Dissent over citizenship oath: Immigrants spurn swearing allegiance to Queen

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Amid all the swooning expected during Prince William and Kate's presence at a Canada Day citizenship ceremony, there will be some immigrants strumming a chord of discontent.

A small group of people will play guitars and wave placards outside the Ottawa-area ceremony because they resent having to swear the mandatory oath of allegiance to the Queen.

They will stage a mock citizenship ceremony where applicants take an oath to Canada, rather than the monarchy, and they will sing tunes touting Canadian republicanism.

Among Friday's demonstrators will be a Caribbean man who has longed to become a Canadian citizen for 56 years, but won't for as long as he has to swear allegiance to the Royal Family.

Charles Roach refuses to deliver a pledge to a throne he says carved a legacy of oppression, imperialism and racism.

The 77-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago is not alone, as other potential Canadians are deciding to remain non-Canadian.

"The institution itself is offensive to me," said Roach, a lawyer and civil-rights activist from Toronto who has been fighting in the courts since the 1990s to remove the royal reference from the oath.

"I don't believe that anyone should have a political status just because of your birth and I feel strongly about that.

"For that reason, I wouldn't take an oath to any such institution, which is based on race and religion."

Every new citizen 14 years and older must recite and sign the oath; more than 140,000 people recited it in 2010 and nearly 2,000 are expected to utter the words across the country on Canada Day alone.

Roach doesn't know how many otherwise-qualified Canadian citizens actually reject the oath, but he estimates the numbers could be in the thousands.

Taking a stand against swearing allegiance is a sacrifice, as potential Canadians give up numerous rights of citizenship — including the right to vote.

They are also barred from running for public office and cannot enjoy the travelling freedoms of a Canadian passport, all while paying taxes like citizens. Technically, they could even be deported for committing certain crimes.

Immigration Canada said it doesn't keep statistics on how many Canadian residents refuse to swear the oath.

Department spokeswoman Rachelle Bedard explained that, in Canada, allegiance is pledged to the Queen — rather than a document like a constitution, a banner like a flag, or a geopolitical entity like a country.

Canada's immigration minister says many applicants are perfectly delighted to take the oath, particularly in front of the royal newlyweds.

"The citizenship candidates I met yesterday were thrilled that they'll take their oaths in presence of TRH (Their Royal Highnesses) the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge," Jason Kenney wrote this week on his Twitter account.

"Friday will be the 1st time ever that members of our Royal Family participate in a citizenship ceremony.

"(It) will be a high point of the tour."

To become a Canadian citizen, a candidate must pledge the following: "I, ..., do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God."

Some resisters say they won't utter the words due to the throne's legacy of bloody colonial rule, slavery and other human-rights abuses around the globe. Others oppose it on religious reasons, or because they resent hereditary power.

For some, it's about freedom of conscience.

Roach is leading his second court challenge against the oath, arguing it violates the conscience guarantees under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He wants the wording to change so that prospective Canadians would instead pledge allegiance to Canada, instead of the Queen.

His goal is for Canada to follow Australia, a Commonwealth country that amended its citizenship oath in the 1990s by replacing its promise to the monarchy with a pledge of loyalty to "Australia and its people."

Roach's first suit was unsuccessful, but he said he will be back in the courtroom this fall to resume his latest case, which began in 2005.

In the suit, Roach represents himself and three other oath resisters — immigrants from the United States, India and Ireland.

Fellow suitor Michael McAteer, an Irishman who moved to Canada in 1964, has refused to swear an oath to the Queen as a matter of conscience.

McAteer, 77, has met other immigrants who won't take the oath, each for his own set of reasons.

"For them, the monarchy, it's sort of associated with imperialism, with colonialism, with oppression for a lot of people and a kind of a bulwark against independence of being masters in your own homeland," said the retired journalist, whose father was an Irish republican.

"This is Canada in the 21st century. The demographics of Canada have changed dramatically now. There are so many people who are non-white and are of non-British (descent)."

He said he knows of others who have reluctantly taken the oath — some of whom have crossed their fingers or mumbled the words.

A spokesman for the Monarchist League of Canada says removing the oath's pledge to the Crown would be a "terrible travesty."

Matthew Rowe, who represents the organization's Ottawa-area branch, argues the oath of allegiance to the Queen is an integral part of the Canadian identity.

Rowe said he welcomes debate about the future of the oath and the monarchy's presence in Canada. The freedom to express opinions is one of the many benefits the Crown has instilled in Canada, he added.

That tradition deserves respect, he argued.

"The country wasn't invented on the back of a cocktail napkin yesterday — you don't just trash symbols because a few people my have some issues with it," said Rowe, who will not attend William and Kate's citizenship ceremony because he will be busy staking out a spot on Parliament Hill to watch their appearance later in the day.

He also noted that while every country has historical baggage, complex legacies are a normal part of each nation's fabric.

"Maybe there might victims of beaver attacks that think that we should get rid of the beaver because that's really hurt their family," Rowe said.

"That's fair comment, but you don't just strip down symbols, you don't just take them away just based on a few protests."

Canadian politicians have also taken steps to preserve the existing oath, including a 2009 private member's bill introduced by Sen. Hugh Segal.

It called for the use of the notwithstanding clause to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to maintain the current oath of citizenship.

Roach believes the bill, which never passed, was drawn up in response to his court battle.

He's confident it's just a matter of time before the oath is altered — especially in a country that has already adopted its own flag and national anthem.

On the first Canada Day that Roach spent in the country, Canadians sang God Save the Queen under the Union Jack of the Red Ensign.

These symbols have since been replaced by O Canada! and the Maple Leaf. Roach predicts the royal oath will be next.

"I think that's going to change within the next four to five years," said Roach, who insists he holds no personal grudges against the current Queen or Prince William and Kate.

"The probabilities are high."

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