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Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, speaks after unveiling changes to Canada's Citizenship Act in Toronto on Feb. 6, 2014. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, speaks after unveiling changes to Canada's Citizenship Act in Toronto on Feb. 6, 2014. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Chris Alexander’s flawed overhaul of citizenship law Add to ...

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has proposed a sweeping overhaul of Canada’s immigration policy that captures both the best and worst tendencies of the Harper government. Many of the changes tabled on Thursday address the most stubborn problems plaguing Canada’s immigration system. But the act is also sprinkled with small, illogical gestures that seem to serve no other function than to play to the biases of a narrow part of the Conservative base.

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Let’s begin with the good stuff. The most significant proposal would raise the residency bar, requiring applicants to live in Canada for four out of six years before being eligible for citizenship. The current rules only call for three years of residency over four years.

The longer residency requirement would go a ways toward cutting down on the number of “Canadians of convenience,” who hold Canadian passports for travel or consular assistance, yet have little connection to Canada. The new rules would also mean a resident would have to be physically present for at least six months of those years which they count toward qualifying for citizenship, while also filing taxes in Canada while waiting to apply.

Mr. Alexander also gets it right with a proposal to strengthen language requirements – widening the age range of applicants who must demonstrate French or English proficiency before being awarded citizenship. The new range, age 14 to 64, up from the current 18 to 54, recognizes that new Canadians must be equipped for the mainstream labour force.

It would have been best if the proposed changes to the immigration system had stopped there. Unfortunately, they do not.

One particularly problematic proposal would revoke the citizenship of “terrorists,” something that appears to have been salvaged from a private member’s bill that failed to pass (for good reason) last year. It would allow Canada to revoke the citizenship of any dual citizen involved in an “armed conflict” in Canada (should we face another Northwest Rebellion, we suppose). It would also open the door to stripping citizenship from any dual citizen convicted of terrorism, treason or spying abroad.

That is effectively creating two-tier citizenship. Canadians who commit crimes should be punished, and they are. But even Canadians behind bars are still Canadians. Loss of citizenship, except in cases of citizenship fraudulently obtained, should not be on the menu of possible punishments, even for the gravest crimes.

It was an earlier Conservative government, that of John Diefenbaker, that changed the law to ensure that Canadians could not be stripped of citizenship. The decision was made in the wake of a particularly damaging scandal: In 1957, former MP Fred Rose was stripped of his Canadian citizenship after being convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Diefenbaker thought that was wrong. Even in the case of treason, he didn’t believe any Canadian should ever again be threatened with a similar fate.

Mr. Alexander should be applauded for his efforts to make Canadian citizenship more meaningful. But turning back the clock, and making loss of citizenship a penalty for some crimes? It goes against what it means to be Canadian.

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