Is it possible to sit in the National Assembly illegally and with full legitimacy, or in other words, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon he can in his knightly fight against King Charles III. have the butter and the butter’s money? As surprising as it may seem, the answer appears to be yes, but on condition that it be joined by the National Assembly in its desire to test the limits of Canada’s constitution.
The obligation of MPs to take the oath before taking office is spelled out in detail in the constitution, even going so far as to prescribe specific wording. In short, difficult to escape with linguistic acrobatics. Rather, there is a lack of clarity as to the sanctions applicable to offending members. In the absence of clarity, Parliament may have the prerogative to decide how to proceed free from government and even largely judicial interference. It enjoys a legal attachment called “parliamentary privilege” which allows elected officials to manage their internal affairs among themselves.
Our brave knight Paul is therefore trying to lower the drawbridge of the National Assembly to find legal refuge there. He aspires to be recognized as a legitimate Member of Parliament upon application, notwithstanding his breach of the constitutionally required oath to the King. This would allow him to continue his act of civil disobedience to the constitutional monarchy without having to face the short-term consequences.
However, this approach would have the effect of transferring this act of disobedience from the individual level to the institutional level of the National Assembly. The watertightness of the Fortress of Parliamentary Privilege could possibly be tested. While the courts have little power over the administration of Parliament, they still have the big end of the stick to determine the constitutionality of the resulting laws. It is reasonable to assume that the votes of some unsworn MPs would not challenge the constitutionality of laws passed by a majority of the National Assembly, but things could be different if a majority of MPs turn their backs on the oath in the monarchy constitution required.
A more permanent and comprehensive solution to the problem could be achieved through a bill amending the oath formula defined in the Constitution. This path also harbors risks, as the formula for amending this constitutional obligation remains uncertain. Many constitutional scholars have a liberal interpretation of what is part of Quebec’s internal constitution, which can be unilaterally amended by Quebec.
However, the “Office of the Queen” is one of the issues requiring provincial unanimity to be amended in the Canadian Constitution. Uncertainty therefore remains as to the ability of the National Assembly to legally and unilaterally alter the practice of taking the oath to the King.
And here is the fundamental question asked by the leader of the Parti Quebecois. Yes, questioning the place of monarchy in our constitutional system carries risks, but why not try to update constitutional practice with the tools at our disposal? The point here is not to question the very foundations of the rule of law, but to test the flexibility of the living tree that is meant to be our Canadian constitution. Do we have more to do with an oak tree or a reed when it comes time to try to set aside a colonial and anachronistic practice? It’s still embarrassing to see the survival in 2022 of an oath that originated with an Anglican king’s desire to bar Catholics from government offices.
There will always be someone to remind us that these symbol stakes are not “the real deal”. In turn, the medieval battle led by the leader of the PQ also reminds us that politics is not just made of bricks and mortar, but also of history and institutions. In any case, Mr St-Pierre Plamondon will have managed to occupy the vast media space created by the blow between the elections and the swearing-in of Parliament while he was Future Quebec Coalition to decide on the commitments of his new project to the nationalists.
In all of this debate, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon may not have the king’s head, but he will at least have demonstrated that the king is constitutionally naked in Quebec.
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