Swearwords without Borders

One rather remarkable feature of the debate about the constitutionality of the citizenship oath, and more specifically of its promise of “true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada,” is that those who believe that the oath is constitutional  insist that the oath really does not mean very much. Those who refuse to take the oath tend to do so because they believe that swearing allegiance to the Queen will impose on them a conscientious obligation not to hold or act on their republican convictions. According to the federal government, which defends the oath, and the judges who have accepted its position (most recently Justice Morgan in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 ONSC 5895), that is not so. Taking the oath does not engage a person to forswear republicanism; it most, it is a commitment to advancing republicanism by constitutional means ― by working to convince Canadians to enact the requisite constitutional amendments.

Interestingly, a similar dynamic seems to exist in the United States. As Josh Blackman explains, a would-be American citizen must swear the following oath (among others):

I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.

This would seem unambiguously to require a newly naturalized American to “renounce” any other citizenship that he or she might have. Yet as prof. Blackman notes, American law doesn’t prohibit dual citizenship, including for naturalized Americans. If you like your other citizenship, says uncle Sam, you can keep it ― and never mind the oath.

In this post discussing oaths of allegiance, I said that they “are like swearwords ― significant yet meaningless.” It is a common characteristic of foul language or invective that it is neither intended to be nor is taken literally ― and the oaths of allegiance are like that too. As I concluded then, they are “not something to be said in polite company.” 

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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