Citizenship oath to Queen nearly nixed 20 years ago

New citizens would be swearing an oath to Canada rather than to the Queen had former prime minister Jean Chretien not gotten cold feet at the last minute, his former citizenship minister said Friday.

Toronto court hearing arguments against pledging allegiance to Queen for citizenship

Three Canadian permanent residents are arguing in court that they shouldn't be forced to take a pledge of allegiance to the Queen as a condition for citizenship. (Lewis Whyld/Press Association/Associated Press)

New citizens would be swearing an oath to Canada rather than to the Queen had former prime minister Jean Chretien not gotten cold feet at the last minute, his former citizenship minister said Friday.

As three permanent residents and the federal government argued the issue in court, Sergio Marchi said he had been poised to scrap the pledge of allegiance to the Queen two decades ago.

"I was very much of the belief that while we're a constitutional monarchy, we should be swearing an oath of allegiance to Canada," Marchi told The Canadian Press from Geneva.

"We were very close to doing this."

Under citizenship laws, would-be Canadians must pledge to be "faithful and bear true allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors."

Marchi, who served as citizenship and immigration minister under Chretien from 1993 to 1995, recalled watching people's eyes "glaze over" as they recited the oath, often pledging allegiance to her "hairs" instead of heirs.

More importantly, he said, changing to a pledge of allegiance to Canada — Australia had taken similar measures — would be a forward step in the country's growth begun a decade previously with the patriation of the constitution.

Marchi took his views to the then-prime minister.

"I believe fundamentally this oath is outdated, but more than that, the amending of the oath would be another step towards Canada's full maturity and independence," Marchi said he told Chretien.

"He seemed to like it and buy it."

With Chretien's blessing, Marchi said he assembled a group of writers and poets in Vancouver who produced oaths to Canada he described as beautiful, simple, powerful and modern.

Marchi said he prepared a document for a cabinet committee reflecting the changes and believed the oath to Her Majesty would soon become a relic of Canadian history.

Until the phone rang.

"Do you think the timing is good?" Marchi said Chretien was asking.

Faced with the looming Quebec referendum that had thrown separatists and federalists into a pitched battle that threatened to tear the country apart, Chretien was having serious second thoughts.

"I'm not sure I want to take on the separatists and the monarchists at the same time," Marchi said Chretien told him.

In response, Marchi said having a Canadian oath would benefit federalist forces in Quebec, even if many Canadians didn't like the idea.

Besides, he said, polls showed most Canadians favoured the change.

Still, the Liberal PM asked his minister to "park" the measure and Marchi did, knowing it might never resurface.

"He's the boss, so we deferred, and we never returned to it."

Chretien could not be immediately reached for comment.

In Ontario Superior Court Friday, three permanent residents argued the pledge to the Queen is discriminatory and violates their constitutional rights.

They oppose the oath on religious or conscientious grounds, saying they would be happy to pledge allegiance to Canada.

The government argues the oath has been around since Confederation and is an important symbol of the country's heritage.

At one point, Justice Edward Morgan called the oath merely a symbol, and said taking it wouldn't stop people from dissenting after they become citizens.

"If you swear an oath to the monarch, it doesn't stop you from speaking against the monarch in the next moment," said Morgan, who reserved his decision.

Conservative MP Peter Goldring was adamant the current oath should stay.

"I'm weary of a lot of these stories of people who come to a country seeking a fresh start (and) a fresh life and then not really wanting to subscribe into the type of society that the country is," Goldring said from Ottawa.

"If you don't agree with it, return."

Marchi said he still regrets the change was never made.

"History and traditions need to be respected but futures also need to be built."