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.” 

True Allegiance

I have blogged at great length about the Canadian citizenship oath, which requires naturalized Canadians to swear “true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, [and] Her Heirs and Successors”. So I’m happy to report that all this blogging has led me to produce a (hopefully) scholarly paper, which I will be presenting at a conference on Emerging Issues in Canadian Public Law at the University of Ottawa exactly two weeks from today. I have posted the draft paper on SSRN, and would welcome any feedback. Here is the abstract:

Would-be Canadian citizens are required to swear an oath, which includes a promise of “true allegiance” to the Queen. For some, swearing allegiance to a what they regard as a person embodying inequality, colonialism, and oppression goes against their deeply-held republican or egalitarian values. However, Canadian courts have so far rejected Charter challenges to the citizenship oath.

This article argues that the oath is, nevertheless, unconstitutional, albeit on a basis different from that mostly canvassed by the courts which have considered it. Rather than an infringement of freedom of expression, the citizenship oath should be analyzed as a violation of the freedom of conscience of those required to take it. Like most oaths, it is an attempt not only to impress the importance of the obligation it imposes on those who take it, but also to enlist their sense of right and wrong ― that is to say, their conscience ― in the service of the state’s objectives. 

Because the citizenship oath is a violation of freedom of conscience, it is irrelevant that those who object to it may be misunderstanding its true significance, or the real nature of “the Queen” in Canadian law. As in freedom of religion cases, courts must recognize their subjective conception of their conscientious obligations, and the extent to which taking the oath conflicts with them. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the reasons advanced to justify the oath under s. 1 of the Charter cannot do so.

You can download the full paper here.

One of the excuses I give myself for spending so much time on this blog is that it will, one day, help my scholarship. Well, here’s the first evidence that this is not entirely wishful thinking. However, as I have now found out, there is quite a way to go between even a series of posts and an academic paper. It is certainly not a matter of stitching the posts together and sprinkling them with scholarly-looking footnotes. My thinking has changed somewhat in the process of writing, and there is, hopefully, more depth to the paper than to the blog posts that preceded it. (This is a lesson, also, for those who might be tempted to appraise blog posts as if they were mini-papers, and to criticize them for not living up to that standard. It is not a standard that blog posts, even relatively long and researched ones, such as many of mine, are meant to attain. The two media are really quite different.) Still, I know that I would never had written this paper if I hadn’t done the preliminary reading and thinking as part of my blogging, and the posts really were helpful in developing my ideas. On the whole, then, a positive experience.

Hornblower and the Oath

I have just come across an excellent illustration of the complex ― I am tempted to say schizophrenic ― relationship between our constitutional law and the monarchy, which is at the heart of the litigation about the constitutionality of the reference to thee Queen in the Canadian citizenship oath. On the one hand, as Justice Morgan explains in his decision in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 ONSC 5895 holding the oath constitutional (which I summarized here), and as Philippe Lagassé further explains, the Queen symbolizes the institution of the monarchy, which, in turn, symbolizes Canada’s constitution ― including its values of freedom, equality, and the Rule of Law. On the other hand, for the applicants in McAteer, and for many other Canadians, the Queen is primarily the kindly old lady whose portraits the federal government is obsessed with hanging all over the place; and this, naturally, raises questions about why exactly this particular old lady, kindly though she is, should be so important to our citizenship and our constitution.

So here is the wonderful illustration of this dichotomy that I wanted to share with you. It comes from, of all places, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower and the Atropos (for those who do not know, one of a long series of novels about a naval officer, Horatio Hornblower, set during the Napoleonic wars). After having been presented to His Majesty George III, Captain Hornblower reflects on the difference between his own feelings about this kindly old gentleman on a throne, and those of his wife:

Hornblower himself fought for his country; it might be better said that he fought for the ideals of liberty and decency against the unprincipled tyrant who ruled across the Channel; the hackneyed phrase “for King and Country” hardly expressed his feelings at all. If he was ready to lay down his life for his King that really had no reference to the kindly pop-eyed old gentleman with whom he had been speaking this morning; it meant that he was ready to die for the system of liberty and order that the old gentleman represented. But to Maria the King was representative of something other than liberty and order; he had received the blessing of the Church; he was somebody to be spoken about with awe.

Now, I doubt that Stephen Harper and the members of his government, much less other Canadians, and least of all the applicants in McAteer, attach a great significance to the monarch’s anointment. However, what they share with Maria Hornblower is that they think of her first and foremost as an actual human being ― not as a legal entity or a constitutional symbol.

This conception, Justice Morgan and prof. Lagassé tell us, is not legally correct. It is, in my view, not correct as a matter of political values ― my own monarchism is like Hornblower’s. But as I have argued in my comment on the McAteer decision, the real issue in considering the constitutionality of the citizenship oath is whether it should matter at all which legal and political conception of the Queen is correct ― whether it is reasonable or fair “to expect laypersons to understand the subtleties of Crown law which, as prof. Lagassé notes, seem beyond the understanding even of some judges.”

What the Hornblower passage tells us is that the views of applicants in McAteer are not just a product of a few hypertrophied consciences, as Justice Morgan seems to suggest. They belong to a very old current of thought, albeit now inflected by very different values than those which originally shaped it. (These egalitarian values, indeed, are closer to those of the rather anachronistic Hornblower than of his wife.) And, judging by its portrait fixation, the current government is ill-positioned to argue that these views are not entitled to concern and respect.

Say It Ain’t So

I wrote yesterday about the decision of the Superior Court of Ontario in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 ONSC 5895, which upheld the constitutionality of the reference to the Queen in the oath of allegiance which would-be Canadian citizens must take. As I said in that post, believe that the decision is wrong. Here is why.

