Madam Speaker, I am speaking today in response to Bill C-219, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (oath or solemn affirmation). I am generally supportive of the principle of this act.
Just to repeat, the bill would add to the current oath that we as members of Parliament swear. The current oath is very brief. It simply says, “I”--and then the person would give his or her name--“do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second...”.
The bill proposes to add the following words to that oath, “I”--again the person would give his or her name--“do swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will be loyal to Canada and that I will perform the duties of a member of the House of Commons honestly and justly”.
When I was sworn in, in November 2000, I proposed a secondary oath very similar to the one proposed here in addition to the one that is required by law. About 50 or 60 other members of Parliament did the same thing. This was a practice followed by some members of Parliament in 1997 and some others following the 1993 election. Therefore, the tradition of swearing an oath that is not strictly legally binding but which we regard as being morally binding upon ourselves of swearing an oath to the people of this country and to the country itself, in addition to our oath to the Queen, has been developing and growing.
The bill proposed by the hon. member does retain the existing oath. As an enthusiastic supporter of the monarchy, I am very grateful to the hon. member for having kept that in. I think it is important, not merely because of my own support for the monarchy but because there is a value in maintaining and keeping our traditions. This includes the traditional forms of our government and the traditional forms of our oath. I do not think that one necessarily has to be a monarchist to swear the oath. As I will explain a bit later on, I believe that the Queen and the monarchy is and has been understood to be a symbol and a representation of the Constitution itself.
It is important, however, as we go through a debate like this, that one ought not to put too much weight in an oath itself as a separate institution from the two relevant factors that govern us in our actions as members of Parliament: first, the act of being elected legally; and, second, the act of performing our duties in conformity with the norms of our society, the norms of this place and of course the law of the land. A failure to take the oath or a failure to take the oath in a manner that is genuinely enthusiastic and wholehearted does not, it seems to me, mean that one should not be permitted to sit in the House of Commons.
When the Parti Quebecois was first elected in Quebec in 1976, many members of the new government found it very difficult to take the oath that was then in effect for members of the Quebec provincial legislature. The saying was that they took the oath with their fingers crossed behind their backs. The oath of office was subsequently changed to read, “I”--and the person would give his or her name--“do solemnly affirm that I will be loyal to the people of Quebec and that I will perform the duties of a member honestly and justly in conformity with the Constitution of Quebec”.
While that sounds different, it is really very similar in practice to the oath that exists in Canada at the federal level because, as I say, the Queen was understood in 1867 to be the representative, the keystone, of our Constitution. This simply was an attempt to modernize the wording. While I regret the fact that the monarch was taken out of the Quebec oath, I think the substance is the same.
Similarly, I think what the hon. member is attempting to do in his proposed bill is to expand the current oath by reaffirming in more modern language the sentiment that was at the heart of the 1867 oath. Therefore, the two parts of the oath, the one that has existed since 1867 and the one being proposed by the hon. member, it seems to me, are actually parts of the same package and reaffirmations of the same sentiment.
What is particularly important in our actions as members of Parliament is that we act in conformity with the norms that govern the behaviour of members of Parliament and that we act in a spirit that conforms with the Constitution of the country. I do think there is a danger that members of either the federal or provincial Houses can act in a manner that is in contempt of their oath.
Taking an oath and then not following through on it is a very serious offence. In the most serious cases, and these are of course extraordinarily rare, it amounts to a betrayal of the Constitution that one has taken an oath to maintain. This has happened in a number of countries. It has happened, for example, to many American senators, congressmen and representatives who were elected in the 1850s and the 1860s. They subsequently violated their oath to represent the constitution of the United States. That act was terrible, indeed it was treasonous, but that did not prevent them from taking that oath initially.
The important thing is that we must always remember the substance of our oath of office, whatever those words may be, and that we follow through on those words as we perform our duties as members of Parliament.