Empty Promise

I wrote yesterday about the challenge now being considered by the Superior Court of Ontario to the constitutionality of the wording of the oath of allegiance that would-be Canadian citizens must swear or affirm. The oath requires one to promise loyalty and fidelity to the Queen, her heirs, and successors. As I explained, the Federal Court of Appeal rejected a similar challenge almost 20 years ago, in Roach v. Canada (Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Citizenship), [1994] 2 F.C. 406 . But Charter jurisprudence has developed a good deal since then. Enough to make the new challenge succeed? Maybe not, but I tend to think it should.

The claimants argue that requiring them to pledge faithful allegiance to Queen as a condition for granting them their Canadian citizenship is a violation of their fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion, opinion and expression, assembly, and association, protected rights under the various subsections of s. 2 of the Charter, and of their equality rights under s. 15. Some of these claims strike me as implausible. This is especially the case of the argument based on freedom of assembly ― I have a hard time seeing how it might be implicated, especially in any way distinct from freedom of speech and association. The claim based on the freedom of association, in turn, also seems largely derivative of the one based on freedom of opinion and expression.

The equality claim, at first glance, might seem more serious. People born into Canadian citizenship are not required to swear the oath of allegiance as people who seek naturalization are. This might be treated as a distinction on the ground of citizenship, which the Supreme Court has long held was “analogous” to those specifically mentioned in s. 15 and thus an impermissible ground of discrimination. In his dissent in Roach, Justice Linden suggested that the oath requirement might amount to discrimination between anti-monarchists who want to become citizens and those who already are and thus need not swear allegiance to the Queen. But keep in mind that the claimants are not saying that requiring them to take the oath is in itself discriminatory. On the contrary, they emphasize the fact that they are prepared to take an oath to respect Canadian laws ― just not an oath to be faithful to the Queen. Their objection is thus not really to a distinction between citizens and non-citizens, but to the content of oath. This is not a claim about equality.

The essence of the claim is, in my view, somewhere at the intersection of the freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. The claimants say that they are made to say something that they do not believe and that will bind them in conscience not to express or act on their beliefs in the future. I think that it is at least arguable that this is a breach of subs. 2(b) (expression) and 2(a) (conscience) of the Charter.

A case that comes to mind on this point is Slaight Communications Inc. v. Davidson, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1038, in which an arbitrator ordered the appellant to provide the respondent a reference letter the terms of which were specified by the arbitrator. The Court agreed that this order breached the appellant’s freedom of expression. Over a vigorous (and in my view compelling) dissent by Justice Beetz, the majority of the Court said that the breach was justified under s. 1 of the Charter, but one important point in its reasoning was that the compelled statements were limited to largely uncontested facts ― the appellant was not made to state an opinion. Of course the context of this case (a labour arbitration) is quite different from that of the citizenship oath, but I think it is relevant nonetheless.

There are also two serious arguments against the applicability of subs. 2(b) and 2(a) here.

One is that the applicants aren’t actually compelled to take the oath. They do not have to become citizens. If they do not want to take the oath, they can simply go on living in Canada as permanent residents, as the late Mr. Roach did until his death. Indeed, it might be said that citizenship is not a right but a privilege, so one cannot complain about the terms on which it is granted. The latter argument would be mistaken though. Surely it would be unconstitutional for Parliament to bar people from being naturalized on the basis of, say, their race or national origin. Why then could it do so on the basis of their political opinions? But it remains the case that coercion is not so clear in this situation as it was, for instance, in Slaight. Yet I’m not sure that that should matter. The Citizenship Act speaks of a “right to citizenship”, and provides that “[t]he Minister shall [emphasis mine] grant citizenship to any person who” meets the statutory conditions. The taking of the oath is a requirement that a person who is already entitled to citizenship must fulfill. In the United States, if I understand correctly, there is a doctrine of “unconstitutional conditions” that prevents legislatures from restricting people’s rights as a condition to obtaining something to which a statute otherwise entitles them. The Supreme Court of Canada, so far as I remember, has never considered such a doctrine, but it is at least arguable that it should be part of our law too.

The other argument against the claimants is that, as the majority of the Federal Court held in Roach, they simply misconstrue the oath and its import, and that, understood correctly, it is nothing more than an expression of loyalty to the existing constitutional order, which would not prevent the claimants from continuing to work for a constitutional change that would transform Canada into a republic. I think this argument has great force. The Queen and the Windsor dynasty are only symbols for the government and the constitution. It is in this capacity, for example, that the Queen is named as a party to every criminal case. She does not personally rule, so there is no way in which a Canadian citizen might be meaningfully said to be loyal or disloyal to her, rather than to the government or the Constitution. One might also add that the claimants accept to swear an oath to respect Canadian laws ― yet chances are that they find at least a few of those unjust. That doesn’t prevent them from swearing the oath and then working to have those laws changed. Why is monarchy different?

The problem with this argument is that, reasonable though this interpretation of the oath might be, it is not that of the claimants. And, in matters of religion, the Supreme Court has held (rightly in my view) that it is not some officially correct or objective view of religious duty that courts must apply ― it is the claimant’s own view of his or her duties, provided that it is sincerely held. If this rule is extended to matters of (non-religious) conscience, then we must accept the claimants’ position, which is surely sincere even if unreasonable, that the oath would bind them in conscience to stop their anti-monarchist activities, and thus is a breach of their freedom of opinion and expression.

Thus I am actually inclined to think that the oath requirement should be found a breach of subs. 2(a) and/or 2(b) of the Charter, though I suspect that courts might be loth to reach this conclusion. Of course, even if they do, there still remains the possibility of a justification under s. 1 of the Charter, that would “save” the infringement of the claimants’ rights and make it constitutional. Indeed, in most cases under subs. 2(a) and 2(b), that’s where “the action” really is.

But this case is different, I believe. Monarchist though I am, I fail to see any good arguments that the government might invoke to justify the current wording of the citizenship oath. To begin with, it’s not even clear whether the oath serves any “pressing and substantial” objective, the first prong of the s. 1 test. Whatever purpose the oath serves is evidently not so pressing as to make it mandatory for the vast majority of Canadians who are simply born into their citizenship. Even if the oath has some kind of symbolic purpose such as expressing the importance of citizenship, it is not clear how the reference to the Queen specifically is connected to that purpose. As a matter of both law and practical reality, we are citizens of Canada, not subjects of Her Majesty (as was the case before the introduction of the Canadian citizenship distinct from the status of British subject in 1947). Finally, the current oath is not surely not minimally impairing (assuming, of course, that it is at all impairing) of the claimants’ rights, since even Australia, a fellow Commonwealth realm of which the Queen is the head of state ― does not require an oath of loyalty to the Queen.

Enough. As I suggested above, I wouldn’t bet on the citizenship oath being found unconstitutional, but I think that it is a close and difficult question. On balance, I believe that the claimants should prevail. The oath either means too little or requires too much. Either way, it is an empty promise.

3 thoughts on “Empty Promise

  1. Pingback: Ask Not | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: The Crown and the Oath | Double Aspect

  3. Pingback: A British citizen - but only if I swear "true allegiance" to the Queen

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