Lady Justice: Symbolism, Colonialism and Religion

Being admitted to the Bar of the province of Alberta and becoming a lawyer is a privilege and necessitates first taking an oath of allegiance pursuant to the Alberta Oaths of Office Act. After being admitted, I recall eagerly looking forward to having someone ask me what I did for a living. Nineteen years of public school and a year of articling and I had achieved my nine-year-old dream. There I was, taking a taxi in downtown Calgary, carrying my briefcase. The driver popped the question, I replied, and by the end of the trip he acknowledged me as a lawyerette. Anti-climatic perhaps, it just doesn’t have the same ring.

I don’t recall the same desire to be recognized when my first occupation was strawberry picker. I was the nine-year-old lawyer to be, wearing my sun hat and kneeling on my sponge pad picking strawberries, who cared what anyone else thought? I turned in my full cartons and gathered my tokens which were later exchanged for money. I was rich! I used the money earned to buy a brand-new banana seat bicycle. I had gained my freedom to endlessly explore the roads around my hometown with my little sister as passenger. That was a straightforward gig, show up and work.

Having to take the oath of office did not come easily. I had discovered I had to state: I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law. Now, whereas I did not think twice about licking the back of stamps with her on them, nor flipping coins with her as “heads”, nor using bills with her stamped on them – this was kind of pushing it. Who was she to us? This was now personal, and I did not agree with a monarchy, constitutional or not. Was I going to let this be a hurdle in light of a near lifelong dream about to be realized? I believed I had to come to terms with it by accepting it as symbolism. Okay. This was NOT going to be a dealbreaker, too many fish to fry. I took this for granted until suddenly she turned into King Charles, a rude awakening.

Another rude awakening was when I found out about residential schools a few years back. The history books and educational system lied to me (at least by omission). It was like that moment when the twin towers were struck on 9/11 and you recall where you were. An indigenous articling student advised me how he was struggling to have to take the oath in light of colonialism. I struggled “just” on principle.

What about if the oath contradicts your religious beliefs? The province is actually being sued on the basis that swearing the specific oath would contradict a law student’s religious beliefs.

The Law Society, 32 law professors (all of them I believe) and organizations such as the Alberta Civil Trial Lawyers Association (I am on their External Advocacy Committee) have written letters to our government. How much energy is being exhausted? The province just successfully changed the names of “Masters” to Applications Judges in honour of those carrying out that role. But what about those at the bottom of the legal totem pole, the almost lawyers that discover this potential hurdle? Other jurisdictions such as Ontario and B.C. have made the oath optional.

Our laws have long recognized, as does the Oaths of Office Act, which is less than a page long, that one can solemnly affirm versus swear the oath, and omit reference to “so help me God”. The Queen’s death gave us an opportunity, if we are changing the signs anyway, to amend all this history. But the monarchy seems more durable than a god. Dear Alberta government, please prioritize this issue, it is more than symbolic.

Donna Purcell, K.C., (aka Lady Justice) is a Central Alberta lawyer and Chief Innovation Officer with Donna Purcell QC Law. If you have legal questions, contact dpurcell@dpqclaw.com.


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