The Quebec government promised last week to introduce a law that will make it optional for the elected members of the National Assembly to swear an oath of allegiance to King Charles III. It’s a tempête in a teapot, but a concerning one on two scores.
On the first, it could expand beyond the teapot of Quebec identity politics and develop into a constitutional dogfight.
Provincial legislators are required under the Constitution to swear that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to [insert name of reigning British monarch here]” before taking their seat and getting on with the work of adopting laws.
Making that optional in Quebec could require modifying the Constitution, a fraught exercise that needs the support of the House of Commons, the Senate and at least seven provinces with half the country’s population to succeed. A non-starter, in other words.
If Quebec tried to modify the Constitution unilaterally, that would no doubt lead to a showdown with the rest of Canada that Premier François Legault would relish. (Stay tuned.)
That leads to the second troubling aspect of this small-circumference squall: It’s based on a persistent misunderstanding of the reason members of Parliament, provincial legislators and new Canadians pledge an oath of allegiance to [insert name of reigning British monarch here].
The actual, modern meaning of the oath was laid out in a 2014 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the requirement of new citizens to swear, at that time, to “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 citizen.”
The case was brought by three permanent residents, among them a committed republican and a Rastafarian, who found it loathsome to swear allegiance to the Queen and the institutions she represented, including the Church of England.
That’s similar to the argument being brought by a rump of opposition MNAs in Quebec who have refused to take the oath after the province’s recent general election. They call the monarchy archaic and are offended by the notion that they have to pledge allegiance to the newly installed King of a country that is often portrayed in Quebec as a conquering force.
The Ontario court found that what is in fact archaic is the literal view that the oath taker is swearing fealty to a living person. While that may have been closer to the truth in the 18th and 19th centuries, the evolution of Canada into a modern constitutional monarchy has transformed the Crown into a symbol.
“The oath to the Queen of Canada is an oath to our form of government, as symbolized by the Queen as the apex of our Canadian parliamentary system of constitutional monarchy,” the court said in 2014.
In other words, the oath taker doesn’t swear allegiance to a toothy hereditary monarch sitting on a throne across the Atlantic Ocean, but to a system of democratic government that allows Canadians to advocate for the abolition of the monarchy, to form political parties dedicated to the breakup of the country, to hold referendums on the same subject, and to live free from persecution for their beliefs or for who they are.
By including it in the oath for new citizens, Canada is asking them to “abide by this country’s form of government, a democratic constitutional monarchy, unless and until it is changed,” the court said. The same can be said to go for provincial legislators.
We admit that it might be hard for some people to swear an oath to a living monarch who is much in the news, and accept that they are in fact pledging allegiance to an abstraction. The concept of a liberal democracy whose head of state is Charles III is not the most obvious of things on the surface.
But it shouldn’t be too much to ask of elected officials that they take a basic Canadian civics course and grasp the meaning of the words the Constitution requires them to speak.
The vast majority of Quebec’s newest crop of MNAs were adult enough to take the oath and get on with their jobs. Once the National Assembly returns later this month, they can debate and adopt laws, call for the abolition of the monarchy and even advocate for the end of the country, all thanks to the King of Canada.