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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 ...

Departmental officials stressed this was to further signal citizenship is for those who intend to live, work and integrate 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.

Higher penalties

The penalties for fraud – by either an applicant or a citizenship consultant – are being substantially hiked. Such fraud can include lying about whether someone lives in Canada or has adequate knowledge of the country, or misrepresenting whether any criminal issues would prevent someone from getting citizenship. Current penalties included a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or a year in prison. The new fines include a maximum fine of $100,000 and/or five years in prison.

The changes also include stiff penalties in extreme cases to more quickly strip citizenship from someone and force them from the country, though Canada acknowledges it cannot leave someone stateless, and therefore can’t strip citizenship from someone with only a Canadian passport.

Other changes

The bill includes provisions for granting citizenship to so-called “Lost Canadians,” a subject the government tried to tackle in 2009 but where loopholes persisted. The new bill will give citizenship to those born before 1947, as well as their children born abroad.

The new rules also will force prospective citizens to file taxes in Canada while they wait to apply for citizenship, and started the process to create national standards for citizenship consultants, currently a self-regulated field where professionals had asked the government to set a standard and ward off unqualified workers. Permanent residents who serve in the Canadian Forces will also be allowed to apply up to a year earlier for citizenship.

The context

This is the latest change that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have made to immigration in Canada. Others include an overhaul of the refugee system, in which Canada created a list of so-called safe countries where it doesn’t expect legitimate cases – a response to what it said was abuse from asylum seekers from those countries. In turn, refugee cases last year dropped to half their previous levels, with the government saying it hoped to focus on core cases.

The government is also introducing a new “Expression of Interest” immigration system, one that would fast-track residency applications for those who are matched to an empty job in Canada. As well, Ottawa has overhauled the Temporary Foreign Worker program, which has swelled under the Conservative government’s watch, and further reforms are expected this year.

“I think they’re starting to realize they’ve made many mistakes on immigration in the past. This bill makes many mistakes, but we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Thursday.

What’s not mentioned in the bill

Birth tourism

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has indicated the government is looking at ways to deal with so-called birth tourism. The term describes a case where a woman gives birth to a child in Canada despite not being a citizen here. Under the traditional principle of jus soli, a Latin term meaning right of soil, Canadian citizenship is granted to children born in this country. Another crude term is “anchor baby,” children who automatically get citizenship and could then hypothetically facilitate citizenship for their parents. It’s a topic fraught with complication, and other countries avoid the issue by not automatically granting babies citizenship. Mr. Alexander and his predecessor, Jason Kenney, had both called for changes to ward off the practice, but this bill doesn’t tackle it. Mr. Alexander told the CBC last month that changes are coming soon. “I would expect action on that front this year,” he said.

Citizens of convenienceMany Canadian passport holders rarely set foot in the country and are seen as “citizens of convenience,” according to a Foreign Affairs briefing memo released under Access to Information laws. In the memo, senior bureaucrats urged government to consider either a residency requirement of some tax implications to make sure aid is not given to the citizens of convenience. The memo also suggested the minister consider giving a lower level of consular help if a Canadian was travelling on another country’s passport.

The memo prompted no suggestion that the government would follow it, and in this bill they did not – full consular services appear preserved, regardless of whether they live in Canada or file taxes here. The new law does, however, introduce a provision that would see government seize a Canadian passport from a dual citizen if they are convicted of certain crimes abroad, such as terrorism, espionage and treason.

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