moved that Bill C-347, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (oath of office), be now read a second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to introduce my bill, Bill C-347. This bill proposes to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 regarding the oath to the monarch.
For Canadians who are listening, this bill is simply and more specifically intended to add an option for members elected to the House of Commons and all senators appointed to the Senate when they take their oath.
Let me reassure my colleagues here that Bill C-347 is not about whether or not someone is a monarchist or a republican; it is not about eliminating the monarchy in Canada. Even before I introduced this bill at first reading this past June, I made sure that we did not have to create a constitutional storm in this country in order to make this small but meaningful change.
It is simply about adding a second option to the oath of office that parliamentarians and senators are obliged to take before they take their seat and exercise their functions. That is all.
To those who think this is too complicated, I intend to demonstrate that the oath has never been static in Canada and has evolved over time.
Allow me to delve into the origins of the oath, which comes to us directly from the English Parliament. For transparency's sake, the historical overview I am about to share comes straight out of our very own manual, our bible, as it were, the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, 2017, by Bosc and Gagnon.
For starters, such an oath did not exist in England until the 16th century. The oath arose as a result of the political and religious conflicts in England, in particular the separation of the Church of England and the struggle between Protestants and Catholics for power. That is the actual origin of the oath to the monarch. In response to these religious conflicts, England adopted the Act of Supremacy in 1563.
That was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Her Act of Supremacy required elected members to swear an oath to the sovereign attesting that she held supreme power in the realm in both ecclesiastical and temporal matters. The oath was primarily directed at preventing Roman Catholics from holding public office.
In 1678, England added to this oath a declaration against transubstantiation to prevent Roman Catholics from sitting in Parliament. In 1701, the Jacobites tried to restore Catholicism in England. By all accounts, this did not please the Protestants at the time since they immediately brought in three oaths. I am talking about the Jacobites here because I am referring to James II, who I will talk about later.
I was saying that following this religious war, three new oaths were devised. There was the oath of allegiance to the monarch of England; the oath of supremacy, denouncing Catholicism and papal authority; and the oath of abjuration, which repudiated all rights of James II, a Catholic, and his descendants to the English throne.
Without going too deeply into historical weeds, Catholics were basically required to swear an oath to the monarch and denounce their own religion and papal authority. Since the oath of abjuration also had to be taken in the name of the Christian faith, it also prevented Jews from taking the oath.
I will spare members the genesis of what would eventually become the Canada of today. Suffice it to say that Nova Scotia was the province that had its first popular assembly elected in 1758. It agreed to adopt the same oath as that of England, thus preventing Catholics and Jews from voting or running for office.
Incidentally, it is through the oath of allegiance to the sovereign that England still bears, and always will bear, the shame of the heinous deportation of the Acadians, ancestors of mine and of many colleagues who sit here in this Parliament. It was a sad chapter in our history. England tried to deport an entire people and exterminate those who wanted to stay in Acadia.
Over the course of our pre-Confederation history, the oath of allegiance to the sovereign evolved in much the same way in each province. The objective was always to prevent Catholics and Jews from voting or entering prestigious occupations as lawyers, judges, mayors, government officials and so on.
However, the way that the oath was administered in each province before Confederation varied. One by one, between 1820 and 1850, the provinces relaxed the terms of the oath to finally allow Catholics to vote and run for election. These changes came later for Jews, between 1832 and 1846.
Then came the Canadian Confederation, on July 1, 1867, the same day that our Constitution Act took effect. Section 128 of the Constitution Act, 1867 reads as follows:
Every Member of the Senate or House of Commons of Canada shall before taking his Seat therein take and subscribe before the Governor General...the Oath of Allegiance contained in the Fifth Schedule to this Act;
Section 128 refers us to the fifth schedule, which reads as follows:
I A.B. do swear, That I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
Obviously, there is a note that tells us that the name of the monarch can change over time.
That is where the requirement for members of Parliament and senators to take the oath originates. I will not get into talking about the legislative amendments that were made to ensure that the name of the monarch changes to reflect the events of the time, but in this year of Canadian Confederation, members and senators still have to swear allegiance to the head of the Protestant Church, which still continues to offend the conscience of Canadians of other faiths, including French-speaking Catholics and Irish Catholics, among others.
If I am telling members about this history of the oath over time, it is to show it has never been static and that, on the contrary, it has adapted to the realities of the time and to the sensitivity of our society to make our country a place where everyone feels at home, notwithstanding his allegiances or profession of faith.
Following the Constitution Act, 1867, Canadian society continued to evolve, and the oath that members of Parliament and senators have been required to take since 1905 is no longer exactly mandatory as set out in our Constitution. I am sure most members are unaware of the fact that we can now make a solemn affirmation instead, without any constitutional amendment required. Instead of taking an oath to the Queen, we can make a solemn affirmation, which is what I did each of the three times I was elected. However, the 1867 Constitution has not yet been amended. How did that happen?
It is thanks to a 1905 law, which did not amend the Constitution and seems to have been unanimously approved, without any objections.
It occurred by royal instruction in the form provided by An Act to amend the law in relation to Promissory Notes, which was passed in England in the 31st and 32nd years of the reign of Queen Victoria.
The takeaway here is that, since 1905, our Parliament has never questioned the fact that, without a constitutional amendment, MPs and senators had the option to take an oath of allegiance to the monarch, as set out in the Constitution, or to make a solemn affirmation. This is the case even though section 128 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and its fifth schedule have never changed and still refer to an oath of allegiance to the monarch.
More recently, in 2022, members of the 43rd legislature of the National Assembly of Quebec unilaterally amended section 128 of the Constitution Act, 1867, to exempt Quebec MNAs from the requirement to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch once elected. This is another sign that our society continues to evolve and become more inclusive for elected members in this country.
It is in this spirit of continuum, inclusiveness and, above all, as a proud Canadian that I propose to officially modify, with the flavour of the 21st century, section 128 of the Constitution Acts, 1867 and its fifth schedule.
My Bill C‑347 would, for the first time in our history, allow MPs and senators to swear an oath of office that would be added to the fifth schedule. The oath would be as follows: “I, A.B., do swear that I will carry out my duties in the best interest of Canada while upholding its Constitution.”
I will repeat it in English. This addition to the fifth schedule of the Constitution Act would read as follows: “I, A.B., do swear that I will carry out my duties in the best interest of Canada while upholding its Constitution.”
Section 128 as we know it would remain unchanged but would become subsection 128(1), and subsection 128(2) would be added. It seems like section 128 has been lonely since 1867, so we are giving it a brother or sister that would say, “Notwithstanding subsection (1), every Member of the Senate or House of Commons of Canada may take and subscribe the Oath of Office contained in the Fifth Schedule to this Act instead of the Oath of Allegiance or may take and subscribe both.”
What could be more inclusive for our future MPs or senators than to let them decide, before they fulfill their noble duty, whether or not to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch, based on their choice, their conscience, their religion or their ethnic origin? At the same time, they could subscribe to an oath of office. For the first time in our history, when members arrive here, they would be able to take an oath of office, committing to work in the best interest of our country and in accordance with the Constitution.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, before introducing this bill at first reading, I made sure that we would not cause a constitutional storm in this country or have to seek the approval of every legislature in Canada, of Parliament and the Senate to make this change. We are able to do this through section 44 of our Constitution Act, 1982.
Section 44 states:
Subject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.
On that note, I will end my speech and answer any questions.