Unlike her ancestor, Henry IV, the head that wears the crown of Canada will lie easy tonight, comfortable in the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a challenge to the Canadian oath of citizenship.
Last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the literal interpretation of the oath to the Queen is wrong, but that new Canadians can still be required to pledge an oath that is literally untrue. For anyone who takes the oath of citizenship seriously, as all Canadians should, this is an absurd requirement. After all, what’s the point of swearing an oath if its meaning is unclear?
More importantly, this doublethink that the oath requires of new citizens speaks to a more pervasive problem in our constitutional system. The Crown is the most powerful institution in Canada, but it is also completely powerless in our politics. The governor general is tasked with safeguarding our democracy, but is seen as illegitimate if that task requires opposing the prime minister’s wishes.
For most Canadians, the monarchy is an awkward but insignificant relic of our history. Royal fashion and scandals can be gossiped over in our tabloids, the Queen is on our currency, but beyond these glimpses of royalty we rarely think much about monarchy. To a small and vocal minority, this antiquated institution is even a source of pride. They argue that if the Queen’s role is merely symbolic, there’s no need to change anything.
The first problem with this reasoning is that mere symbolism is not enough. There is currently no effective check on executive power in Canada, meaning that a prime minister with a majority government can do virtually anything, at least in the short term, whether it’s constitutional or not. Our current prime minister derives all of his authority from the will of Parliament, and yet he has twice steamrolled the governor general into shutting down Parliament for purely political purposes.
Moreover, it is not enough to say that the Queen is symbolic and therefore unimportant. How we choose our head of state and what we choose as our national symbols affects our international reputation and our cultural development. Our common monarch with Great Britain was part of the Conservative government’s justification for sharing embassies in several countries, sacrificing Canada’s ability to develop a proud and unique identity separate from our colonial history.
According to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Queen represents the rule of law and democracy, but to many Canadians she represents just the opposite; class privilege, authoritarianism, and imperialism. What does it say to our children that the highest office they can aspire to is in service of someone who earned their position by their blood? If the Queen were a mere symbol, surely we could choose a better one.
The Supreme Court’s decision is not the end of this issue. The oath may not violate the charter, but it does violate Canadian ideals. Democracy, national independence, and meritocracy would be better served by replacing the Queen with a less contradictory symbol.
Nearly a decade of Conservative government has left us instinctively looking to the Supreme Court for leadership on progressive issues. However, all that the Supreme Court can offer is to make our laws compliant with the Constitution. Meaningful, substantive change can only come from Parliament. It’s time to reassert the progressive power of our democracy. Improving the oath of citizenship would be a strong start.