On Canada’s Oath of Allegiance
When does it become immoral to swear allegiance to something or someone? Is it wrong to swear allegiance if you don’t really mean it? What if it isn’t clear what you are swearing allegiance to? Is it up to you to investigate and understand what you are doing, or is the party asking for allegiance obligated to explain? What if you live in a monarchy? Is it better to swear allegiance to that monarch or are you only obligated to have allegiance to the nation that they reign over? What’s the difference?
In recent weeks, Canada has witnessed a rash of complaints about the fact that Canadians must swear allegiance to King Charles III if they wish to become a citizen or to take high office. Is it wrong to make such a demand?
Over the years there’s been a steady increase in the number of folks immigrating to Canada who complete the process only to find that they must swear allegiance to the Crown. Prospective citizens must profess “true allegiance” and “be faithful” to the monarch of Canada, their heirs, and successors. Similarly, when politicians are elected to provincial legislatures or to Canada’s national parliament, they must similarly swear that they will be faithful and bear “true allegiance” to the Canadian monarch. With the death of Queen Elizabeth, that oath now refers to King Charles III, and it has become a topic of controversy amongst Quebec politicians, many of whom now say that they refuse to make such an oath, despite the process being constitutionally mandated.
While there were grumblings about the oath following the Queen’s death, the debate has become more prominent following an election in Quebec. The separatists Party Quebecois lost seats, but when members were to be sworn in, their leader announced that he didn’t want to take the oath of office. The Speaker of the National Assembly has now ruled that members who do not take the oath cannot sit in the assembly. The PQ had hoped that a simple motion would be sufficient for a change in the oath, however, section 128 of the Constitution Act of Canada requires that every member of a provincial assembly swear an oath to the monarch before they shall take their seats. Any change will thus require a constitutional amendment.
The PQ Leader has argued that he should be able to take an oath to the Quebec people, but that it is “embarrassing and humiliating” to swear allegiance to the Crown. He argued that “It is a conflict of interest that your first act, your first meaningful gesture is to take an oath toward the population that elected you and simultaneously take an oath to the Crown of a foreign country?” In 2015, when Israeli math professor Dror Bar-Natan applied to become a Canadian citizen, he challenged the required oath of allegiance in court, arguing that the monarchy is a symbol of inequality and that the oath was “repulsive” and that he felt “somewhat humiliated” having to take the oath. After taking the oath, he publicly disavowed it and pledged his “true” loyalty to the people of Canada. The issue caught federal attention this week when the Bloc Quebecois tabled a motion calling on Canada to abandon the monarchy which it labeled “racist” and “colonialist.” When the motion failed to pass Canada’s House of Commons, the BQ Leader said it demonstrated that federal politicians “prefer to support the King rather than the people.”
Of course, the obvious question is why Canadians swear an oath to the Crown in the first place. Canadian media covering this story consistently fails to explain why this is a requirement to begin with. English media will frequently muse about how the monarchy is symbolic anyways, “antiquated but harmless,” and not worth getting upset about. Unfortunately, this all misses a larger point. The Canadian monarchy is modeled after the British monarchy and thus the monarch has a dual role. They both exist as a person, but they are also considered to be the living personification of the state. In other words, King Charles is Canada, and so by swearing an oath to King Charles, you are swearing an oath to the Canadian state.
Why does this tradition exist? According to Canadian constitutional expert Eugene Forsey, in the Canadian monarchical system the Crown is “the symbolic embodiment of the people—not a particular group or interest or party, but the people, the whole people.” His daughter Helen adds, “the essence of the monarchy was its impartial representation of the common interests of the citizenry…the Crown [is] a permanent and impartial entity in our democratic system, transcending the temporary and the partisan.” Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris described the oath as “fundamental to the administration of the law in this country. It signifies that, here in Canada, justice is done—not in the same of the Prime Minister, or the Mayor, or the Police Chief…but by the people, in the name of the Queen.”
The intuition behind this is not dissimilar to the reason Americans must swear an oath to the constitution rather than merely to the country. Canada’s constitution is both written and unwritten, yet both oaths represent commitments not only to a nation or a people in a temporal sense, but to the rule of law and an established constitutional order that rises above disagreements about day-to-day politics. Just as, for example, the impeachment fulfills an important constitutional check on abusive elected power, the Crown acts as a constitutional check on an elected Prime Minister who no longer has the support of Parliament. These are safeguards built to protect democracy beyond a check beyond the political arguments themselves.
This brings us back to the debate about whether citizens or politicians should have to swear an oath to a “foreign King.” In fact, bizarrely, the PQ have pointed out that courts have said that it is not an oath to the monarch themselves but to the Canadian state. It is obviously not merely a personal oath, nor merely a symbolic one, to Charles that is at stake. If the oath to the monarch is an oath to the state – and the state’s legally determined means of recognizing an oath of allegiance to it is through the monarch – then what does an insincere gesture mean?
There is a big difference between accepting the established constitutional order and working within it to change it and not accepting the established constitutional order, you cannot have it both ways. The courts have said that citizens who have taken the oath have the right to espouse anti-monarchist views and to publicly disavow the message, but nevertheless confusion over the nature of constitutional system risks sending mixed messages.
Perhaps former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry had the most mature way of handling the situation. During his swearing-in he added “for the duration of the present constitutional order, which will hopefully change one day in a democratic fashion.” Politicians should not be able to pledge allegiance only to those parts of the country they like. Publicly proclaiming that you don’t take the oath to the state seriously – or that you don’t understand what the oath means – demonstrates a lack of commitment to the democratic order. You may wish to change the particular details, but loyalty to the system, the state, the people, isn’t something you can take or leave.