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.

 

State v. Conscience

Freedom of conscience, state authority, and the case of the citizenship oath

As I had already mentioned, last week I spoke at a discussion on freedom of conscience that the Runnymede Society organized at McGill on Tuesday. It was a lot of fun, and as always at McGill there were some great questions from the students who came out. For those of my readers who weren’t there though, I thought I’d post my prepared remarks. I ended up moving a few things around in the presentation, but this is close enough to the substance of what I said. Those of you who have followed my posts on the citizenship oath probably won’t find much that’s new here, but if you’ve missed them, this is a flavour.

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The idea of freedom of conscience has been in conflict with state authority for as long as it existed, which is to say about 500 years. (Since it’s the Runnymede Society that has invited us here, I would have loved to say something about the Magna Carta ― but although freedom of the Church is the very first article of the Great Charter, there is nothing there about freedom of conscience, or for that matter about other “fundamental rights” protected by section 2 of its Canadian descendant. Indeed, the development of the very idea of conscience is associated with Aquinas, who was only born 10 years after the Magna Carta was issued.)

Lord Acton puts the idea of freedom of conscience beautifully and concisely. It is the belief that “the knowledge of good and evil is not the sublime prerogative of states, nations, and majorities. … Its action is to limit power by causing the sovereign voice within to be heard above the expressed will and settled custom of surrounding men.” Needless to say, the man or woman who seeks to live by his or her own lights is bound to clash with the state, which wants to reserve the prerogative of defining good and evil for itself, for reasons both righteous (of which Hobbes and Locke remind us) and corrupt, of which Lord Acton does: “The passion for power over others can never cease to threaten mankind, and it is always sure of finding new and unforeseen allies in continuing its martyrology.”

The conflict is ineradicable, but the weapons by which it is waged change. We have forced the state to abandon the executioner’s sword, and we have now at our disposal the instrument of judicial review of legislation. When Henry VIII became the first monarch to demand that all of his subjects swear allegiance to him (in his newfound capacity as the head of the Church of England), Sir Thomas Moore, who refused, was beheaded. When people who seek to become Canadian citizens refuse to swear that they will “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors,” they are allowed to go to court and to challenge the requirement that they take the oath.

As some of you may know, recently a group of would-be Canadians did just that. They lost, however, both at the Superior Court of Justice and at the Court of Appeal for Ontario. The Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal. Still, we thought that it might be interesting to come back to this case, as an illustration of the conflict between the authority of the state and the conscience of individuals. The case, I should note, was litigated under the heading of freedom of expression, not freedom of conscience. But although I believe that the applicants should have prevailed on that claim too, I think that it fails to capture the really interesting and distinctive feature of the problem of the oath, which is the way in which it is tied up with conscience.

Originally, swearing an oath meant incurring a religious obligation, but the idea of an oath persists, even in a secular state, cut off from its religious roots. Any oath, as the Supreme Court has recognized, is an attempt to “get a hold” of the conscience of the person who swears it. Breaking an oath would be immoral, even if one doesn’t believe that it would result in damnation―and regardless of any criminal sanction that might follow. But an oath typically involves morality at another level as well, in that its performance is almost always a matter of moral judgment. This is not a conceptual truth―some oaths are not of that sort―but the law tends to require oaths in those situations where it cannot describe and therefore impose the obligations it would like to demand because they are vague, subjective, and ultimately appeal to the conscience of the person who is to perform them.

I’ll mention just one example other than the citizenship oath itself, drawn from the oath that you will swear when you are called to the bar. Those of you who will be called in Ontario, and perhaps in other provinces too, will swear, among other things, to “seek to ensure access to justice”. This is not a straightforward obligation. Discharging it will require you to think about just what your duties really are; a judgment that is no doubt partly intellectual, but also, to a considerable extent, moral. Ensuring access to justice is, for a single lawyer and for the profession as a whole, a matter of degree, and you must decide how far to go. Should you limit your fees? How much pro bono work should you do? Can you “ensure access to justice” while being a member of a state-enforced cartel whose raison d’être is to increase the cost of legal services? The oath does not answer these questions; there is no rule to guide you; you must figure these things out for yourselves, in conscience. What the oath does―if you take it seriously, and not just as an ancient ritual, which in fairness it might be―is it “gets a hold” of your conscience and directs you to ask yourselves some very hard questions.

