TORONTO — The Ontario government said on Wednesday it was looking into rules requiring all municipal councillors to pledge allegiance to the Queen after an Indigenous councillor-elect refused to do so.
The issue arose in Hearst, Ont., where Gaetan Baillargeon said he was forced to vacate the seat he recently won in a general election because he wouldn’t take the oath.
“It’s inconsistent with my views regarding the relationship between the Crown and the Indigenous people of Canada,” Baillargeon said in an interview. “To me, the Queen represents residential schools, the reserves, and the breaking of all the treaties.”
Baillargeon, of the Constance Lake First Nation just west of Hearst, said he believed a pledge exemption existed for First Nations but the town clerk said no. He said the clerk told him he had to give up his seat or the swearing-in ceremony on Monday would have ground to a halt — something he said he didn’t want to have happen.
“I would rather have pledged allegiance to Canada and its laws, Ontario and to the people of Hearst,” Baillargeon said. “I want to pledge allegiance.”
Roger Sigouin, the mayor of the northern Ontario town of about 5,000, said the ball was in the government’s court.
“We’re behind (Baillargeon), 100 per cent,” Sigouin said on Wednesday. “The only thing is we wait and see what government is going to do. We didn’t have any choice because the law is there.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said he was aware of the concerns and was considering options.
“We are looking into the matter further,” Clark said in a statement. “At this time, there is no exception to the requirement to take the declaration of office prior to taking your seat as a local councillor.”
Under Section 232 of the Municipal Act, councillors are required to take the pledge in the form “established by the minister for that purpose.” The current incarnation, set in 2001, reads in part: “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second (or the reigning sovereign for the time being).”
“The declaration is established provincially and there is no local authority to amend the declaration,” Clark said.
At the same time, he said he hoped those elected could take their places to serve municipalities and their residents.
Sigouin, too, said he hoped the issue could be resolved before the council’s first meeting on Dec. 18, at which point council would have to declare the seat vacant, starting the 60-day countdown clock on a new vote or a replacement appointment.
Baillargeon said he didn’t want to give up his seat.
“The people of Hearst voted for me,” he said. “If I can’t make any changes, then what use am I as a politician.”
It’s not the first time the issue has surfaced.
In January 2011, the town of Hearst formally appealed to then-Liberal municipal affairs minister Rick Bartolucci to drop the requirement after a francophone councillor raised the issue. Bartolucci refused, saying it was not a priority for the government.
Other Indigenous politicians have been allowed to bend the rules in other situations by using Cree for a pledge or changing the wording, Baillargeon said.
The oath issue also surfaced a few years ago in a failed challenge to Canadian citizenship rules, which requires a pledge of allegiance to the Queen.
Sigouin said there was some irony in that the province has been adamant in recent years about consultations with Indigenous people as a precursor to any development of the north.
“Now we have a guy like Gaetan who is willing to sit at council to make a difference between both communities, to work together, but the regulation is not there,” Sigouin said. “So that’s where the government has got to jump and say, ‘OK, I think we have to do something about it.'”
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press