3 Indigenous women challenge Alberta's mandatory oath to King amid lawsuit

Provincial legislation requires that lawyers vow to 'be faithful and bear true allegiance' to the reigning monarch, their heirs and successors. (Cort Sloan/CBC - image credit)
Provincial legislation requires that lawyers vow to 'be faithful and bear true allegiance' to the reigning monarch, their heirs and successors. (Cort Sloan/CBC - image credit)

Three Indigenous women aspiring to become lawyers in Alberta are challenging the King's Oath, because they say swearing an oath to the monarchy is modern colonialism.

Anita Cardinal, who is set to graduate law school next year, and Janice Makokis and Rachel Snow, who graduated from law school in 2010 and 2013 respectively, are unable to practise law, they say, until the mandatory oath one swears when called to the bar is amended, or an alternative oath is provided.

"The oath is a trigger of intergenerational trauma for most Indigenous law students," Cardinal said. "It is a trigger for me."

Provincial legislation requires that lawyers vow to "be faithful and bear true allegiance" to the reigning monarch, their heirs and successors. After the death of Queen Elizabeth, those called to the bar must swear allegiance to King Charles.

Cardinal, Snow, and Makokis filed an intervener application — a procedural device that, if approved, allows a non-party to participate in a legal proceeding — in an ongoing lawsuit against the oath.

Prabjot Singh Wirring, a Sikh articling student, is suing the Alberta government and the Law Society of Alberta, because swearing a mandatory oath to the Queen contradicts his religious beliefs. When the proceeding began, Queen Elizabeth was still alive.

The three women, each representing one of the three treaty territories in Alberta, argued the oath infringes their treaty and inherent rights, as well as individual rights of conscience and religion protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The intervener application was denied last Friday, however.

During the hearing, Nicholas Trofimuk, a Crown council member, said the historical treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada was not relevant to the specific case for intervener status.

Orlagh O'Kelly, the lawyer representing the three women, said considering mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada is always relevant, no matter the legal case.

"The impact that government laws have on Indigenous peoples, on reconciliation, and on perpetuating historic discrimination and the impacts of intergenerational trauma is always relevant," O'Kelly said.

"It should always be considered when looking at the Charter."

Oath 'more than just words': Cardinal

Wirring's case, which will be before the court Thursday, could set a precedent by making the oath an option for people who can not — or do not want to — give allegiance to the monarch when they're called to the bar, Cardinal said.

Cardinal, who wants to be called to the bar in the spring, hopes people understand the oath is "more than just words."

"There's a symbol, a meaning behind those words that is harmful and it is violent and it is racist," Cardinal said.

If the oath is not amended, then the government's genuineness toward reconciliation will be thrown into question, Snow told CBC News in a statement.

"If I as an Indigenous person... cannot keep my counsel and integrity in my own Indigenous legal traditions, then why is lip service still being given to the notion of reconciliation?" said Snow, who, if the oath is amended, will seek to join the Law Society of Alberta.

In its statement of defence for Wirring's case, the Alberta government says the oath is "a symbolic commitment to the democratic system of governance,"  the constitution and the rule of law.

Cardinal disagrees, and she's unsure why the province is aiming to strike down Wirring's claim, given other provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, have opted to make the oath optional, or offer a different oath.

Reconciling with Indigenous peoples requires finding ways to work together, she said. Forcing those people to swear allegiance to a symbol of colonialism goes against that, and disregards the Indigenous people living in Alberta.

The Law Society of Alberta, the self-governing body that sets standards for Alberta lawyers, has opted not to take a stance on the issue.