Tuesday, April 13, 2021

History of oaths (updated)

Citizenship by Zoom

I happened recently to be reading Fire and Ashes, Michael Ignatieff's apologia for his brief career in elective Canadian politics. A future blog post may take up some of the weirdness of that career. But for the moment, I'm struck by his description, on first being elected to Parliament, of his discomfort about swearing the MPs' oath, which says nothing of an MP's duty to the constitution or to parliament or to democracy or to the Canadian people he now represented, but only requires loyalty to Elizabeth II.

And then, serendipity, I came across a recent essay by Ashok Charles at the Canadian politics blog Counterweights, about the inadequacy of the citizenship oath sworn by newcomers becoming citizens of Canada. 

Many of those who immigrate to Canada are coming from societies with conceptions of civil rights, freedoms, and responsibilities which are significantly different than our own.

When immigrants have fulfilled the requirements of citizenship, our citizenship oath represents our only opportunity to elicit a formal commitment in regards to how they will conduct themselves as full-fledged members of Canadian society.

It would be prudent to require a pledge to uphold democracy, egalitarianism, secularism and multiculturalism. Each of these principles is upheld by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, as such, they are fundamental Canadian values. We benefit when joined by newcomers who honour them.

Instead they, like our Members of Parliament, get the oath of loyalty to a foreign monarch and her heirs and successors.

Somehow, the death of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, has inspired a lot of commentary about the great value of the monarchy to Canada. We need to remember also the costs we incur everywhere in our public life. 

Update April 15, 2021: Alan B. McCullough responds:

While I happen to be a monarchist, mostly for reasons of tradition, I see some merit in the suggestion that MP’s and citizenship oaths could be revised to make some reference to upholding the constitution and democracy. 

You quote, I presume approvingly, Ashok Charles’ statement that the Charter of Rights and Freedom upholds “democracy, egalitarianism, secularism and multiculturalism.” 

Democracy, egalitarianism, and  multi-culturalism are specifically mentioned in the charter; secularism is not. On the contrary the preamble to the charter reads ” Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” Although some have argued that the preamble is a dead letter, the general rule is that a preamble is intended to establish a context in which the legislation is interpreted. Furthermore, if one regards the preamble as a dead letter, that also discards the idea that Canada is founded on the principle of the rule of law. Beyond the preamble, Section 2 of the Charter states that freedom of conscience and religion are fundamental freedoms. This can hardly be taken as meaning that the charter upholds secularism although I would argue that freedom of conscience protects a citizen’s right to be an agnostic or atheist.

Mr. Charles also raises expresses some concerns with the concept of multi-culturalism – he writes “It is fair to say that many of those who immigrate to Canada are coming from societies with conceptions of civil rights, freedoms, and responsibilities which are significantly different than our own.” Section 27 of the charter states “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” The charter does not support multi-culturalism per se; it supports a specific multicultural heritage. We may have difficulty agreeing on exactly what this heritage is but both Mr. Charles and I might agree that not all cultural practices should be protected by the charter. 

Constitutional drafting is (or should be) a subtle art, and I'm not sure I support precisely the shopping-list formula Ashok Charles has adopted here as the best way to improve the oath. As Alan McCullough says, a phrase about upholding the constitution and democracy -- maybe just the constitution? -- might well be better than risking the complications he mentions.



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