Oaths of allegiance are similar in that they enlist the conscience of those who swear them; they require these persons to ask themselves what it means to be loyal to that to which they pledge allegiance, and what that duty of loyalty that they impose might require in various circumstances. The oath of allegiance is not reducible to those obligations that state imposes by law―for example with the provisions of the Criminal Code regarding treason. If it were, there would be no need for it. The reason an oath is required is that something more―namely, a moral commitment that goes beyond legal obligation―is thought to be necessary.

The people who challenged the citizenship oath―unlike, I suspect, most of those who swear it but regard it as a mere meaningless formality (myself included, I confess)―have thought about it would mean to “bear true allegiance to Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada.” They think that would mean being personally loyal to the monarch and politically loyal to the monarchy, both of which they regard as intolerable. And the courts that have passed on their claim implicitly agree that the state could not actually impose this sort of condition on acquiring Canadian citizenship. But, they have said, this is all a misunderstanding. Swearing allegiance to the Queen of Canada does not mean swearing allegiance to Elizabeth R. personally; nor does it mean endorsing the monarchy as a system of government. If only the people who are challenging the oath understood it correctly, they’d realize that it is not the sort of imposition that they imagine it to be.

Now, I take it from Philippe Lagassé, who spoke at McGill not long ago, that the courts are right as a matter of Crown law. The Queen of Canada to whom the oath refers is the personification of the Canadian state, and an entirely distinct entity from the head of the Church of England, for instance. But, I submit, the state―and keep in mind that the courts are a branch of the state―cannot have it both ways. It cannot ask people to swear an oath, and thus to work out for themselves, as a matter of conscience, what their obligations are, and then turn around and say that those who have done this exercise got the answer wrong. The state can impose legal obligations by statute, in which case people’s misunderstanding of the law cannot ground a constitutional challenge to it, as the Supreme Court has held in Khawaja. A statute merely tells you what to do or not to do; it does not have anything to do with your conscience. But if the state, instead of enacting a statute, exacts an oath, and thus appeals to conscience, must respect the conscientious judgment of the people whose morality it seeks to enlist. In this instance, it means that the courts should have recognized the burden on the persons who challenged the oath to the Queen, and required the state to justify the imposition of this burden under section 1 of the Charter.

I don’t have the time to go through the complete section 1 analysis, which is unfortunate because there is a lot to say there, both about the futility of loyalty oaths generally and about the defects of ours in particular. I’ve gone over that in more detail in an article. I will only make one point that has to do directly with freedom of conscience. At the last stage of the Oakes justification test, we have to consider the impact of the infringement on the claimant. If we think only of the oath’s infringement of freedom of expression, as the Ontario courts have done, that impact is very limited. But if we consider the oath as an enlistment of the conscience of those who swear it for the rest of their lives, it is, I believe a rather more serious business.

Ultimately, the Canadian state does not care very much about the oath it exacts from its new citizens. One of the people who had challenged the oath to the Queen withdrew from the proceedings, swore the oath, and became a citizen. He then proceeded to write to the government telling it that he recanted the oath he just swore. The government wrote back saying that this didn’t matter. Now imagine, for a second, that you are testifying in court, and decide to tell the judge that you recant your oath to tell the truth ― and the judge tells you that this is fine, and just go on. Still, it is a reminder of the conflict between conscience and authority ― even if authority may not be inclined, in this instance, to fight as hard as it once did.

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In case you want to see more of my thinking on the matter of the citizenship oath, the paper I mention above is here. As for the Lord Acton quotes, they are drawn from his magnificent Lectures on Modern History.

The Swearing Show

Niqabs at citizenship oath swearing ceremonies are a big deal. Not really a big deal, mind you, because, as Radio-Canada reports, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there have been exactly two women since 2011 who refused to go through with the oath because of the ban on the niqab which the government had illegally decreed. But politically a big deal. Yet while the niqab and the citizenship oath are the hot new celebrity couple of Canadian politics, all the attention is focused on the niqab, even though all that there was to say about it has already been said some time ago, by Emmett Macfarlane and by Tabatha Southey. If there was anything left to add, Andrew Coyne has added it. The oath, for its part, languishes in obscurity. I would like to remedy that.

