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What does the future hold for the Commonwealth under King Charles III?


King Charles III and Camilla, the queen consort, travel to Northern Ireland today. They're touring all four nations that make up the United Kingdom. They are not the only nations with a new head of state. Fourteen countries known as commonwealth realms still recognize the British monarch as their own. In all, in fact, some 56 independent countries claim membership in the commonwealth, which is largely a relic of the old British Empire. Although, not all of them have kept the British queen or king. Dr. David Webster is associate professor of human rights studies at Western University in London, Ontario, in Canada, where people would now say, God save the king. Dr. Webster, welcome.

DAVID WEBSTER: (Laughter) Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Why do some countries choose to keep the British crown as their own?

WEBSTER: (Laughter) Sentiment as much as anything, habit as much as anything. Not many people are saying God save the king. I haven't heard anyone say that at all. But there's still a sense that there's value in keeping the system that, for all its oddness, seems to stagger along and work just fine.

INSKEEP: Is there an upside, a concrete upside, that you can get your hands on as a Canadian to having Charles as head of state?

WEBSTER: I don't think it matters who's the head of state.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK.

WEBSTER: There is talk of perhaps moving towards a republic more in Australia than in Canada, but it's always talked about. The occupant of the head of state is distant enough that the office can therefore be depoliticized enough that government carries on as normal. And you've got a neutral referee if you ever need one.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. Are there still powers that the king or queen of England has in Canada, like to dissolve parliament, anything like that?

WEBSTER: Yes. The crown has those powers. But those powers are delegated to now the king's representative in Canada, who's known as the governor general. And that's a resident of Canada appointed on the advice of the Canadian government by the crown. Right now, it's Mary Simon. She's an Inuk woman from northern Quebec, so the first Indigenous governor general of Canada. And essentially, she has to sign all legislation and ratify it before it will take effect.

INSKEEP: Is this similar to the king's powers within the U.K. in that they still have some residual powers that they will probably keep so long as they never use them really?

WEBSTER: That's essentially it, yes, keeping these powers out of - (laughter) out of the hands of anyone unscrupulous.

INSKEEP: Oh. And so they're just there. They're a stabilizing force even if they never actually block legislation or do some of the various things they might, in theory, still do. Now, you just raised another fascinating point when you said that Canada has its first Indigenous governor general. Isn't the relationship with the British Empire especially complicated for Native peoples, not just in Canada, but in Australia and in many other nations we could name?

WEBSTER: It is indeed, yes. Treaties - unlike in the United States, the Canadian takeover of lands in the West was done by treaty with the Indigenous peoples of the area. Those treaties are signed between the Indigenous nations and the crown. Therefore, they're binding on Canada. But it creates a special relationship. So the Iroquois people talk about a covenant chain that needs to be polished by the queen or now king from time to time to keep it in a good state of being. So there is a special treaty relationship which binds both the crown itself and the Canadian government. So - and this is the same thing in New Zealand and other countries.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, has the crown been polishing that chain, making sure those relations are legitimate and beneficial for all involved?

WEBSTER: (Laughter) Well, it hasn't been, if we're quite honest. And so from time to time, you'll have Indigenous peoples go to London to petition. And the crown will consistently say it's the Canadian government that needs to deal with this. And this is an example of not using the powers that are there. Unfortunately, in this case, it's an example where ongoing human rights violations against Indigenous peoples are allowed to continue, in effect.

INSKEEP: Is there a serious debate at this moment - in the change in the name of the person wearing the crown, is there a serious debate in Canada about disposing of the king?

WEBSTER: I don't think so, although it's talked about. And there isn't the same affection for Charles as there was for Elizabeth. He may build that. But I think there's a sense that if the system works, you don't need to fix it. So it's not a serious debate, but it may be in the future.

INSKEEP: Dr. Webster, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

WEBSTER: Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: David Webster is associate professor of human rights studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.