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Izza Ahmed of Toronto, and originally of Pakistan, takes an oath at a Canadian citizenship ceremony in Ottawa, Friday February 16, 2007. (FRED CHARTRAND/CP)
Izza Ahmed of Toronto, and originally of Pakistan, takes an oath at a Canadian citizenship ceremony in Ottawa, Friday February 16, 2007. (FRED CHARTRAND/CP)

Globe Editorial

New citizenship standards give freedom with speech Add to ...

Canada accepts more immigrants per capita than any other country in the world – save Australia. And more than three-quarters of all newcomers become citizens. With passports in hand, immigrants feel more invested in their adopted homeland, and are better able to integrate.

The recent decision by Citizenship and Immigration to tighten its rules on language competence should not be viewed as a burdensome or punitive act, but as a positive step designed to preserve the success of the Canadian model.

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Without the ability to converse in one or more of Canada’s official languages, newcomers cannot participate in mainstream institutions. They cannot partake in the culture and society around them, listen to political debates on television or talk to their neighbours. Highly skilled immigrants with better language skills also get better jobs. Ottawa invests millions of dollars in settlement and language training for newcomers.

Of course, the bar for citizenship should not be set too high, but high enough that language proficiency can be properly assessed. A multiple-choice written test is a poor measure. Testing people’s listening and speaking skills is a more accurate predictor of fluency. Citizenship and Immigration wants all newcomers to be able to take part in routine conversations about everyday topics, follow simple instructions and directions and use basic grammatical structures and tenses. This is entirely reasonable. Why shouldn’t language proficiency be a requirement for citizenship?

“Canadians support high levels of immigration because they perceive that immigrants make an economic contribution, and because they see multiculturalism as a focus for our national identity,” said Jeffrey Reitz, a University of Toronto sociologist. “But Canadians also want immigrants to blend in and learn English or French. That is one of the goals of multiculturalism.”

The integration of immigrants in such countries as Germany and the Netherlands has been much more problematic precisely because newcomers were not able to learn the language, or to acquire citizenship easily.

Strengthening these two fundamental pillars will ensure the continued success of the Canadian approach – which has become a model for European countries disenchanted with their own immigration programs.

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