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Quebec’s government wants to end mandatory oath to King Charles III

Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon implores National Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms Veronique Michel to allow the members of his party to enter the provincial legislature in Quebec City last week after they refused to swear an oath of allegiance to King Charles III. (Philippe-Olivier Contant/AFP/Getty Images)

TORONTO — The government of Quebec introduced legislation on Tuesday that would drop the 155-year-old requirement that members of the provincial legislature swear an oath to the king of Canada.

To sit in the Assemblée nationale du Québec — the French-speaking province calls its legislature the National Assembly — lawmakers must swear two oaths. One is to the Quebec people. The other — a pledge that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles III” — is required by the Constitution Act of 1867.

With Premier François Legault’s conservative nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec government holding a majority of the seats in the legislature, the bill to “abolish” that oath is expected to pass.

Canada is one of 15 Commonwealth realms, countries where Charles is head of state. Several have been reassessing their relationship with the monarchy since the death in September of Queen Elizabeth II, a unifying figure more beloved than her first son.

The debate is particularly acute in the Caribbean, where the Black Lives Matter movement and scandal over Britain’s mistreatment of migrants from the British West Indies after World War II have forced a reckoning over the sins of empire and fueled new calls for reparations for the slave trade.

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Polls in Canada show declining support for the monarchy, but casting it off would be complicated. It would require the agreement of both houses of Parliament and the 10 provincial legislatures, and likely necessitate the renegotiation of the Crown’s treaties with First Nations peoples.

“Canadians have been through a lot of constitutional wrangling over the past decades,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said after Elizabeth’s death. “I think the appetite for what it would take when there are so many big things to focus on is simply a non-starter.”

Irritation about the oath among provincial lawmakers in Quebec dates back at least half a century to the dawn of the modern separatist movement. It’s been particularly strong among the province’s sovereigntists — those who want Quebec to declare independence from Canada.

The latest spark followed the landslide reelection of Legault’s government in October.

Members of the sovereigntist Québec solidaire and Parti Québécois parties swore they wouldn’t swear an oath to Charles when the legislature reconvened. The “absurdity” of the ritual “had gone on long enough,” Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said.

“Whether people are federalist, sovereigntist … everybody feels this malaise, this discomfort toward an act that just doesn’t make sense,” St-Pierre Plamondon told reporters.

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François Paradis, the outgoing speaker of the National Assembly, said last month that all of its lawmakers must swear the oath — no matter their malaise or discomfort. The sergeant-at-arms, he added, would be “legitimized” to expel those who refused to comply.

The 11 Québec solidaire holdouts later swore the oath behind closed doors, but the three Parti Québécois lawmakers did not. When they tried last week to enter the legislative chamber of the National Assembly, they were barred.

Jean-François Roberge, the province’s minister of democratic institutions, told reporters Tuesday that he would have introduced the bill even if opposition lawmakers had not made an issue of the oath after the election.

“I’m proud,” he said. “I think I’m lucky to have this duty.”

Quebec, perhaps more than any other province, has had a rocky relationship with the monarchy. Some view the institution as the personification of Britain’s conquest of New France in the 18th century and its colonial rule over the mostly French-speaking province.

Elizabeth’s visit to Quebec City in 1964 was marred by clashes between police and separatist protesters in what’s known as le samedi de la matraque — “Truncheon Saturday.” Charles’s appearance at a Montreal armory in 2009 was delayed by anti-monarchist and pro-independence demonstrators armed with eggs.

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Quebec stands out in other ways. In the other provinces, the lieutenant governor, the king’s representative, reads the speech from the throne, the address that outlines the government’s agenda to open a new session of the legislature. Quebec has a lieutenant governor, but the premier, the elected leader of the government, reads that speech.

Support for independence has ebbed in Quebec, but Legault has championed a nationalism based on Quebec identity. His government passed a controversial law in 2019 that bars civil servants from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab at work, and he has called for expanded powers over immigration.

The bill proposes adding a clause to Section 128 of the Constitution Act — the one mandating the oath — that says it “does not apply to Quebec.”

Whether that’s constitutional is another story. Pierre Thibault, an assistant dean at the University of Ottawa’s law school, said he doesn’t believe it is.

“Section 128 … applies to all provinces,” he said. “If we want to amend Section 128 of the constitution, we need a constitutional amendment. It cannot be done unilaterally by a province.”

Roberge said he was “confident” the bill would withstand legal challenges.

A spokeswoman for Trudeau did not respond to a question about whether the federal government planned to challenge the bill and referred The Washington Post to comments the prime minister made in October.

“It must be understood that these oaths are governed by the Assembly and Parliament themselves,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “The National Assembly has the right to decide how they want to organize their swearing-in process.”

Trudeau added that he had no plans to abolish the oath for federal lawmakers.

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Nearly a decade ago, a group of permanent residents challenged the requirement that new citizens swear or affirm that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors.”

They viewed that portion of the oath as a violation of their constitutional rights to equality, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience and expression. They argued that “the notion of personal fidelity to this foreign monarch is antiquated, undemocratic and elitist.”

In 2014, the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed their case, finding that their arguments were rooted in a “literal ‘plain meaning’ interpretation of the oath to the Queen in her personal capacity.”

“That interpretation was incorrect because it was inconsistent with the history, purpose and intention behind the oath,” the panel said. “The reference to the Queen in the citizenship oath is not to the Queen as an individual but to the Queen as a symbol of our form of government and the unwritten constitutional principle of democracy.”