You might think that focusing on the oath is a waste of time; that it is only a pretext for the Conservatives to score some political points by attacking the infinitesimal minority of Muslim women who wear the niqab. But why was this particular pretext chosen? After all, the same party is apparently uninterested by banning niqabs from the polling stations ― and yet you’d think that this would be at least as much of a bigot-vote-winner as banning them from citizenship oath ceremonies. So I think it is worth asking what is special about the oath.

There are two ways of seeing the citizenship oath. One is presented in the judgments of the Ontario courts that have upheld its reference to the Queen against a constitutional challenge by some anti-Monarchists who refused to swear “true allegiance” to Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors. The persons challenging the oath argued that the Queen symbolized inequality, privilege, and oppression. Not so, held the Superior Court of Justice in McAteer et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, 2013 ONSC 5895: “the oath to the Queen is in fact an oath to a domestic institution that represents egalitarian governance and the rule of law.” [65] For its part, the Court of Appeal for Ontario, in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, held that the oath represented “a symbolic commitment to our form of government and the unwritten constitutional principle of democracy.” [62]

As I explained in a paper arguing that, contrary to the courts’ findings, the citizenship oath is indeed an unconstitutional violation of freedom of conscience, the other way of seeing the Canadian citizenship oath, as all loyalty oaths, is as an expression of the state’s fear of its new citizens’ disloyalty. I wrote that

if there is an implicit logic that can justify imposing the oath of allegiance on all would-be naturalized citizens, it is that they are all people whose commitment to Canada is doubtful (their decision to seek Canadian citizenship notwithstanding!), if not potential traitors. (158)

Otherwise, why is the oath even necessary? The government and the courts never answered this question (in part, one must admit, because the people challenging the oath did not dare ask it ― they accepted the principle of the oath unquestioningly).

To me at least, the role that the citizenship oath has come to play in the niqab controversy suggests that my jaundiced view of the oath is closer to reality than the courts’ optimistic one. If the oath were about equality, it would not be seen as an opportunity for singling out a minuscule unpopular group for legal retribution and public opprobrium. If it were about the Rule of Law, it would not be the occasion for bending legal procedures and ignoring legal advice in order to score political points. If it were about respecting our form of government, it would not be the scene of a blatant violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms. On the other hand, if what the oath really represents is a fear of the outsiders, of those who are different ― whether they think differently (like the anti-Monarchists) or dress differently (like the women who wear the niqab) ― and who are therefore said to stand against Canadian values and deemed disloyal despite the absence of any evidence of their disloyalty, then it makes a lot of sense for the oath to be treated in these ways.

We would do well, I submit, to ask ourselves again why exactly it is that we need an oath of citizenship. Mr. Coyne writes that “[n]o one else’s life is made the poorer because, somewhere in Canada, a women is swearing allegiance to this country with her face covered.” Nor are anyone’s rights infringed. That is true of course. But the same thing would be true if one simply became a citizen upon having satisfied a citizenship judge that one has met the legal requirements. The theatre of the oath-swearing can be dispensed with. The actors do not even understand their lines, and now we’re fighting over their costumes too. There are other shows in town more deserving of everyone’s time and attention.

A Monarchist’s Lament

If you’ve read my bitter vituperations against the decisions of the Ontario courts upholding the constitutionality of the citizenship oath, which requires would-be Canadians to swear “true allegiance to Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors,” you might have concluded that I am a flaming republican. But I am, in fact, a monarchist; I believe that Lord Acton was quite right when he described (in his fabulous Lectures on the French Revolution) constitutional monarchy as “the richest and most flexible of political forms.” I oppose the citizenship oath nonetheless and, with respect, think those who are approve of it, including my fellow monarchists (such as Gabriel Grantstein over at Slaw, or Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail), as well as Justices Morgan and Weiler, miss the point of the challenge to its constitutionality.

