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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)
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)

Ottawa proposes sweeping new citizenship rules to crack down on fraud, better define national identity Add to ...

The Conservative government’s proposed changes to Canada’s citizenship laws include such dramatic gestures as stripping terrorists of their citizenship and requiring applicants to declare their intent to live in Canada.

But while many of the changes are substantive, such as the lengthening of residency requirements and a commitment to cutting citizenship wait times, they are also about conveying a message of what it means to be Canadian. Some observers suggest they are just the latest step in the slow and steady transformation of Canada’s national symbols under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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Even the location of Thursday’s press conference was chosen for its symbolic value. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced the raft of proposals at Fort York, a historic site and former military barracks in downtown Toronto, rather than in Parliament. Mr. Alexander mentioned the fort’s role in the War of 1812 and the importance of the “fight for Canada” in the development of the nation and its institutions.

Among the crowd of journalists were several members of the Canadian military in dress uniform. They were singled out by the minister and thanked. Seated in the front row and introduced before the minister’s remarks was the managing director of the True Patriot Love Foundation, an organization dedicated to Canadian veterans. The minister also pledged, as part of this legislative package, that those serving in the military would soon be fast-tracked to the front of the line for citizenship applications. A similar provision exists in the U.S. It’s not likely to apply to large numbers in Canada, but it does send a signal that the government values military service as one of the highest expressions of citizenship.

“More than anything, I think these reforms are about symbolism,” said Sharry Aiken, an immigration expert and law professor at Queen’s University. “They will play a big role in the public’s understanding of what citizenship means.”

Andrew Griffith, a former government director-general of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, also said that, in his view, a large part of the impact will be symbolic rather than practical.

The key message is that the government wants to enhance the value placed on citizenship by making it more difficult to obtain and by cracking down on those who try to obtain citizenship fraudulently. The government also intends, when possible, to revoke the citizenship of those who commit acts of terrorism, treason or spying abroad or take up arms against Canada, provided they are dual citizens and won’t be rendered stateless.

“Citizenship is a privilege, not a right,” Mr. Alexander said. “As a government we are confident these changes reflect what Canadians want.

“First they reinforce the value of citizenship. Second they strengthen the integrity of citizenship by countering fraudulent attempts to gain citizenship.”

One of the biggest changes announced Thursday was that prospective citizens will be required to reside in Canada for four years out of six, rather than three years out of four. Prospective citizens will also now have to declare an intent to reside in Canada, a largely symbolic gesture according to Mr. Griffith, but one that signals a desire to target those who might want to obtain the benefits conferred by citizenship and reside in another country.

The bill also gives Mr. Alexander the power to grant discretionary citizenship on his own, or make a final decision on stripping citizenship in a “routine” case. Since 1977, about 100 people have had citizenship revoked for various reasons, the vast majority being fraud cases, according to a departmental spokesperson. Complex cases, such as a terrorism-related revocation, would be done through court under the new law.

The use of citizenship rules as an instrument of symbolic change began in 2009 with the introduction of a new citizenship study guide, Discover Canada, that placed significant emphasis on the monarchy and the military. The new citizenship tests, which were much more comprehensive and challenging, demanded more substantial knowledge of Canadian history, particularly military and political history, than they had in the past. In 2011, the government gave members of the military a prominent role at citizenship ceremonies. They are now to be included on the podium, alongside the citizenship judge, and invited to give a short speech, as well as to be included in the receiving line to congratulate new citizens.

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