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Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Jean Chretien smile at the beginning of an official dinner in St. John's Newfoundland in this file photo dated June 1997. Queen Elizabeth has appointed Jean Chretien to the exclusive Order of Merit. The honour is restricted to 24 living members and few foreigners.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

New citizens would be swearing an oath to Canada rather than to the Queen had former prime minister Jean Chrétien not gotten cold feet at the last minute, his former citizenship minister said.

As three permanent residents and the federal government argued the issue in court on Friday, Sergio Marchi said he had been poised to scrap the pledge of allegiance to the Queen two decades ago.

"I was very much of the belief that while we're a constitutional monarchy, we should be swearing an oath of allegiance to Canada," Mr. Marchi said in an interview from Geneva.

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"We were very close to doing this."

Under citizenship laws, would-be Canadians must pledge to be "faithful and bear true allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors."

Mr. Marchi, who served as citizenship and immigration minister under Mr. Chrétien from 1993 to 1995, recalled watching people's eyes "glaze over" as they recited the oath, often pledging allegiance to her "hairs" instead of heirs.

More important, he said, changing to a pledge of allegiance to Canada – Australia had taken similar measures – would be a forward step in the country's growth begun a decade previously with the patriation of the constitution.

Mr. Marchi took his views to the then-prime minister.

"I believe fundamentally this oath is outdated, but more than that, the amending of the oath would be another step towards Canada's full maturity and independence," Mr. Marchi said he told Mr. Chrétien.

"He seemed to like it and buy it."

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With Mr. Chrétien's blessing, Mr. Marchi said he assembled a group of writers and poets in Vancouver who produced oaths to Canada he described as beautiful, simple, powerful and modern.

Mr. Marchi said he prepared a document for a cabinet committee reflecting the changes and believed the oath to Her Majesty would soon become a relic of Canadian history.

Until the phone rang.

"Do you think the timing is good?" Mr. Marchi said Mr. Chrétien was asking.

Faced with the looming Quebec referendum that had thrown separatists and federalists into a pitched battle that threatened to tear the country apart, Mr. Chrétien was having second thoughts.

"I'm not sure I want to take on the separatists and the monarchists at the same time," Mr. Marchi said Mr. Chrétien told him.

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In response, Mr. Marchi said having a Canadian oath would benefit federalist forces in Quebec, even if many Canadians didn't like the idea.

Besides, he said, polls showed most Canadians favoured the change.

Still, the Liberal PM asked his minister to "park" the measure and Mr. Marchi did, knowing it might never resurface.

"He's the boss, so we deferred, and we never returned to it."

Mr. Chrétien could not be immediately reached for comment.

In Ontario Superior Court on Friday, three permanent residents argued the pledge to the Queen is discriminatory and violates their constitutional rights.

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They oppose the oath on religious or conscientious grounds, saying they would be happy to pledge allegiance to Canada.

The government argues the oath has been around since Confederation and is an important symbol of the country's heritage.

At one point, Justice Edward Morgan called the oath merely a symbol, and said taking it wouldn't stop people from dissenting after they become citizens.

"If you swear an oath to the monarch, it doesn't stop you from speaking against the monarch in the next moment," said Justice Morgan, who reserved his decision.

Conservative MP Peter Goldring was adamant the current oath should stay.

"I'm weary of a lot of these stories of people who come to a country seeking a fresh start [and] a fresh life and then not really wanting to subscribe into the type of society that the country is," Mr. Goldring said from Ottawa.

"If you don't agree with it, return."

Mr. Marchi said he still regrets the change was never made.

"History and traditions need to be respected, but futures also need to be built."

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