Most of Justice Morgan’s opinion deals with the infringement of the applicants’ freedom of expression by having to make a statement which they do not wish to make, and which is indeed contrary to their sincerely held convictions. Although Justice Morgan recognizes the infringement, he holds that it is justified under s. 1 of the Charter as a reasonable limit acceptable in a free and democratic society. In my view, he goes wrong at just about every step of the way in his s. 1 analysis.

To begin with, his preliminary comments about the quality of the proof which the government must adduce under s. 1 are misguided. It is true, of course, that proof in the realm of policy might be different from proof of ordinary facts in private law litigation. But, contrary to Justice Morgan’s assertion, it is not the case that just because freedom from incarceration is not at issue, the rights infringement “need not, and probably could not, be ‘tuned with great precision to withstand judicial scrutiny’” (par. 36; quoting R. v. Edwards Books and Art Ltd., [1986] 2 S.C.R. 713 at 776). The passage Justice Morgan quotes deals with “[l]egislative choices regarding alternative forms of business regulation [which] do not generally impinge on the values and provisions of the Charter,” not government action outside the criminal law context. The use he makes of it is misleading if not intellectually dishonest.

Justice Morgan’s acceptance of the government’s asserted objective of the citizenship oath is uncritical, which is perhaps unfortunate, given the doubts about such oaths which Liav Orgad raises in this article, about which I wrote here. However, since the applicants themselves accepted the idea of some form of citizenship oath, Justice Morgan probably could not have questioned it. In any case, this is the least important step of the analysis.

The next and more significant step is to ascertain the existence of a rational connection between the objective of the oath and the reference to the Queen. Justice Morgan claims that it would have been rational for Parliament to include a reference to any of the institutions of the Canadian constitution, of which the Queen is one, in the oath that is a public expression of commitment to that constitution. Really? Just imagine, for a moment, having to promise to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to” bilingualism or bijuridicalism. Would it make any sense? And if not, then how is the monarchy special? Philippe Lagassé, in a post commending Justice Morgan for his “clear understanding of the theory and nature of the Crown,” argues “that the Crown is the state and the source of all sovereign authority,” which does make it very special indeed, but that’s not Justice Morgan’s justification at the rational connection stage.

But it is at the next stage, that of minimal impairment, that Justice Morgan really goes badly astray. He says that the applicants overestimate the degree to which their freedom of expression is impaired because they misunderstand the nature and significance of the Crown in Canadian law. If they only understood that the Crown stands for the Rule of Law and equality, they’d realize that their freedom of expression is minimally impaired. One problem with this argument is that it avoids completely responding to the applicants’ point that Australia, where the position of the Crown is exactly the same as it is in Canada, avoids imposing making a reference to the Queen in its citizenship oath, which suggests that Canada has no need to do it either, and thus the Canadian oath is not as little impairing of freedom of expression as possible. But more importantly, there is something unfair, if not absurd, to expect laypersons to understand the subtleties of Crown law which, as prof. Lagassé notes, seem beyond the understanding even of some judges. The applicants’ understanding of the oath might be incorrect, but isn’t it incumbent on Parliament to produce an oath which doesn’t require a law degree to understand? If the reference to the Queen really stands for the Rule of Law and equality, then why doesn’t the citizenship oath say so? An oath that did might be minimally impairing; one that speaks in legal fictions is not.

Justice Morgan is similarly on the wrong track with his balancing of the deleterious and salutary effects of the citizenship oath. He dismisses the gravity of forcing people to state the oath contrary to their convictions because, he says, their convictions are “a fundamental misapprehension” (par. 80). This is wrong. Justice Morgan refers to Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 551, but still insists that what matters most is the “objective” weight of the statement the applicants are being compelled to make. Yet Amselem rejects the very notion of measuring objective burdens. Now there is a real difficulty here. Amselem was a case about freedom of religion. In the case of freedom of expression, the majority’s reasons in Slaight Communications Inc. v. Davidson, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1038, which held that forcing a person to make a statement of true facts regardless of his belief in those facts could be justified under s. 1 suggests that objective weight matters. However, I think that this case, although Justice Morgan approaches it only under the heading of freedom of expression, is more like Amselem. The statement the applicants are being forced to make is not one of fact. It is an oath, which is intended to implicate conscience, and thus requires belief. Therefore the Amselem rule that only subjective belief matters (provided that it is sincere) should apply. Justice Morgan also errs, I think, in describing the salutary effects of the oath. Even if there is any benefit to making a public commitment to a symbol of equality, the Rule of Law, and freedom of dissent, surely there would be an even greater benefit to making a public commitment to these things directly, and not to a symbol the meaning of which, however clear in law, is contested as a matter of politics.

I also want to say a few words about Justice Morgan’s take on the freedom of religion issue. Frankly, I find it bizarre. Justice Morgan claims that the assertion that swearing an oath to the Queen is a violation of an applicant’s religious freedom is an attempt to invoke the rights of that applicant to deny the rights of other Canadians, which the Queen symbolizes. But of course, again, the symbol is not the thing. I simply fail to see how removing the reference to the Queen from the citizenship oath would impair anybody’s rights. Does Justice Morgan mean to suggest that Parliament could not change the oath so that it doesn’t mention the Queen? Surely not. Furthermore, if this logic held true for freedom of religion, why doesn’t it for freedom of speech? Yet Justice Morgan accepts that there is an infringement of freedom of expression, and says nothing about any impairment of the rights of others under that heading.

Justice Morgan’s opinion isn’t all bad. He is right, in particular, to give short shrift to the government’s claim that since there is no “right” to citizenship, Parliament can impose whatever conditions it wants on accessing it. However, the core of his decision on s. 1 is rotten. It is wrong to require people to step over their conscience on the basis of a judicial say-so that many, and perhaps most, citizens would have a hard time understanding.