Those who defend the oath think that the case it is about the concept of the “Queen” to which the oath refers. They insist that because the Queen symbolizes a  political and constitutional system that honours equality, democracy, the Rule of Law, and even the freedom to dissent, the oath, far from disparaging or denying these ideals, honours them too. They argue that because those who refuse to take the oath misunderstand the history and the nature, both legal and political, of the Canadian Crown, their challenge must be rejected

But the key to understanding the challenge to the oath is not the notion of the “Queen”. It is the notion of an oath. An oath ― any oath ― is an appeal to the conscience of the person who swears it. It is an attempt both to make that person figure out what it is that his or her duty under the oath means, just as he or she does with any moral or conscientious duty (to love one’s neighbour, to give to each his own, etc.), and do to bind that person’s conscience actually do this duty. Because an oath is an appeal to conscience, it is not enough to say that those opposed to it misunderstand it. Understanding an oath and figuring out one’s duty arising out of swearing it is a matter of conscience, and as such, it is entitled to respect, be it ever so unreasonable.

(I would add, however, that some of the oath’s defenders, such as Mr. Yakabuski, would really do well to lose their contemptuous tone towards those who interpret it as a personal commitment to a person Mr. Yakabuski himself describes as “a tiny unelected octogenarian with a matching hat and purse.” Mr. Yakabuski asserts that “only … if you have no knowledge of our history … could you take the oath at face value and get hung up on its plain, or literal, meaning.” But he should spare a thought for those who rely on a guidebook produced by the Canadian government, which tells prospective citizens that “[i]n Canada, we profess our loyalty to a person who represents all Canadians and not to a document such as a constitution, a banner such as a flag, or a geopolitical entity such as a country” (2).)

The scope of our legal duties can and must be authoritatively settled by (judicial) authority. The law, whether provisions regarding treason and sedition or those relating to jury duty etc., already defines the responsibilities of citizenship. Courts can, if need be, enforce their interpretations of these duties against those who disagree. The oath, which the government itself seems to consider legally meaningless, adds nothing in this respect. What it does is attempt to go beyond the realm of law, and reach into consciences.

Yet if we wish to call ourselves free, our moral, conscientious duties must be for ourselves to work out. Monarchists do their ― and my ― cause no favours by supporting a legal requirement that people suppress their own moral opinions and blindly accept the judgment of authority as to the scope of their conscientious duties. The constitutional monarchy I believe in is, indeed, a form of government that embraces freedom, dissent, and diversity of views. It goes against these principles, and only gives ammunition to its opponents, when it fails to respect individual conscience.

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.

You’re Wrong

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled that the requirement that naturalized Canadian citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen is constitutional. In McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, it found that the oath infringed neither the freedom of expression, nor the freedom of conscience and religion, nor yet the equality rights of those who are made to swear it. It further found that, even if the oath violated the freedom of expression, that violation would have been justified under s.1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I will summarize the Court’s opinion (written by Justice Weiler) in this post, and keep all the nasty things I think about it for the next one.

Much like Justice Morgan, who decided this case at first instance (in McAteer v. Attorney General of Canada, 2013 ONSC 5895), the Court of Appeal devotes a lot of attention to the meaning of the oath, finding that the applicants’ objections to taking it were based on a misunderstanding, which cannot be the basis of a finding of unconstitutionality. The applicants interpret the oath literally, taking “the Queen” to whom it refers to be a person. In the Court’s view, however, “[a] ‘plain-meaning’ approach to interpretation is inappropriate because it fails to recognize the history and the context in which the oath exists in this country” (par. 32).

The Court traces the history of the oath in Canada to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which required an oath of allegiance rejecting the Catholic religion, and the Quebec Act, 1774, which did away with this religious requirement and introduced a secular oath. It then outlines the constitutional history of Canada, pointing out that under the Constitution Act, 1867, the Queen is both the holder of the executive power and a constituent part of Parliament. In its view,

[t]he evolution of Canada from a British colony into an independent nation and democratic constitutional monarchy must inform the interpretation of the reference to the Queen in the citizenship oath. As Canada has evolved, the symbolic meaning of the Queen in the oath has evolved.

Viewing the oath to the Queen as an oath to an individual is disconnected from the reality of the Queen’s role in Canada today. (Par. 48 and 50.)

The Court concludes that “in swearing allegiance to the Queen of Canada, the would-be citizen is swearing allegiance to a symbol of our form of government in Canada” (par. 54).

