Skip to main content

Lisa Helps, a former councillor who won last month’s municipal campaign by 89 votes, has a bio not unlike other West Coast mayors – like Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson, she travels by bicycle and is passionate about affordable housing.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The city of Victoria is steeped in royal tradition. British Columbia's capital is named for the former Queen, of whom a statue sits outside the legislature. Double-decker tour buses roam the streets. High tea at the Empress Hotel remains a steady draw.

Which is why you could have heard a monocle drop when the city's new mayor last week declined to swear an oath to the Queen during her inauguration – a stand that monarchists insist could have swung the election if they'd known of it.

Lisa Helps, a former councillor who won last month's municipal campaign by 89 votes, has a bio not unlike other West Coast mayors – like Vancouver's Gregor Robertson, she travels by bicycle and is passionate about affordable housing. Ms. Helps also keeps backyard chickens and dug out her front lawn so she could grow her own food.

Ms. Helps, during a phone interview, says e-mails about the oath are still trickling in. She apologizes for any offence she may have caused.

Her explanation has shifted in the days after the inauguration. She initially told reporters the oath was outdated, then suggested she opted not to say it out of respect for area First Nations.

Monday, Ms. Helps said she felt the only oath she needed to swear was about serving with integrity.

"I have a master's degree in Canadian history. I'm very well aware of the history of our country, I'm very well aware of the ties to Britain, I don't reject any of that," she said. "For me, none of that was the point. For me, the point was to simply focus on my oath of office."

Ms. Helps, 38, said she did not expect her decision to generate such attention – she's fielded interview requests from across the country and mentions that she just received an e-mail from a person in New York.

When asked if she regretted her decision, Ms. Helps said no and noted she was not the only elected official to opt out. Three of eight councillors joined her.

"I thought that we'd just do away with the oath altogether, but then some councillors said, 'I would like to swear the oath.' So we found a compromise position, where people who wanted to could, and people who didn't didn't," Ms. Helps said.

Ben Isitt, one of the councillors who declined to take the oath, wrote in a blog post that British imperialism has caused tremendous suffering for indigenous people on Vancouver Island and around the world, and that its impacts are still holding some communities back.

Ms. Helps has noted that other cities do not require elected officials to swear an oath to the Queen. Saturday, she asked Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi via Twitter if he and his council had sworn such an allegiance. Mr. Nenshi said no, though he added that their oath did have a reference to God.

Bruce Hallsor, a lawyer and co-chair of the Monarchist League's Victoria branch, called the mayor's decision "disappointing" and said it came as a total surprise.

"There'd been no discussion, no warning that she'd be taking this position. That disappointed a lot of our members. A lot of people I've talked to voted for her and would have really [questioned] that if they'd known she was going to do this," he said in an interview.

Mr. Hallsor said the mayor's explanations since the vote have been muddled. However, he said he was encouraged by the fact she was apologizing.

He said he was not aware of any plans for protest, outside the correspondence that's already been sent.

"We're not going to march on the streets," he said.

Mr. Hallsor said Victoria, like many other cities, is proud of its history and "views the Crown as an integral part of who we are as Canadians."

Ms. Helps said some of the e-mails she's received have been rather rude, but many others have led to thoughtful exchanges in which both parties have learned something new.

When asked if it would have been easier to just say the oath to the Queen, she said yes, before quickly adding: "I don't think people want a mayor who's just going to do things because it's easier."

Ms. Helps served as a councillor for one term.