A Parade of Horribles

I wrote yesterday about the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, which upheld the constitutionality of the oath of allegiance to the Queen which would-be Canadian citizens are required to swear. As I said in that post, I believe that that the Court’s decision is profoundly wrong, as was that of the Superior Court (McAteer v. Attorney General of Canada, 2013 ONSC 5895). In my view, the Court of Appeal (and the Superior Court before it) was wrong to focus on the applicants’ mistaken interpretation of the oath of allegiance as a commitment to the person of the monarch rather the notion of a (constitutional) Crown. The fact that the applicants misunderstand the oath and they exaggerate the obligations that taking it would impose on them cannot end the inquiry into the oath’s constitutionality.

Before explaining why this is so, however, I want to highlight two problems with the Court’s discussion of the meaning of the oath. These problems might not be fatal. I take the point that, as for example Philippe Lagassé explains, the reference to the Queen in the citizenship oath really is a reference to “the state and the source of all sovereign authority,” so that the Court of Appeal is right about the oath’s legally correct meaning. My objection is, as I will explain below, that this is really beside the point. Still, some of the Court’s arguments are problematic, and may colour the rest of its analysis, so they are worth pointing out.

One problem I see is with the Court’s discussion of the history of the oath of allegiance and its place in our constitutional structure is incomplete in that it begins with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act, 1774 ― and thus ignores the history of oaths of allegiance in England. The Court uses this history to present the oath as egalitarian and inclusive by virtue of its lack of religious test, while masking its authoritarian origin in the times of Henry VIII and his struggle to assert not only his religious, but also his secular power following his break with Rome, detailed in an excellent recent paper by Liav Orgad. This is, in my view, something of a historical whitewashing. The oath of allegiance is certainly less burdensome now than it used to be, but if one relies on its historical significance, one cannot ignore its origins.

The other point I want to make here concerns the Court’s invocation of the “principle of harmonization” to “suggest” ― although not, as I read the decision, to hold ― “that the oath to the Queen in the Citizenship Act cannot be a violation of rights under the Charter” (par. 58) because it is virtually identical to an oath which the Constitution Act, 1867 requires members of Parliament to swear and which, being constitutionally entrenched, cannot be invalidated on Charter grounds. The Court is simply wrong here. On its logic, since a house of a legislature is authorized to exclude media by virtue of its constitutionally entrenched parliamentary privilege, there would be no constitutional difficulty with a court doing so either; yet the Supreme Court has held that the exclusion of the media from a courtroom infringes s. 2(b) of the Charter, and that while the existence of a discretionary power to exclude is justified under s. 1, this power must be exercised with the Charter in mind. Immunity from Charter review conferred by constitutional entrenchment is an exception, and there is no reason to extend it to rules which are not constitutionally entrenched.

Whatever role these errors have played in its reasoning, the crucial, fatal flaw in the Court of Appeal’s decision is the weight it gives to the applicants’ misunderstanding of the oath. The Court repeatedly cites a passage from R. v. Khawaja, 2012 SCC 69, at par. 82, where the Supreme Court held that “a patently incorrect understanding of a provision cannot ground a finding of unconstitutionality,” but it is inapposite. Even assuming that this holding applies beyond the context of allegations chilling effect, in which it was specifically made (the full sentence, from which the Court only cited an excerpt, is: “a chilling effect that results from a patently incorrect understanding of a provision cannot ground a finding of unconstitutionality” (emphasis mine)), it does not apply to the oath because the oath is not a “provision.” An oath, as I argue in a forthcoming paper, is not a simple statutory command to do or not to do something. It is an appeal to a the oath-taker’s conscience; it requires the oath-taker to work out the exact nature and scope of the duties it imposes. Oaths are typically (although admittedly not always) required when these duties are impossible to delineate with sufficient specificity, and thus cannot be codified in a statutory provision. The duty of loyalty imposed by the oath of allegiance is a perfect example. The Citizenship Act does not define what it means for citizens to be loyal, to “bear true allegiance” in the words of the oath. Citizens must do that themselves. So while it makes sense to reject an idiosyncratic interpretation of a statutory command, one cannot so easily dispose of a subjective understanding of an oath. The failure to appreciate this taints the Court’s analysis under s. 1 of the Charter, and is at least partly responsible for its rejection of the applicants’ claims that the oath infringes their right to freedom of conscience and religion.

