Having been lucky enough to have been born in Canada, and never having held higher office than vice-president of my condo board, I’ve never had to swear allegiance to the Queen.
After reading the Ontario Court of Appeal’s latest decision upholding the oath of citizenship for newcomers, though, I’m tempted to suggest all Canadians be required to recite this pledge, or at least to familiarize themselves with its meaning. Given the average Canadian’s knowledge of history, I suspect many would cite inertia or colonialism as the reason Elizabeth II still reigns over us.
Rather than being an affirmation of fealty to some foreign sovereign, however, the oath is a distinctly Canadian undertaking that reflects our unique history and form of government. Instead of stuffing words in a new citizen’s mouth, it encapsulates the constitutional genius that allowed us to evolve into one of the world’s most peaceable democracies, hence guaranteeing the very rights anti-monarchists claim are under siege.
This only sounds confusing if you have no knowledge of our history. Only then could you take the oath at face value and get hung up on its plain, or literal, meaning. We live in a democracy, so anyone can argue for amending the oath to remove the Queen or for abolishing the monarchy altogether. But unless you’re stuck in the 18th century, why would you want to? The monarchy, or rather what it symbolizes, is part of what makes us free.
“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian.”
Historical illiterates might read that and think it means obeying a tiny unelected octogenarian with a matching hat and purse. Some might not have a problem embracing the glamorous Kate and William and adorable Baby George (as heirs and successors). But requiring new citizens to pledge loyalty to the rather ruffled Charles and Camilla, too, is a bit much, no?
That literal interpretation of the oath is what led three prospective Canadians, last year, to appeal a lower court decision upholding the oath. They argued that the pledge offends the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights by perpetuating a class system. That it violates their Charter right to freedom of expression because it constitutes compelled speech. That it amounts to religious discrimination, since the British (and hence Canadian) monarch must be an Anglican. And that it impedes the ability of a new citizen to advocate for the abolition of the monarchy.
The appeal court rejected all of these arguments, even overturning the lower court’s finding that, although the oath violates free expression, it is a “reasonable limit” as allowed by the Constitution. As Justice Karen Weiler explained in Wednesday’s unanimous decision: “Rather than undermining freedom of expression, the oath amounts to an affirmation of the societal values and constitutional architecture of this country, which promote and protect expression.”
How can swearing allegiance to a little old lady on another continent mean that? Because, through the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774, Confederation and the Constitution Act, 1982, we progressively transformed the monarchy into a secular symbol of our democracy and respect for the rule of law. One can swear allegiance to the Queen (as a symbol) and argue for the abolition of the monarchy.
Why not just become a republic then? One reason is that it would be a betrayal of our history. A better argument, though, is that it would be foreign to our temperament as a multicultural society. We consider accommodation a virtue, and the oath (which was changed in the Quebec Act to accommodate French Catholics) is a manifestation of that.
Republics with partisan presidents, such as France and the United States, are fractious societies where political compromise is tantamount to capitulation. Even in republics with figurehead elected presidents, the head of state routinely gets dragged into politics. And most republican presidents live no less regally than monarchs. (See the Élysée Palace or the White House.)
“Constitutional monarchy is the best form of government that humanity has yet tried,” Dylan Matthews concluded in an empirical report, published last year in The Washington Post. “It has yielded rich, healthy nations whose regime transitions are almost always due to elections and whose heads of state are capable of being truly apolitical.”
I’ll swear to that.