It can be safely said that John Fraser is a member of the Canadian Establishment. The Master of Massey College, former editor of the now defunct Saturday Night magazine and friend of many of the great and good of modern Canada. In his wilder days he helped Mikhail Baryshnikov defect and was involved in the short-lived Beijing Spring. A sensible chap, as the other chaps might say, with an interesting CV.
Unfortunately for Mr Fraser he has done something very rash indeed. He has published a book about the monarchy in Canada. This is an act of madness. Few people read books, too much work, fewer people can afford books, too much debt, and even fewer seem to have an interest in reading about anything as stuffy as the monarchy. Nor has Mr Fraser been very savvy about this book. Yes there is a very fine picture of Kate and Wills right on the cover. Little of this slender book is spent on the royal couple. There is more in this book about Wills' father, Prince Charles, than about the happy glowing couple.
So a slender book about the unfashionable part of an unfashionable institution. Bad enough. Then Mr Fraser really does it: This is a pro-monarchy book about the monarchy in Canada. At this point the good and great of our ex-dominion leave the table with their port, muttering to themselves that old Fraser has gone balmy. There are many things that people can get away with at Toronto parties these days, things which even a generation ago would have shocked and appalled. In modern Canada anything goes, that is unless you are monarchist.
Whatever else might be said of this book, its publication is something of a landmark and its author is a brave man. To have spent a lifetime among our semi-republicanized elite, the self-hating WASPs who rule us, and have emerged both sane and a monarchist is no mean feat. He is to be congratulated and even admired. Did we mention that Mr Fraser is also a church going Anglican? A Sunday School teacher no less? Like I said, a brave man.
The book itself is hardly a treatise on monarchy. It does not draw upon the vast legal, constitutional and cultural legacy of the Crown in Canada, a work that could easily run to the length of an encyclopedia. This is also not a history of the monarchy in Canada, or a biography of any particular royal or of the royal family as a whole. It is not an in-depth account of the workings of Rideau Hall. This is not a scholarly work meant to send shivers down the spines of republicans.
Instead what Mr Fraser has presented us with is a rather idiosyncratic work. There are long digressions, including one about a refugee Chinese agronomist who gets into a bicycle accident in Toronto, that seem to bear only tangentially on the overall theme. The book is packed with numerous anecdotes about the monarchy, about Canada and about John Fraser's interactions with both.
This is not to say that these anecdotes and digressions are not charming or memorable, they certainly are, including a priceless one of Prince Phillip handling journalists which Fraser himself witnessed. Yet those seeking a tightly reasoned defence of the Crown in this country will be disappointed. The book simply does not congeal around a clear theme. Even the charm of these stories depends very much on the reader. If you are an anglophile monarchists, as I am, then this a very fine way to spend a warm Spring or Summer afternoon. If you are not, then this book is too long and too sentimental by half.
The Secret of the Crown is unlikely to persuade any republicans who might pick it up. If anything it might reinforce that nagging suspicion among monarchists in Canada that the monarchy is something you either get or not. It either makes perfect sense or looks to be a pile of antiquated nonsense. That it fails to convince, however, does not mean it fails to inspire.
The book is filled with clever insights and poignant phrases, it is something closer to a rallying cry than an apologia. Those looking for a label might use "Monarchist Pride." Should such a term be acceptable. Pride is the very thing monarchists avoid, it being a sin and all. Defenders of the Crown in Canada may not all be aging WASPs and old boys from UCC, though Fraser had the honour of being expelled at about the same time as his friend Conrad Black, but they do have certain common characteristics.
The Canadian monarchist is a circumspect individual, reticent until well aged spirits are served. A monarchists' pride parade would be a contradiction in terms. Blocking a whole street for several hours would be disrespectful to others. A protest carrying signs might attract undue attention. Talking too often or too loudly might get one struck off as a fanatic. Reading this book one imagines John Fraser to be a rather typical monarchist in these respects. He even sort of apologies in the book for not having been forceful enough in defending the monarchy.
In probably the best line of the book Fraser notes: "Our enemy was not hatred, but indifference buttressed by spurts of mockery." Been there, done that and gotten the contemptuous looks to prove it. In the eyes of many in modern Canada defending the monarchy is akin to arguing for a flat earth. So very different from the "tribal monarchy" of yesteryear, which Fraser very well describes in the early part of this book. From unquestioned assumption to aging anarchism in less than a human life time.
The indifference has one basic source, the decision by Canada's elite from Lester Pearson onward to junk the monarchy. Being insidious chaps they understood that a frontal assault on the Crown in the 1960s would have been politically suicidal. Fraser recounts the well known story, at least in monarchist circles, of CBC personality Joyce Davidson saying in 1959 that she was indifferent to an upcoming royal visit. The wrath of the general public was deafening toward the young woman, who eventually moved to the United States. A decade latter it's unlikely that Davis' off hand remark would have arched even a Tory's eyebrow.
With the end of the Age of Deference, which Fraser dates to between 1960 to 1965, came the Age of Prurient Contempt. We know it better now as the Age of Murdoch, in dishonour of the republican media baron. Canada has no Rupert Murdoch. We did however have Lester Pearson, a genial and well intention man who kicked off the quasi-republicanization of our constitution. It was Pearson who advised Her Majesty, in the wake of Truncheon Saturday, that the monarchy's days in Canada were numbered.
The Queen has outlived Mike Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and may yet outlive Paul Hellyer. She has certainly outlasted that misguided attempt to remove the "royal" from our air force and navy. They are royal again. This is the power of persistence. Keep doing the right thing, the proper thing and you will out last the fashionable nonsense of the age. A century from now very few will remember Rupert Murdoch. Those that do will recall how he tried and failed to destroy the monarchy. The Queen, simply by being the Queen, by embodying values the rest of the world has abandoned, has bested the Murdochs of the world.
The great political value of the Crown is that it stands aloof from partisan politics. The great cultural value is that it stands above the tyranny of the moment. It is what it is. A resplendent example in a fallen age. John Fraser reminds us of that, pushed along with scores of charming anecdotes about the Queen Mother, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and Her Majesty. For this he should be thanked. Modern Canada needs all the dignity and charm it can get.
By John Fraser
House of Anansi Press