However, before it gets there, the Court commits another blunder by finding that the imposition of the oath does not infringe the freedom of expression of those who must swear it. It the Court’s view, the purpose of the oath is not to “control expression,” while its effects on freedom of expression are merely incidental and do not deserve disapprobation. The claim that a requirement to make a statement with an obvious expressive content does not aim at “controlling expression” is astonishing. The Court asserts that “[t]he substance of the oath and the history of its evolution also support the conclusion that the oath does not have a purpose that violates the Charter” (par. 74), but however innocuous or even worthy the contents of the oath might be, there is no getting away from the fact that the requirement to swear it is a requirement to engage in expression. Indeed, as the Court itself says with approval, “[t]he application judge held … that the purpose of the oath ‘is … one of articulating a commitment to the identity and values of the country'” (par. 72; emphasis added). How one can find that requiring people to a articulate a commitment does not control their expression is beyond me.

Despite its finding that the oath does not infringe s. 2(b) of the Charter, the Court of Appeal moves on to a s. 1 analysis. This draws heavily on the judgment at first instance, and my criticism of that decision applies to that of the Court of Appeal. The Court’s “reasoning” is largely conclusory, such as its bald, unexplained assertion that “[r]equiring would-be citizens to express a commitment to the quintessential symbol of our political system and history serves a pressing and substantial objective” (par. 92). It ignores the alternative forms of the oath that would do a better job of letting people express commitment to Canada and its constitution because they would be better understood. It notes but fails to seriously address the pervasive misunderstanding of the current oath, which extends to government officials, and does not question the capacity of such a widely misunderstood oath to have any meaningful positive effects on those who take it or for their fellow citizens.

Then again, perhaps the Court reveals (albeit unwittingly) its true opinion of the worth of the oath when it notes complacently that a person who swears it is free to recant it without any sort of consequence. Imagine, for a second, a witness who recants his oath to tell the truth; and then imagine, further, a judge who tells him that this doesn’t really matter. The Court is oblivious to the incoherence of asserting that the oath is not a real imposition on citizens because it is meaningless and can be dismissed while arguing that it serves a pressing and substantial objective and has obvious salutary effects.

Finally, the Court also errs in its treatment of the freedom of conscience religion claims. For one thing, because it fails to appreciate the way in which the oath differs from an ordinary statutory command by enlisting the conscience of the person who swears it, the Court again overemphasizes the applicants’ misunderstanding of the oath. As I explain at greater length my paper, in matters of conscience and religion, subjective understandings are determinative, even if mistaken by some external standard. For another, the Court is wrong both to reject the remedy of exempting those who object to the oath from the obligation to take on the ground that such an exemption would undermine its secular character, and to implicitly conclude that since the applicants’ proposed remedy is unavailable, their substantive claim must be rejected. First, exemptions for religious (and arguably conscientious) objectors have been granted and considered by the Supreme Court, without any argument to the effect that they undermined the secular nature of the rules involved. The fact that Sikh students can wear their kirpans to school in derogation to the general rules prohibiting weapons does not undermine the secular character of these rules. But even if an exemption were not a permissible remedy, the obvious alternative is to invalidate the requirement for everyone, not to maintain it. (This is the Supreme Court’s approach in cases of cruel and unusual punishment ― the Court regards exemptions to mandatory minimum sentences as inappropriate in that context, and requires the mandatory minimum to be struck down.)

The applicants have already said that they would appeal to the Supreme Court. Adam Dodek has tweeted that he expects the Supreme Court to deny leave and, for what it’s worth, I suspect that he is right. But it would be nice if we were wrong. The decision at first instance in this case was bad, and the Court of Appeal’s is, if anything, even worse. It is a parade not merely of mistakes, but of judicial horribles. A cynic who wanted to argue that it is the product of a purely result-oriented reasoning would have some evidence to back up his claim. Regardless, this ruling ought not to be left to stand.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

5 thoughts on “A Parade of Horribles”

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