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The Peace Tower of Parliament Hill is seen with the Supreme Court of Canada on May 22, 2014, in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
The Peace Tower of Parliament Hill is seen with the Supreme Court of Canada on May 22, 2014, in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Chapman and Cannon

Canadian citizenship must be a constitutional right Add to ...

Don Chapman is the author of The Lost Canadians: A Struggle for Citizenship Rights, Equality, and Identity. Chris Cannon is the editor of that book.

On Nov. 29, 2016, U.S.-president-elect Donald Trump suggested that any Americans caught burning the flag could lose their citizenship. The prospect is chilling, but typical of Mr. Trump’s uninformed bluster – U.S. citizenship is protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, specifically written to prevent future administrations from arbitrarily taking it away. The only way Americans can lose their legal citizenship is to voluntarily renounce it.

Not so for Canadians. Since Confederation, the treasured status of citizenship has been regularly redefined by shifting political winds, often bestowed upon a select group by one administration only to be later taken away by another.

Most Canadians are unaware that they have no actual right of citizenship, that it is just a temporary legislated privilege that can be changed or removed by a single court decision or xenophobic prime minister. Clearly, we have rights as citizens, guaranteed by our Charter, but having rights as a citizen is not the same as having the right of citizenship. Not even close.

With the 1947 Citizenship Act, Ottawa revoked the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of “lost Canadians” – people stripped of their birthright through no fault of their own. People could be born in Canada to Canadian parents, live in Canada their entire life, and then suddenly become stateless for a bizarre litany of reasons – if they were born out of wedlock, if they were the wrong race or religion, if they travelled abroad, even if they didn’t check in with the government on their 28th birthday.

Later administrations reinterpreted the Citizenship Act to mean there was no such thing as citizenship before 1947, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. So even though our Second World War soldiers were given an official document saying they were fighting as Canadian citizens, the Citizenship Act was later misused to retroactively nullify that promise.

The practical implication is that the more than 100,000 Canadian casualties from the First and Second World Wars never lived to become citizens, and many of their children have spent decades fighting for their right to citizenship, denied them simply because their fathers did not survive the war. The hallmark of former minister of citizenship and immigration Jason Kenney was the consistency with which he denied these applicants. Although many of these Canadians eventually regained their citizenship through parliamentary victories, too many died as they were simply waited out by Ottawa.

Particularly heinous is the untold number of Indigenous Canadians that are currently stateless because their parents never registered their births, rightfully fearing their children would be sent to a residential school. Now adults, these Canadians have no rights or benefits. They are citizens of nowhere, unable to legally work, marry, attend school, buy a home, get a loan, drive a car or even take a bus, train or plane without identification. They are ghosts in their own land, forced to live in the shadows.

Even recent amendments that reinstated citizenship to some have left many others stateless, and did nothing to prevent that reinstated status from being stripped in the future.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s policies further complicated citizenship rights, making second-class citizens of anyone with dual-citizenship status. With the current political turmoil in the United States, thousands of these dual citizens – especially targeted professionals such as journalists and human-rights workers – now face the painful option of renouncing their U.S. citizenship, fearing their second-class status in Canada could, on a whim from our leadership, force them to live in Mr. Trump’s United States.

Our national identity has no foundation if we have no inherent rights, and Mr. Trump’s idle threats against his own people prove how urgent it is to give serious thought to our Canadian citizenship – what it actually is, how we get it and how it’s lost.

As we approach our 150th birthday, this is the perfect time to focus on defining and protecting our identity. It is time to make citizenship a constitutional right. Pierre Trudeau gave us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Wouldn’t it be fitting for the Prime Minister to take the final step to true nationhood: an inviolable, constitutional right of citizenship.

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