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Prabjot Singh Wirring is seen outside the Edmonton Law Courts on June 24, 2022. He filed a legal challenge against the provincial government and the Law Society of Alberta because swearing an oath to the Queen goes against his Sikh beliefs.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

The Alberta government is facing growing pressure to change a requirement that prospective lawyers swear an oath to the King, amid two lawsuits claiming the rule breaches religious and spiritual rights. One plaintiff has now been called to the bar in neighbouring Saskatchewan, where the oath is not compulsory.

Only Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador have similar mandatory oaths. However, the law society in PEI is reviewing the province’s legislation and could recommend changes to the government there. Every other province and territory allows people with religious or conscientious objections to provide an alternative oath to practise law.

Last June, Prabjot Singh Wirring brought the first case against the Alberta government. He argues the oath requirement compromises his beliefs as an Amritdhari (initiated) Sikh. Mr. Wirring says in the lawsuit that he cannot swear true loyalty to King Charles because he has already made an absolute oath to a divine being in his religion.

Aspiring lawyers Anita Cardinal, Rachel Snow and Janice Makokis filed another lawsuit last September. The woman, who each represent one of the three treaties in the province, allege the oath requirement breaches their treaty rights and the Charter protections for freedom of conscience and religion.

The Alberta government is defending the requirement in court, arguing the oath is symbolic and does not violate the Charter.

The lawsuits were filed as Canadians, in larger parts, question the country’s ties to the British monarchy. A Leger poll, released last year, concluded most people did not agree with swearing an oath to the Queen. In Quebec, the legislature passed a law in December, abolishing the requirement for elected members to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch.

Last week, Mr. Wirring was admitted to practise law in Saskatchewan, four months after being eligible in his home province. He said it was time to make alternative arrangements as he waits for a decision on his case, which was heard in November. With his wife, spiritual community and extended family in Edmonton, he said it’s a tough decision on how to move forward, as he contemplates long-distance work or uprooting his family.

Kiran Mand with the Law Society of Saskatchewan wrote, in a letter to Mr. Wirring, that an oath to the King does not impact competency and that he possesses the qualifications necessary to practise in Saskatchewan, and was therefore granted an exemption from completing articling in the province, as he had already done so in Alberta.

“To complete the Saskatchewan articling requirement would cause him significant hardship, as it would result in further financial strain and damage to his career prospects,” said the letter.

Lawyers representing the Alberta government contend the oath is not an oath to the King as a sovereign or entity but a symbolic commitment to the Constitution of Canada and democratic principles, according to the statement of defence in Mr. Wirring’s case. They allege the oath is secular and his religious objection is a “misunderstanding of the oath.”

Jason Maloney, a spokesman for Alberta’s Ministry of Justice, declined to comment on either case as they are before the courts. Premier Danielle Smith’s office deferred to the ministry’s statement. Both lawsuits were filed during former premier Jason Kenney’s tenure.

Mr. Wirring said it has been an alienating experience having to “justify his existence” in court. He said the oath is another form of violence against racialized communities and suppresses the creation of a more equitable and diverse legal profession.

“It’s a symptom of a deep-rooted problem,” he said. “Even for those people who feel like they have no choice but to go through with the oath, each time that happens the province is communicating to them that they do not belong.”

Orlagh O’Kelly, an Edmonton-based lawyer representing the three Indigenous woman in their lawsuit, said the government’s own assertion that the oath is symbolic is an argument for making it optional. In that lawsuit, government lawyers have requested additional information about the underlying facts of the claim, including details about how the oath would violate Ms. Cardinal’s duty to her nation, traditional beliefs and Indigenous laws.

Ms. Cardinal said in an interview that it’s inappropriate for the government to require the oath because colonization stripped away Indigenous culture and practices through indoctrination into Christianity and assimilation through the residential school system. She is now trying to reclaim what was stolen from her community.

“We’re asking for an alternative oath, or to make it option, something that really shows there is a willingness to move forward on reconciliation. My duty is to my laws, to my nation,” said Ms. Cardinal, who is a member of the Woodland Cree First Nation.

The government has yet to file a statement of defence in that case, said Ms. O’Kelly.

Ms. Snow, a member of the Indian Act Wesley First Nation, said the oath requirement is a feature of a larger problem, in that it upholds a colonial legal system that has caused generational harms to Indigenous peoples.

“It’s antithetical to who we are as First Nations,” she said in an interview. “Our Indigenous laws predate Canadian laws, so we’re to uphold those laws first and foremost. Our laws or legal traditions are grounded in ceremony and songs and in the land.”

The Law Society of Alberta, which is a self-governing body that sets standards for lawyers, is named as a defendant in both lawsuits but has taken no position on the claims. However, the society has publicly stated it is supportive of changing provincial legislation to make the oath optional.

Other legal organizations, including the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, University of Alberta Law Students’ Association and Alberta Prison Justice Society, have voiced solidarity with the plaintiffs and called on Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to take action. So, too, has the National Indigenous Law Students’ Association and law professors at the University of Calgary and University of Edmonton.

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