Members of Parliament and senators may be able to dodge the centuries-old oath of allegiance to King Charles if a Liberal MP gets his pending private member’s bill passed.
Canadian monarchists say the bill is republicanism by stealth — part of a larger effort to slowly chip away at the Crown’s standing in Canada without actually scrapping the monarchy through a protracted constitutional fight with the provinces.
Canada’s republicans, meanwhile, are welcoming the bill as a necessary first step toward ridding the country of what they maintain is an outdated institution.
Section 128 of the Constitution demands that every newly elected or appointed parliamentarian swear that they will “be faithful and bear true allegiance” to the reigning monarch.
Under Canada’s founding document, a member cannot legally assume his or her seat in Parliament until they’ve taken the oath to the sovereign.
The monarch listed in the one-line oath is Queen Victoria, but the oath includes a line stating that the actual name will change from “time to time.”
Bill C-347, introduced by New Brunswick Liberal MP René Arseneault, would upend that tradition by allowing federal politicians to swear an “oath of office.”
That stripped-down oath would simply state that an office holder will carry out their duties “in the best interest of Canada while upholding its Constitution.”
Arseneault did not make himself available for an interview with CBC News.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said repeatedly that now is not the time to debate the monarchy’s role in Canada.
Trudeau has praised King Charles as a man “deeply aligned” with Canadian values, such as the fight against climate change and the pursuit of Indigenous reconciliation.
A spokesperson for Justice Minister Arif Virani said the government “will have more to say about this private member’s bill when it comes up for debate.” That will happen when Parliament returns later this month.
Arseneault has found a supporter in Pierre Vincent, a man with a long history of royal oath opposition.
Vincent, a former federal public servant and a member of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, challenged a similar requirement that bureaucrats swear allegiance to the sovereign.
Vincent, an Acadian, said he didn’t want the monarch’s name crossing his lips given the British role in the 18th century expulsion of his French-speaking ancestors from what’s now Atlantic Canada.
‘Colonial, medieval stuff’
“They gave me an ultimatum,” he said of the public service top brass. “They told me to take the oath or you’re fired and I told them, ‘Nope!'”
After a years-long battle, Vincent won and the oath was quietly dropped for bureaucrats.
Now, he wants parliamentarians to break with the past.
“Why are we still doing this colonial, medieval stuff that does not coincide with our modern views of diversity and inclusion? I mean, it’s ridiculous. It makes no sense,” Vincent told CBC News.
“You know, sacrificing virgins used to be a tradition in Mexico. They’ve dumped that. A tradition itself is not a good reason to be doing things like this, to be violating free speech.”
John Fraser is the president of Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada and a noted monarchist. He said the legislation is “a stupid idea.”
He said republicans are “foolishly” trying to dismantle Canada’s Westminster system of government, a parliamentary structure that has served the country well for more than 150 years.
He said Canada’s longstanding link to the Crown, an institution above the whims of partisan politics, is something to celebrate.
The Governor General, the King’s representative in Canada, is a check on political power — ensuring the prime minister commands the confidence of the House of Commons, Fraser said.
“We live in a constitutional Crown system and trying to break it up piecemeal is not a good way to run a country,” Fraser told CBC News.
“If the government of the day feels that it’s time for us to seriously consider becoming a republic, they should draft a referendum and present it to the people. But they also need a backup plan to replace it.”
Republicans have not settled on a viable alternative to the current system, Fraser said.
Would Canada adopt an appointed or elected presidential system? Would there be any difference between the head of state and the head of government, as there is now?
“Doing away with the oath — it’s all based on emotionalism,” Fraser said. “I don’t think we should marginalize something that is an integral part of our system of government. Look at how republics are faring right now. Look to the south, the U.S. Do we want that here?”
The Monarchist League of Canada has launched a letter-writing campaign, directing its members to ask MPs to quash the bill.
The group calls the legislation an effort to “promote republicanism via the well-cloaked back door.”
Neither camp has public opinion squarely on its side. Polls suggest country is split up the middle on whether it’s time to cut ties with the Crown.
There are also doubts about whether dropping the oath could be accomplished through legislation alone.
In the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2014 Senate reference, the justices affirmed that changes to “the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province” require the unanimous consent of the House of Commons, the Senate and all provincial legislatures.
Unanimity gives all partners in Canada “a veto on those topics that are considered the most essential to the survival of the state,” the court ruled.
There is a section of the Constitution that gives Parliament power over itself — but the court ruled there are limits to that power.
Barbara Messamore is a professor of history at the University of the Fraser Valley and an expert on the Crown in Canada.
She said dropping the oath actually would be a “profound change by stealth” to Canada’s system.
“This bill is being smuggled in under the guise of something that’s not very significant. And I would suggest to you that it is pretty significant,” she told CBC News. “I would never downplay an oath. It’s a promise.
“It’s not just about a personal allegiance to Charles. It’s about your allegiance to Canada’s Constitution, Canada’s people, Canada’s system of government. It’s not about the personal popularity of the sovereign — it’s about an allegiance to a broader system.”
Messamore said that if the bill passes, it could end up before the courts, where judges could decide whether Parliament can enact such a change unilaterally.
“The monarchy is at the heart of our Constitution in all sorts of ways. The whole parliamentary system is organized around it. I think that it naturally flows that any oath made by parliamentarians would have to include an allegiance to the Crown,” she said.