PSPP Paul St-Pierre Plamondon King Charles III oath Quebec Parti Québécois monarchy

PSPP vs. the King: theatrics or principle?

“Plamondon making headlines with this has distracted from the fact that the PQ just posted its weakest election results ever. And yet his defiant stance against swearing allegiance to the British monarch has arguably allowed others to take a step in that direction.”

Momentum is building for Quebec’s National Assembly to stop requiring that its members pledge allegiance to the King before assuming office. Since Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon got the ball rolling by expressing his unwillingness to swear allegiance to King Charles III — even though the secretary general of the legislature told him that changing the law is not within its jurisdiction, and that elected officials had to take both oaths to the King and the Quebec people in order to sit — more Quebecers (and the ROC) seem to be debating it. 

Of course, opinions on Plamondon’s stance vary considerably. While some are applauding him for standing up for his principles (and, in all honesty, there is nothing strange or disingenuous about a politician whose end goal is Quebec independence not wanting to swear allegiance, even symbolically, to the British monarchy), others are harshly criticizing him for engaging in purposeless political theatre while Quebec faces much bigger challenges. Both would be right. 

Not a hero… 

Partisan politics being what they are, some PQ voters sound like they’re about a day away from renaming Plamondon William Wallace and building him a statue for “bravely” taking on the big, bad British. There’s almost an element of cosplay in the air among certain nationalist circles since the issue has made headlines. A video recently released online showed several Quebec personalities repeating a fictional oath in which they “deny any allegiance, any submission to Charles III, declared King of Canada.” Frankly, I find these theatrics a little corny and just as convincing as the PQ circulating a Quebec passport a few years ago. It comes off as immature “make believe” rather than a mature political party presenting sound policy and legitimate, non-sentimental reasons why Quebec voters should support sovereignty. 

Brave? Plamondon won’t be jailed or persecuted if he opts out of the oath, and I certainly don’t see him giving up his seat. If anything, he’ll be forced to go to court and perhaps goes down in history as the one who kickstarts a constitutional crisis. But I really don’t see that happening either. If sovereigntist parties were envisioning a fight, they may be sorrily disappointed as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t currently appear to show any desire for one. My guess is he’s going to let Quebec figure this one out on its own for now. 

Plamondon’s stance on the oath is frankly low-hanging fruit and plays quite well to his base, which expects him to fight back against the Anglocentric status quo. While Quebec voters may soon tire of the theatrics and realize it’s taking far too much attention away from far more pressing matters (like our disastrous healthcare system, overflowing ERs, crumbling schools, historic labour shortages and looming recession, for starters), many will continue to see it as a principled stance, and his political gamble will only increase his clout with party hardliners. 

It’s also smart strategy. Plamondon making headlines with this has momentarily (and, some would say, very conveniently) made many forget that the party posted its weakest showing in the history of the PQ’s existence. What was once a major political player in Quebec has now been reduced to three seats (seven fewer than in 2018) and it will take much more than political theatre to get them up in the polls. 

But not a zero either…

But small player or not for the moment, the desire to resist swearing allegiance has always been there for many, and Plamondon’s defiant stance has arguably allowed others to also take another step in that direction. On Wednesday, the 11 Québec Solidaire MNAs elected on Oct. 3 responded to his call for support from other parties. They, too, refused to take the oath of allegiance to the King, with QS co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois referring to the oath as “colonial, antiquated and outdated.” With PQ MNAs also swearing in this Friday, Dubois-Nadeau admitted that “the ball is now in the court of the elected officials.”

While both the CAQ and the Quebec Liberals have stated they would be open to discussing a motion to make the oath optional, both parties agree that MNAs must swear both oaths in order to sit in the National Assembly. In other words, these are the rules of the game, and you can only change them once you start playing. The 21 Liberal and 90 CAQ MNAs all affirmed their allegiance to the King this past Tuesday. 

Some constitutional experts, however, believe Quebec can unilaterally change elements of the Constitution that affect only Quebec. Whether the process to do so will be short or long, easy or complicated, impossible to achieve or solved via a new law voted in by the National Assembly, remains to be seen. With both the PQ and QS’s party status at limbo now while Plamondon and Nadeau-Dubois appear to play a constant game of political chicken with each other over who’s more sovereigntist (it will be interesting to see how this dynamic develops over the next four years), it remains to be seen whether a decision can be reached before the National Assembly resumes on Nov. 15, because right now we’re at an impasse. 

Most don’t care about the monarchy

The reality is, while constitutional experts and nationalists might be eyeing a potential fight with interest, most of us don’t really care about engaging in one. But we also don’t care about an oath to the monarchy, even if it’s just a largely symbolic ceremony that affects absolutely nothing about the National Assembly’s day-to-day operations. 

An overwhelming majority of Quebecers (79%) agree with Plamondon that swearing an oath of allegiance to the monarch should be optional. Quebecers who think the ROC are staunch, dyed-in-the-wool monarchists might be surprised to find out that most Canadians also feel the same way. Plamondon’s refusal to swear allegiance has been mostly greeted in the ROC with shrugging indifference and, often, enthusiastic agreement. 

The PQ insists that according to legal experts, and despite the Constitution Act of 1867 requesting an oath before one can sit as an MNA, there is no obligation for the National Assembly to take action against elected officials who refuse to take one. That loophole might be enough to allow both the PQ and QS to have their cake and eat it, too. It’s, of course, a gamble, because these two parties are now throwing the ball back to a CAQ majority government and in essence asking it to cooperate with them on this. But considering how little appetite there really is for all things monarchy in Quebec, maybe it’s a gamble that will pay off for them.

A long time in the making

It should be noted that resistance to this obligation isn’t new. In 2018, the 10 QS elected officials pronounced their oath to Queen Elizabeth, but they did it behind closed doors. The following year, QS MNA Sol Zanetti tabled a bill aiming to make the oath optional, but it never went further.

While many have understandably questioned why the PQ, while in power, didn’t bring forth a motion to make swearing an oath optional, the reality is that much has changed since then. 

The timing appears to be right. Since Queen Elizabeth’s death, momentum has been building for the abolition of the monarchy in Canada and we’ve witnessed an increase in debates about the pertinence and necessity of the British Monarchy’s role in Canadian affairs. While the Canadian Constitution makes it practically impossible (or, at the very least, extremely difficult) for us to abolish the monarchy, I see making the oath to the monarch optional as a legitimate and valid compromise — or, at the very least, a step in the right direction. 

It satisfies those who feel offended by the practice while not necessitating lengthy and costly constitutional challenges. While I’m not a constitutional lawyer and can’t even begin to understand the complex process that this could possibly set in motion, I also have enough faith in democracy to understand that it often allows legislators the ability to manoeuvre in messy ways on the road to solutions. On the one hand, you have two very motivated parties that want to remove the oath, and on the other hand, you have political parties that are very uninvested in it remaining, alongside a federal government that appears open to finding solutions. It’s not unrealistic to anticipate that one will be found.

The question that remains is what happens after this is all settled. Will we, once again, have four years of Quebec politics primarily focused on imaginary threats from the past and symbolic victories over the big bad English and all the “others” out to get us, or will our elected officials finally buckle down and deal with the present and — most importantly — the future. Because the future is coming at us hard — and King Charles and his antiquated rule don’t even remotely factor in as the main threat. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.