The Oath of Allegiance in Canada has a colourful history. Tracing its origins from the United Kingdom, the young British colonies that would eventually become Canada inherited deep European religious and social tensions that were reflected within the statutory oath of the particular time. In this post we will briefly explore the British roots of the oath of alligiance in Canada and we will trace the historical development of the modern oath.
A Snapshot of the Times: The Victorian Era British Oath
The first British North American colony to gain an elected assembly in what would become Canada was Nova Scotia. This historical body met for the first time in 1758 and, as a result of the fact that a Canadian law had not yet diverged from British statutory and common law, members swore the same oathes of office as MPs of the British parliament in London, England. At that time there were three oaths required of members who had gained elected office; “the oath of allegiance to the King, the oath of supremacy denouncing Catholicism and papal authority, and the oath of abjuration, repudiating all rights of James II and his descendants to the English Throne” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009). Naturally, these oaths prevented Catholics and Jews from seeking elected office in the legislative assemblies of the British colonies. The cause of existence of each oath lay in a paranoid monarchy attempting to galvanize the Church of England against Papal authority. To some extent, these fears came with European settlers into the New World (even dipping toward modern times, for example the Kennedy campaign had to address his Catholic faith) but it is safe to conclude that the importance of personal religious faith was low to most British North American settlers. However, the English statutory requirement for the oaths remained and hence their introduction in immature legislative assemblies of British North America.
Prior to the establishment of elected legislative assemblies in North America, London passed the Popish Recusants Act of 1605 which established a new oath of allegiance establishing the spiritual authority of the English Crown. It read:
I, A.B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge, that our sovereign lord, King James, is lawful and rightful King and that the pope neither of himself nor by any authority of Church or See of Rome, or by any other means with any other, has any power to depose the king etc, or to authorize any foreign prince to invade him, or to give licence to any to bear arms, raise tumults, etc. Also I do swear that notwithstanding any sentence of excommunication or deprivation I will bear allegiance and true faith to his Majesty. And I do further swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position,–that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever. And I do believe that the pope has no power to absolve me from this oath. I do swear according to the plain and common sense, and understanding of the same words. (King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom, 2000)
In addition to the oath of allegiance, elected members were required to swear the oath of supremacy (preventing Catholics from seeking office):
I, A. B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience that the Queen’s Highness is the only supreme governor of this realm, and of all other her Highness’s dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes, as temporal, and that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm; and therefore I do utterly renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities and authorities, and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true allegiance to the Queen’s Highness, her heirs and lawful successors, and to my power shall assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences, privileges and authorities granted or belonging to the Queen’s Highness, her heirs or successors, or united or annexed to the imperial crown of this realm. So help me God, and by the contents of this Book [the Bible]. (Life in Elizabethan England)
A third, and final, oath was required, the oath of abjuration (preventing Jews from seeking office):
I ..; Do abjure and renounce the Pope’s Supremacy and Authority over the Catholic Church in General, and over my self in Particular; And I do believe that there is not any Transubstantiation in the Sacrament of the Lords Supper, or in the Elements of Bread and Wine after Consecration thereof, by any Person whatsoever; And I do also believe, that there is not any Purgatory, Or that the consecrated Host, Crucifixes, or Images, ought to be worshipped, or that any worship is due unto any of them; And I also believe that Salvation cannot be Merited by Works, and all Doctrines in affirmation of the said Points; I do abjure and renounce, without any Equivocation, Mental Reservation, or secret Evasion whatsoever, taking the words by me spoken, according to the common and usual meaning of them. So help me God. (British History Online)
The Canadian Model: Nova Scotia and the Oaths of Office
When the first legislative assembly met, it had conducted business in similar fashion to that of the Mother Parliament, and thus the three oaths of office were a requirement in order for elected members to take their seats. The result was that Catholics and Jews who were unwilling to take the public oath (and most were) did not take their elected seats or otherwise did not bother with standing for election. At any rate, until 1789 Catholics and Jews were not permitted to vote in the British colonies and “Catholics were not permitted to sit in the Assembly without first taking the declaration against transubstantiation; Jews were also barred from sitting in the Assembly because of the oath of abjuration” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009). All of the British colonies at one point had a policy which prevented Catholics and Jews from seeking officer and/or voting in the legislative assembly as a result of the oaths of office.
It was not until the capture of Quebec City that the British Crown began to review the requirement for the oaths of office and offered a concession to the Catholic majority in the former French colony. In 1774, “the Quebec Act provided, among other matters, that Roman Catholics no longer had to take the oath of supremacy, substituting an oath of allegiance, should they wish to assume public office. The oath of abjuration still prevented Jews from assuming public office” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009).
In 1832, Lower Canada passed a law which gave Jews the same rights and privileges as other citizens, the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do so. When the United Province of Canada was established, the provisions of the Constitutional Act, 1791 regarding the oath of allegiance were carried over into the Union Act, 1840. At Confederation, the requirement for members of the Senate, House of Commons and provincial legislative assemblies to swear an oath of allegiance was included in the Constitution Act, 1867. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009)
The Modern Era: Canadian House of Commons
Regardless of the colourful past of the oaths of office in Canada which were inherited from our European parents, the Canadian House of Commons never had a discriminatory oath for Catholics or Jews. By 1867, and the passage of the British North America Act which established the Dominion of Canada among Upper Canada, Lower Canada and a handful of maritime colonies, the English parliament had departed from the practice of barring Catholics from office in North America. The legislative assemblies in turn broke down restrictions placed on people of the Jewish faith. A year after Confederation, the British parliament passed Promissory Oaths Act, 1868 which established a simple oath, void of references to religious faith. The oath read as follows:
I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will well and truly serve Her Majesty Queen Victoria in the office of (Insert office of). So help me God. (Promissory Oaths Act, 1868)
Conclusion: Why Have an Oath?
It would seem odd that we even have an oath of office given the struggle for human rights when looking in the past. But the reason for the oath is simple and it is contained within a clause of the Magna Carta:
Once the terms had been finalised on 19 June, the rebels again swore allegiance to King John. The later Bill of Rights (1689) included the Oath of Allegiance to the crown, which was required by Magna Carta to be taken by all crown servants and members of the judiciary. (British Library)