On Canada Day, the Toronto Star published a story about a civil rights lawyer who is fighting to be allowed to become a Canadian citizen on his own terms. Charles Roach came to Canada from Trinidad in 1955 and fulfilled the requirements for citizenship in the 1970s. His wife got her citizenship but he didn’t get his because he refuses to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath is at the centre of the citizenship ceremony for new citizens.
Roach says the Queen is a symbol of centuries of colonialism and racism. He and several other would-be citizens, one of whom is an Irish republican, have been fighting for years to have the oath of allegiance removed as a mandatory part of the citizenship ceremony. Their most recent lawsuit is in front of the Ontario Court of Appeal. With doctors predicting that terminal brain cancer will kill him within two years, this might be Roach’s last chance to become a Canadian citizen.
I know the oath, because I took it when I became a citizen myself about eight years ago.
I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
Eight years ago, I hadn’t heard that immigrants have to swear the oath while most natural-born citizens never have and never will. I hadn’t learned about the legacies of colonialism. I hadn’t realized that a hereditary monarchy violates the basic democratic premise that every person is born equal. I hadn’t read that conservative senator Hugh Segal, anticipating that the oath of allegiance might be challenged as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, had tried to use the “notwithstanding” clause to exempt it from Charter scrutiny.
Eight years ago, I hadn’t heard or learned or realized or read these things. So pledging fealty to Elizabeth II wasn’t a problem for me then. It would be a problem today.
But my opposition to hereditary monarchy is not a new or particularly interesting issue for me anymore. The more interesting question is where this opposition comes from. Why can’t I just sit back and enjoy a glamorous taxpayer-funded wedding? How did I become such a snarky anti-colonial killjoy?
The irony for many immigrants who take the oath is that they come from Commonwealth countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. — which decided a long time ago to replace the English monarch with elected local presidents. I was born in a former colony which wiped the Queen off its currency at the earliest possible opportunity. Singapore was once one of the most comfortable postings a British colonial officer could hope for. Pearl of the whatever. Country clubs and appreciative natives.
And the site of the largest surrender of British troops in history.
Our history textbooks didn’t say very much about the war in Europe, about Churchill’s rousing speeches during the Battle of Britain . We learned instead about the war in the Pacific, and how it unravelled the myth of British superiority.
Fortress Singapore, the rock around which the empire would organize its reconquest of southeast Asia. A reconquest made necessary when two of the empire’s battleships, the HMS Repulse and the brand-new HMS Prince of Wales, were sent to intimidate the Japanese and prevent them from landing on the coast of Malaya. The ships, sent without any air support, were sunk on December 8th, 1941, along with 840 sailors.
Fortress Singapore, defended by huge guns which faced south. Undone by February 1942 when the Japanese came from the north, riding bicycles through the formerly impenetrable Malayan jungle. Fortress Singapore, where about 85,000 English, Indian and Australian troops surrendered to about 30,000 Japanese troops after a week of fighting. A surrender not to France or Germany or some other acceptably European power, but to an Asian upstart.
The Japanese general, Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was eventually hanged for war crimes, said after the surrender:
“My attack on Singapore was a bluff, a bluff that worked… I was very frightened that all the time the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting.”
Instead, 80,000 British troops were signed away by their own general to prisoner-of-war camps and to the Siam-Burma Death Railway. The local population was abandoned to the amusement of demented Japanese soldiers. I heard these stories over and over again, from semi-retired old history teachers who’d lived through the years of Japanese occupation. About how the Japanese targeted the Chinese population. About the island, Pulau Belakang Mati (“island of death from behind”), where prisoners were taken to dig their own graves.
The Japanese were the villains in these stories, but the British were portrayed as the swaggering incompetents who’d earned decades of subservience based largely on the promise of protection. We were taught that when the British came back to Singapore after the war, they were welcomed back not as saviours but as administrators. And that from then it was only a matter of time before local leaders, no longer feeling quite so inferior, pushed them off and claimed independence.
This was the narrative I was immersed in until I was 12. I know now that the Singaporean government used anti-colonialism as one of several ingredients in a new nationalism created to bind four tense ethnic groups into one country. But those stories are still real enough. They allow me an entirely different perspective when talking to born-in-Canada friends about what degree of loyalty or reverence we owe to England’s colonial past.
This is my particular version of the irony that many immigrants are faced with when, coming from developing countries which are sometimes derided as “backwards” and excessively fond of tradition, we run smack into the Canadian custom of subservience to an English monarch. Our own countries of origin, flawed as they certainly are, overcame that decades ago.