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Supreme Court won’t hear citizenship oath to Queen challenge

Michael McAteer is pictured in his Toronto home on Thursday, July 11, 2013. The former journalist, originally from Ireland, is one of three would-be citizens challenging the requirement to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

A group of immigrants who oppose the monarchy and have refused to become Canadian citizens because it involves swearing allegiance to the Queen will not have a chance to make their case in the Supreme Court of Canada.

The top court declined on Thursday to hear a constitutional challenge from three permanent residents in the Toronto area who have refused to swear the citizenship oath, meaning they cannot become Canadians and vote. As is customary, the court did not offer reasons for its decision.

Immigrants seeking citizenship are required to swear to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her Heirs and Successors," an oath the three people say violates their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and religion.

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They were trying to challenge an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling issued last August that the group was wrong to take the oath literally. That decision, citing previous Canadian court rulings, held that new citizens are not swearing allegiance to the Queen herself and that "the reference to the Queen is symbolic of our form of government and the unwritten constitutional principle of democracy."

That ruling, written by Justice Karen Weiler for the three-judge appeal panel, also held that a citizenship ceremony does not violate the appellants' freedom of expression because "they have the opportunity to publicly disavow what they consider to be the message conveyed by the oath" after they take it.

That's the odd course of action being considered by at least one of the appellants, University of Toronto math professor Dror Bar-Natan, a Princeton-educated Israeli and U.S. citizen who has lived in Canada since 2002.

"I think it is silly," he said of the notion of taking a vow and then publicly disavowing it. "I misunderstood the law in Canada. I thought vows had meaning."

While his wife and two university-aged sons have taken the oath, he has refused despite being eligible for citizenship. He acknowledges that the role of the monarchy is only a "minor thing" in Canada, but says swearing allegiance to a hereditary head of state still offends him.

"It used to be slaves were slaves, peasants were peasants, royalty were royalty," Prof. Bar-Natan said. "Much of it got erased, but a little bit remains, and I find this little bit extremely disturbing."

The other permanent residents behind the case include Irish-born retired journalist Michael McAteer, who has lived in Canada since 1964, and Simone Topey, a Rastafarian who claims swearing the oath to the Queen would violate her freedom of religion.

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Peter Rosenthal, a lawyer for the group, argues it is unfair that native-born Canadians – significant percentages of whom oppose the monarchy, according to polls – are not required to betray their views and swear allegiance to the Queen.

His clients' only options are swearing oaths they intend to disavow, or trying to persuade the federal government to change the law. While the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien contemplated rewriting the oath in the 1990s, a change now is unlikely given the monarchist bent of the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, who have restored the word "royal" to parts of the armed forces and ordered portraits of the Queen displayed in embassies.

Government lawyers on the oath case last year argued those who oppose Canada's "foundational constitutional structure" should not be entitled to become citizens and vote. A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander welcomed the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case, calling the oath a "pledge of mutual responsibility."

The Harper government is involved in another legal battle over the rules of citizenship ceremonies, vowing to challenge a recent Federal Court ruling that overturned a ban on wearing the face-covering niqab by Muslim women while taking the citizenship oath.

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