New Swearwords

The Prime Minister wants to make a meaningless addition to our unconstitutional citizenship oath

As the CBC reports, the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship directs him to “[w]ork in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to make changes to the Oath of Canadian Citizenship to reflect the Truth and Reconciliation’s [sic] Calls to Action.” What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested was adding the clause “including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples” to the undertaking to “faithfully observe the laws of Canada”. This addition is silly ― and, meanwhile, the oath remains unconstitutional, as I have long argued here and in an article published in the National Journal of Constitutional Law.

Having new citizens undertake to “faithfully observe … Treaties with Indigenous Peoples” is meaningless exercise in symbolic politics. The treaties in question do not bind citizens. Citizens trying to ascertain the duties they subscribe by taking the oath in this form would find none. The treaties do not require them to do or not to do anything. They impose obligations on (and give rights to) the Crown ― i.e. the government. An individual citizen can no more “observe” these treaties than he or she can fail to do so.

The addition of meaningless language further devalues the citizenship oath ― though admittedly it is already not worth very much. Many citizens, new and old alike, including indeed the authors of the guidebook used to help prepare would-be citizens for their citizenship test, misunderstand the reference to the Queen in the existing oath, thinking that it means that “we profess our loyalty to a person”. What is more, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario observed in the course of dismissing a challenge to the constitutionality of the reference to the Queen, in  McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, 121 OR (3d) 1,

a former plaintiff in this proceeding who had taken the oath of the citizenship, has publicly recanted the oath to the Queen while, at the same time, confirming the remainder of the oath. Mr. Charles was informed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration that his recantation had no effect on his citizenship status.

The government of Canada, in other words, thinks that the oath means nothing at all (imagine, by contrast, a judge’s reaction to a witness telling her that he “recants” his promise to say nothing but the truth), and goodness knows what those who take the oath think it means. The Prime Minister’s new plan does not change that.

Nor does it address the unconstitutionality of the oath in its current form. While it has upheld the oath, I have argued here that the McAteer decision is a “parade of judicial horribles“. It misreads the relevant precedents and relies on conclusory assertions about the value of the citizenship oath while ignoring the oath’s history as an embodiment of distrust and the distinctive way in which an oath (contrary to a statutory command) operates by enlisting the conscience of the person who takes it. As I explain in more detail in my article, the citizenship oath in its current form is an imposition on individual conscience that is not justified by any pressing and substantial objective, is not rationally connected to the purposes it supposedly serves, is not minimally restrictive (since it could easily be re-written to accommodate the scruples of those who object to it), and is not proportional to the harms it inflicts on objectors. It is, in short, contrary to s 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and cannot be “saved” by s 1.

This is what the Prime Minister ought to have asked the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister to address. Instead, he chose to focus on a meaningless gesture. I have written here that “oaths of allegiance are like swearwords ― significant yet meaningless, and not something to be said in polite company”. Another feature of swearwords is that their precise contents matters very little; only the emotions they convey are of any significance, as this latest news confirms.

 

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.

2 thoughts on “New Swearwords”

  1. This is another instance of government majoring in the minor. Considering there are so many things wrong with that citizenship process and all else to do with it, one wonders at this very bad waste of time.

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