For the Conservative government, it’s the standard strategy of waving a stick and a carrot. Only this time, there’s no carrot.
Earlier this month, Minister of Citizenship Chris Alexander tabled Bill C-24, an overhaul to Canada’s citizenship policy. The bill would make it more difficult to obtain Canadian citizenship, by increasing the residency and language requirements, while also increasing penalties for individuals who cheat the system.
Broadly, the bill intends to eliminate citizenship of convenience. It restricts Canadian citizenship to individuals who expect to live and work in Canada. “There’s only one way to really to get to know Canada… and that is through direct experience of the life of this country,” Mr. Alexander said. He added that “[a]s a government, we are confident these changes reflect what Canadians want.”
But there’s another thing that Canadian citizens want, and that’s increased protection when they go abroad. Canadian citizenship should not only be more exclusive, but also more meaningful wherever Canadians travel in the world.
Countries with weak or non-existent rule of law can demean the value of Canadian citizenship by wrongfully detaining or torturing Canadian citizens. Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, for example, were wrongfully detained in Egypt this past summer. Maher Arar (wrongfully detained and tortured in Syria), Abousfian Abdelrazik (wrongfully detained in the Sudan), Huseyincan Celil (wrongfully detained in China), and Michael Kapustin (wrongfully detained in Bulgaria) have also had their Canadian citizenship rendered trivial. Even the U.S. detained Omar Khadr (and allegedly tortured him), pursuant to the Guantanamo Bay regime that the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently labelled illegal and in clear violation of fundamental human rights protected by international law.
The Canadian government’s official legal position in the face of all this is that it holds no obligation to protect wrongfully detained or tortured Canadians abroad. It can choose on a case-by-case basis what citizens to protect. According to the website for Consular Services, the government “may” take steps to pressure the foreign authorities to abide by their international human rights obligations and provide basic minimum standards of protection. Emphasis on “may”. It may also take no steps at all.
Often, the government has justified inaction on the grounds that it should not be forced to protect so called “Canadians of convenience.” But by taking steps to eliminate these Canadians of convenience, the government has lost its excuse. All Canadians wrongfully detained or tortured abroad should now expect transparent, fair, and forceful action on their behalf by the Canadian government.
Along with Bill C-24, the government should push through Bill C-359, introduced last fall by MP Irwin Cotler to protect Canadians who are wrongfully detained or tortured abroad. This bill would require the Canadian government to investigate all circumstances where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a Canadian citizen is being detained abroad. Where a Canadian citizen is wrongfully detained or tortured abroad, the government would formally request his repatriation. The government would also report to Parliament on all Canadians wrongfully detained or tortured abroad.
Mr. Alexander rightly observes that “Canadian citizenship is uniquely valuable in the world, a weighty privilege that involves both duty and rights, opportunity and responsibility.” If the duties of Canadians increase, so should their rights. A more exclusive citizenship should also mean a more meaningful one.
Nicolas Rouleau is a constitutional lawyer and the executive director of the Council to Protect Canadians Abroad.