The Law Society of Alberta is in support of a change to provincial legislation that would allow prospective lawyers to forgo swearing an oath to the Queen amid an ongoing lawsuit that claims the rule violates religious freedoms.
Executive director Elizabeth Osler posted a statement to the society’s website on Tuesday that said making the oath optional “would be consistent with the approach taken in several other Canadian jurisdictions and would remove inequitable barriers to the practice of law.” She said in a subsequent statement to The Globe and Mail that the society isn’t formally asking the government to make such a change.
The Government of Alberta and the law society, a self-governing body that sets standards for lawyers, are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed last month by Prabjot Singh Wirring, a prospective lawyer from Edmonton. Mr. Wirring argues the requirement violates his religious freedoms as an Amritdhari (initiated) Sikh because he has already made an absolute oath to Akal Purakh, one of the Sikh names for the divine being in his religious tradition.
The official oath under the Oaths of Office Act is: “I, (name), swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”
Mr. Wirring wishes to provide an alternative oath, or be exempt from the existing one, to be admitted to the bar and enrolled as a member of the Law Society – options that are already available in other provinces and territories in Canada. Mr. Wirring said in a statement it was heartening to see the society act on its commitment to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
“Confronting systemic discrimination requires honest introspection as well as bold advocacy to identify policies and practices that marginalize members of our communities,” he said, while issuing a call to action to the Alberta government to listen the society and swiftly remove “this unnecessary barrier.”
Justice Minister spokeswoman Katherine Thompson said in an e-mailed statement that it would be inappropriate to comment while the case is before the courts.
The government recently filed a statement of defence in the lawsuit, rejecting all of the plaintiff’s claims. The statement of defence argues that the oath is not an oath to the Queen as a sovereign or entity but a symbolic commitment to the Constitution of Canada and democratic principles.
“The plaintiff’s religious objection is based on a misunderstanding of the oath,” the document says.
While the government argues that Mr. Wirring’s Charter rights have not been infringed, the statement of defence also argues that even if they have, any infringement can be justified under Section 1 of the Charter. That section says rights can be limited by law so long as they are shown to be reasonable in a free and democratic society.
Alberta’s law society, in its statement of defence, said it “takes no position” with respect to claims made by the plaintiff.
Last week, 31 law professors from the University of Calgary and University of Edmonton signed an open letter addressed to Justice Minister Tyler Shandro in support of Mr. Wirring, in which they urged him to change the oath requirement. The group pointed to a 1988 legal challenge by Patricia Monture, who argued she should not have to swear an oath to the Queen because she belonged to a sovereign First Nation.
The case did not go to court. The Law Society of Ontario, unlike the Law Society of Alberta, made the oath optional as it had the power to do so. Ms. Monture, a member of the Mohawk Nation from the Six Nations Grand River Territory near Brantford, Ontario, was called to the bar in 1994. The lawyer, activist and academic died in 2010.
“Amending Alberta’s Legal Profession Act to make the oath of allegiance optional is a small, uncontroversial step that the Government of Alberta can take to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession and across the communities where lawyers serve,” said the letter. “We urge you to take this step.”
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