a project that lays greater stress on such symbols as the monarchy, the military, hockey and the Arctic.

When the updated guide for new immigrants was published in 2009, it was widely noted that the monarchy and armed forces overshadowed social programs such as universal health care, the pride of the left-of-center Liberal era typified by the late Pierre Trudeau.

Harper "harkens back to a 1950s conservative vision of Canada — none of the Trudeau-welfare state stuff," said Lawrence Martin, a political columnist for The Globe and Mail newspaper and author of "Harperland: The Politics of Control."

"That's the type of identity that he's trying to forge here, which is a fair distance from the Liberal way. He likes to use the monarchy as a tool of that because it fits his vision of the country, distinct from the Liberal vision."

Royalty a 'conservative symbol'
Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at a conservative think tank, said Harper previously wasn't a staunch monarchist, but that he values it as a conservative symbol.

"It plays into a larger strategy of creating this conservative ethos for Canada. But we're never going to go back to 'God Save the Queen,' the Union Jack or those kind of things," Nicholls told the AP.

Nicholls said the Liberals were often seen as "openly hostile to the monarchy, in what people would see as a rejection of our past and our traditions."

John Manley, a former foreign minister and deputy Liberal prime minister, is the most prominent Canadian to have suggested, while in office, that the tie be severed. But he as well as the opinion polls acknowledge it's not a hot-button issue.

A poll of about 1,000 Canadians taken by Harris/Decima a year ago, just before the queen's last visit, showed 55 percent were aware she was coming. Fifty-two percent of those who were aware of the visit felt the monarchy is an important part of Canadian history, while 44 percent saw it as part of the colonial past. Margin of error was given as 3.1 percent.

In an interview, Manley said Canadians care much more about who wins hockey's Stanley Cup. "I suspect that another country, perhaps Australia, is going to deal with this first. Then perhaps Canadians might consider it."

Josh Upton, 21, of the Calgary branch of The Monarchist League of Canada, expects the William-and-Kate visit to strengthen Canada's ties with its sovereign.

"It's the new fresh face on the monarchy," he said. "People are going to be more excited about it because they see the future of the monarchy in Canada in the duke and duchess."

But Ameya Pendse, born in the U.S. to Indian parents and now a Canadian citizen, belongs to Citizens for a Canadian Republic, an anti-monarchy group.

"I've talked to many young kids and they say the queen shouldn't have any role in our society whatsoever," said Pendse, 18. "We're paying millions of dollars for their stays in Canada and it's really disturbing. It's like paying for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to come visit us here because they are nothing but celebrities."

The trip will cost the Canadian government about $1.5 million, Moore, the heritage minister, estimated.

Selena Ross in Montreal contributed to this story.