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Media Bites: The Oath to the Queen Is Canada's Hazing Ritual

07/18/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 09/17/2013 05:12 EDT

When you raise your right hand in a courtroom and utter that cliched vow to speak "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," you're supposed to interpret your words as a binding legal contract. Obviously this isn't literally true -- lying under oath is a crime not because we think it's bad to break a promise but because it's evil and destructive to deliberately deceive a judge and jury -- but the symbolism stands. We're orally confirming that yes, lying in court is bad, and yes, I promise I won't. It's a useful tradition.

But not all oral confirmations are created equal. Take Canada's oath of citizenship. A bunch of people are challenging it before an Ontario judge at the moment on the basis that it's neither a meaningful symbol nor a useful tradition, just an absurd and oppressive indignity.

They're right. Consider -- becoming a citizen of this country requires publicly declaring the following:

"I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen."

Would you be willing to say that in public?

The case's plaintiffs are a motley crew possessing no shortage of problems with that mouthful, yet two of their three arguments are rather esoteric and unconvincing. One guy is an Irishman who regards an oath to Mrs. Windsor as an affront to his family's anti-British heritage; another is a Rastafarian who thinks it violates her eccentric faith (Rastafarians apparently believing Elizabeth II to be the "whore of Babylon").

Such touchy-feely cries of victimization help explain the rather harsh backlash this case has provoked -- even among those otherwise indifferent to the Crown. Since Canadians aren't supposed to express open distaste for multiculturalism (or indeed immigration, period) these days, such side issues invariably become outlets for pent-up nativist rage. These are our traditions, ungrateful foreigners, fumes Matt Gurney at the National Post, and "if you can't sign up for all of it, we don't need you." (I'm reminded of South Park's "if you don't like America, you can giiiiit ouuuuuut!")

Fair enough. The group's third argument, however, is far more inclusive and compelling. It posits the idea that by requiring immigrants to recite this weird oath to the Queen, Canada's creating two tiers of citizenship bearing unequal burden.

"Our people are serious people," said the group's lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, on a recent Victoria radio show (which also featured yours truly). "If they take an oath they would feel bound by it, and they would feel after taking such an oath they couldn't participate in republican activities."

"It makes people who become citizens [though naturalization] have lesser rights than people who were born in Canada and have citizenship," he added, "namely they're saddled with this oath."

To this, the presiding judge had a snippy retort -- oh, don't be so literal.

"You swear an oath to the monarch but it doesn't stop you from speaking against the monarchy the next minute," His Honour replied during oral arguments last Friday.

Indeed it doesn't. Considering around 20 per cent of our population was born elsewhere, landed immigrants almost certainly make up a significant chunk of the 40 per cent of Canadians who'd like to ditch Queenie and elect a fellow Canuck as head of state. The idea that "republican activities" could constitute reasonable grounds for deportation, likewise, is an argument I doubt even the Monarchist League is regressive enough to make.

But think about what this means: the first official obligation of Canadian citizenship is basically lying to public official. Immigrants swear to be faithful to Her Majesty knowing full well that they're actually free to be faithless as they please. So is the bit about observing "the laws of Canada" optional, too?

Now, some will argue, as Adam Dodek did in Monday's Ottawa Citizen, for a more creative interpretation; that Elizabeth II is "a symbol of the Canadian political system and of the state itself," so pledging allegiance to her really means pledging allegiance to all that. But who died and gave her that exalted status? (Other than, y'know, her father.)

The fact that most Canadians can easily imagine their country sans royalty suggests Liz's role isn't really as central to everything as monarchists often claim. So why designate a figure who can barely unify the already-here as the one newcomers must embrace?

All laws in this country have to pass a vote in the Senate before taking effect, but it'd be sadistic to demand an oath of loyalty to Canada's upper chamber on the pretext it "shows respect for Canada's parliamentary system." Or how about swearing personal obedience to The Right Honourable Stephen J. Harper to show "respect for federal authority?"

Frankly, in a nation with political institutions as contentious and polarizing as ours, no single office or body can credibly claim to personify the whole messy principle of "democracy." So why not just pledge allegiance to the principle itself?

An oath to democracy might lack flair, but it gets the point across. Heck, the native-born might even be comfortable reciting it!

But that's idle dreaming. This court case probably won't go anywhere and we'll keep forcing our newest citizens to perform a ritual humiliation few of us would dream of enduring.

That's not a welcome. That's a hazing.

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