There’s Weirder Stuff Than Niqabs at Stake in the Citizenship Oath

It was reported with mild fanfare this week that new rules of royal succession have come into effect, with all Commonwealth countries now assenting to give girls equal standing in the British monarchy’s line of succession. However, a group of legal experts is challenging the validity of Canada’s assent in Quebec Superior Court, arguing that the provinces weren’t properly consulted. So at the moment, it’s really quite ambiguous just which royal lineage Canadians will owe their loyalty to in years ahead.

This may not be a burning concern to most Canadians, but it’s actually bound up with a more hotly-burning concern now preoccupying the nation: namely, the question of what facial covering may be worn when becoming a Canadian citizen. A wave of popular opinion holds, on a variety of grounds, that niqabs are just too weird to be tolerated at citizenship ceremonies. Yet however the complaint is parsed, this obsession with niqabs is pulling a veil over a much weirder problem: no one can explain with certainty just what the citizenship oath means.

We might as well all be hiding behind niqabs for shame at asking newcomers to recite these words we can hardly explain.

What we ask new citizens to recite is this: “I swear (or affirm) 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 fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.” While the oath’s latter half about laws and duties is fairly clear, the first part about the Queen is mired in thickets of legal and constitutional complexity.

An expert guide to these thickets is University of Ottawa’s Philippe Lagassé, who studies the interpretation of Canada’s constitutional monarchy. “In a Canadian context,” he explains, ‘the Queen’ refers either “to Elizabeth II as a natural person or to the Sovereign/Crown of Canada as a corporate entity and legal personality. The former is doubtlessly a British woman, while the latter is purely Canadian in law and the foundation of Canada as a sovereign state.” It may seem rude to think of our corgi-walking monarch as a corporate entity, but indeed the Queen of Canada is a ‘corporation sole’, which legally fuses an office-holder and an office into one. Hence, in Lagassé’s words, “the woman we call Queen Elizabeth II is the physical representation of the legal personality known as the Queen of Canada.” (And to complicate things, the woman in question also holds separate legal personalities as Queen of the United Kingdom, Queen of Australia and Queen of New Zealand.)

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The problem, however, is that Canadian legal experts disagree on fundamental issues here. When new Canadians become citizens, are they taking an oath to the Queen of Canada merely as a symbol of government (as our courts say) or also to Queen Elizabeth II as a flesh-and-blood person (as Lagassé and other scholars maintain)? If the oath is just to a legal entity, couldn’t that entity theoretically be unjoined from Elizabeth Windsor and conjoined with, say, Don Cherry or Shania Twain?

And if pledging fealty to the Queen of Canada as she and/or it now exists isn’t complex enough, there’s that even trickier bit about “heirs and successors”. Since Britain has recently changed its rules of succession but Canada’s assent to that change is legally dubious, could we end up owing fealty to a different line of sovereigns from that ruling the United Kingdom?

Depending on individual temperament, some Canadians might find these metaphysical intricacies wonderfully whimsical, like discovering Canada to be ruled by a Minister of Magic or a troika of pixies. Others might find the metaphysics intolerably obscure, and hold it grounds for rethinking the whole idea of constitutional monarchy.

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What no one can logically do, however, is claim that the presence of such murkiness at the heart of the oath sets a high standard for public transparency in the citizenship ceremony. The identity of any niqab-wearing person there is much clearer than the identity of the royal cipher to whom true allegiance is about to be sworn. We might as well all be hiding behind niqabs for shame at asking newcomers to recite these words we can hardly explain.

Pragmatic-minded people might retort that the weird mysteries of monarchy are beside the point: being Canadian is really about obeying our laws and performing the duties of citizenship. True enough—and by this pragmatic standard, it’s also true that anyone who passes a citizenship test and says the oath is committing to become a Canadian no matter what’s on her face.

Let’s not let metaphysical weirdness of any kind distract us from common-sense realities.

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