The Court also points out that members of Parliament are obliged to take an almost-identical oath of allegiance. This requirement, being part of the constitution by virtue of s. 128 of the Constitution Act, 1867, cannot be unconstitutional, because the Charter cannot invalidate another provision of the constitution. This, it finds, suggests that the oath which new citizens are required to take, cannot be unconstitutional either:

[i]nasmuch as the oath for members of Parliament is specifically required by the Constitution, and the Constitution cannot itself be unconstitutional, the harmonization principle and the legal norms of rationality and coherence suggest that the oath to the Queen in the Citizenship Act cannot be a violation of rights under the Charter. (Par. 54)

Moving on to the Charter analysis, the Court finds ― contrary to Justice Morgan at first instance ― “that the requirement to recite an oath to the Queen of Canada in order to become a Canadian citizen does not violate the appellants’ right to freedom of expression” (par. 68). Although swearing the oath is an expressive activity, its purpose, in the Court’s view, is not “to control expression” (par. 71), but rather “to inquire into prospective citizens’ willingness to accept the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” and their “loyal[ty] to the values represented by Canada’s form of government” (par. 73). Thus,

[r]ather than undermining freedom of expression, the oath amounts to an affirmation of the societal values and constitutional architecture of this country, which promote and protect expression. (Par. 74)

Nor is the oath’s “incidental effect on expression” “worthy of constitutional disapprobation” (par. 75). For one thing, an object can disavow the contents of the oath. Indeed, one of the original applicants, who swore his oath and became a Canadian citizen, subsequently recanted his oath to the Queen and “was informed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration that his recantation had no effect on his citizenship status” (par. 79). The fact that the applicants believe that taking the oath would prevent them, in conscience, from continuing their anti-monarchist activities, is irrelevant. They are simply mistaken, and their mistake is no basis for a finding of unconstitutionality. Furthermore, even if the explicit reference to the Queen were eliminated from the oath, “any oath that commits the would-be citizen to the principles of Canada’s government is implicitly an oath to the Queen,” (par. 82) since these principles are those of a constitutional monarchy.

Despite its finding that the oath does not infringe the objectors’ freedom of expression (or any other right), the Court also concludes that, even if an infringement had been made out, it would have been justified under s. 1 of the Charter. The Court finds 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 also considers that it is rational to make citizens pledge allegiance to the Queen rather than some other element of the constitutional structure. While many citizens, and even the manager of Citizenship Legislation and Program Policy at the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, seem to share the applicants’ (mistaken) understanding of the meaning of the reference to the Queen, this only means

that the government needs to better equip those involved in citizenship policy to understand and convey the meaning and significance of the phrase, ‘the Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors'” (par. 94).

On the question whether the oath is minimally impairing of the applicants’ rights, the Court seems mostly to endorse Justice Morgan’s reasons at first instance, and concludes that, considering that a restriction must be found to be minimally impairing if it falls within a range of reasonable alternatives, the oath to the Queen passes this test even though the oath could also have referenced some other element of the constitution. The Court also endorsed Justice Morgan’s finding regarding the balancing of the positive and deleterious effects of the oath, to the effect that the former were substantial, while the latter were not, so long as the oath is properly understood.

The Court then considers the applicants’ claim that the oath infringed their freedom of conscience and religion. It holds that the purpose of the oath is secular, and the fact that the Queen herself must, by law, by an Anglican is irrelevant to it and does not restrict the religious liberty of those who swear the oath. It further concludes that granting the applicants an exemption from the requirement to take the oath “would undermine the societal value or common good derived from a universal religious-neutral declaration” (par. 116). Similar considerations apply to the applicants’ conscientious opposition to the oath and the monarchy in general.

Finally, the Court also rejects the claim that the oath infringes the equality rights of those required to swear it. The very concept of citizenship presupposes that some people do not have it and must satisfy certain criteria to acquire it. These criteria cannot in themselves discriminate on the ground of citizenship. Nor does the fact that swearing allegiance to a person contradict the beliefs of some make the oath, properly understood as expressing a commitment to the Canadian system of government, a form of religious discrimination.

Like Justice Morgan’s, the judgment of the Court of Appeal is based on its conclusion that the people who object to taking the oath misunderstand it. The oath does not mean what it says, and if the objectors, as well as any number of Canadians, including some government officials responsible for citizenship, are wrong about what it means, that’s too bad for them. With respect, it is the Court itself that is badly wrong about this, as I will argue in my next post.

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.”