It is not often that I find myself agreeing with Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, whose ethno-nationalist, anti-immigrant policies I despise, but these are strange times we are living in.
Particularly odd is the fact that in 2022 Canada still expects its legislative representatives to swear an oath of allegiance to the foreign monarch.
Plamondon has stated he will refuse to take the oath, which is a precondition for all legislative representatives in Canada. He, along with the two other PQ Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) and 11 Québec Solidaire legislators, are protesting what they have described as archaic vestiges of colonialism.
They make an interesting point: a representative in the legislature should not serve two masters at once, and their responsibilities are first and foremost to their constituents—quite literally the people who elected them.
The reaction to this has been, perhaps as anticipated, rife with contradiction. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said both that Québec is free to do whatever it pleases and that he refuses to re-open constitutional debates.
Constitutional scholars, meanwhile, quoted in a recent Canadian Press article, were at odds over whether the matter was a simple decision for Québec’s representatives to debate, or whether a section of the Constitution Act, 1867 applied.
On the one hand, it seems that the monarchy is just a figurehead and that the oath is ceremonial. On the other, it appears the oath is deeply ingrained in the Constitution and the political fabric of the nation.
Simultaneously, we are told the oath is a vitally important and trivial tradition. So which is it?
Oaths are supposed to be taken seriously, so it is bizarre that politicians should be forced to take one they do not believe in. What kind of country are we living in when our legislative representatives are being asked to swear allegiance to a foreign figurehead who is otherwise trivialized by the people and society they represent?
This issue brings up another problem: immigrants are also expected to swear a similar oath of allegiance as part of the process of becoming a Canadian citizen, something anybody born here is not required to do. This is inherently unfair. Immigrants should not be required to swear oaths of allegiance to become citizens when citizens by birth are not required to do the same.
Consider the immigrant who comes to Canada on promises of citizenship in a fully participatory democracy, only to then be told to swear allegiance and loyalty to a representative of an archaic form of government that’s irreconcilably tied to both the global slave trade and genocidal colonialism.
Forcing immigrants or representatives elected by and for the people to swear their loyalty to alien and obsolete forms of government is absurd.
Citizens of an ostensibly top-flight democracy and global middle power should not be swearing oaths of allegiance and loyalty to a foreign monarch, a living embodiment of an antiquated and obsolescent style of government, as a precondition to represent their co-citizens in the legislature. Is this not inherently contradictory?
If loyalty to monarchy is the constitutionally-mandated precondition of serving the people as an elected representative, perhaps we don’t live in the most fully formed of democracies.
On a closing note, consider the reactions thus far, particularly from Trudeau, Legault, as well as representatives of the federal Conservative Party and the NDP. They speak almost as if in unison, saying that constitutional reform is simply not a priority for Canadians.
But we know that Trudeau and Legault championed forms of democratic reform when they were in opposition–such as adapting proportional representation–and abandoned these endeavours as soon as they took power. It is incredibly cynical for politicians who so routinely advocate for reforming and improving our democracy to abandon these efforts and then argue the very reforms they championed threaten the unity of the nation.
Time and again, the people are fooled into believing their elected leaders are champions of democracy when once in power they aggressively oppose reform and insincerely mischaracterize broad desires for amelioration as niche special interests out of touch with the people’s bread-and-butter concerns.
When the elite claims to speak for all, and speak against even the most straightforward of reforms, they reveal their true selves. This oath could easily be rewritten to drop references to the monarchy without necessarily addressing all of Canada’s unresolved constitutional issues.
If federal and provincial leaders were genuinely capable of the leadership they so often espouse, Canada could make the necessary minor constitutional adjustments that come with being an evolving democracy.
It seems to me, however, that this is not what the political elite want. They will promise us reform and transparency and whatever else they need to get elected and then go about doing the exact opposite. Those who criticize are ostracized.
It is remarkable how often Canada’s Constitution and Charter are mentioned as hallmarks of refined modern democracy. Yet the Constitution is so often used as an impediment to our democratic evolution, while our Charter rights are so frequently abused by the those in power.
It is not that Canada cannot change. We regularly demonstrate our dissatisfaction and just as often propose alternatives to the status quo. It is that most of our so-called leaders and representatives get elected specifically because they will bend over backwards to prevent change.
The recent coronation of British Columbia’s new premier is ample evidence of the establishment’s aversion to the new, the bold, and the innovative. This is untenable.
Can a nation where the deck is stacked in favour of a self-preserving and self-serving elite have any hope of genuine reform?
Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montréal. In addition to writing regularly for Canadian Dimension, he contributes to the Toronto Star, Jacobin, Cult MTL, The Maple, DeSmog, and the Montréal Review of Books, among others. He holds an MA in Public History from Duquesne University and has worked on the restoration of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home. He is also a frequent contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia, and once debated several Canadian prime ministers at once on matters of foreign policy.