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Mina, Marijam, Horia and Farida (L-R), all from Afghanistan, take part in a Canadian citizenship class Jun 28, 2012 at the Afghan Women's Organization in Toronto.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Dozens of immigrants from Afghanistan began asking Anisa Sharifi for help two years ago. After failing the citizenship test, they all had the same question: How could they pass so they could become Canadians after living here for years?

"They're trying hard, they want to be in Canada, they're happy here," said Ms. Sharifi, a settlement worker with the Afghan Women's Organization in Toronto, one of the many organizations across the country that help prepare immigrants for the test.

Every year, about 170,000 immigrants become Canadian citizens, a title that comes with more than just the citizenship certificate handed over after taking an oath. It's the final step in immigrating to Canada and, as opposed to permanent residency, allows people to vote and carry a Canadian passport.

But obtaining that status has become more difficult in recent years. In 2010, the Conservatives overhauled the test, requiring a higher score to pass, emphasizing a need to speak English or French and making questions about Canadian history, identity and values more challenging.

The changes have hit some immigrant communities much harder than others, according to pass-rate data kept by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and obtained by The Globe and Mail. The new test appears to have widened the divide that separates successful and unsuccessful test takers by homeland, putting citizenship further out of reach for those who didn't speak English or French before or have familiarity with Canada's roots and customs.

Across the board, the failure rate jumped from less than 4 per cent in 2009 to nearly 15 per cent last year. Nearly half of the Afghan-born immigrants vying to become Canadians last year, for example, failed; that's compared to only 21 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile, fewer than 2 per cent of immigrants born in Australia, England and the United States failed last year.

The picture emerging from the fail rates, about what Canada requires from new cohorts of citizens, has critics questioning the government's current definition of "Canadian" and how difficult it should be to acquire the prized status.

"The question is, what is the function of these tests?" asked University of Toronto politics professor Phil Triadafilopoulos, who studies immigration and integration. "They play a gatekeeper role and they create, quite literally, a boundary or a barrier to people who are keen and interested in becoming Canadian citizens."

Theory and practice

In theory, the test is supposed to determine an immigrant's knowledge of Canada – among the topics are elections, rights and responsibilities, history and geography – as well as their language abilities. In practice, a pass or fail can hinge on questions that have been described as trivial by some test takers, on subjects including Canadian athletes, battles and discoveries.

The version of the test that's been used since 2010 is based on a revamped 68-page study guide, Discover Canada, which is slightly longer and covers more ground than the previous one. To pass the multiple-choice exam, applicants have to get 15 out of 20 questions correct, compared with only 12 previously. Government staff at the exam also assess test takers as they arrive, asking questions about their life in Canada to test their verbal language ability.

"Coming from a place that was ruled by Britain once upon a time means you're likely to do well and that's probably because you can read the guide more efficiently and read the test more efficiently," Prof. Triadafilopoulos said. He noted that the Conservatives' changes to the test have put a particular emphasis on military history and the monarchy.

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, says the new test is simply trying to reinforce requirements outlined in Canada's Citizenship Act, which sets out that citizens have to meet residency, language and civic-literacy thresholds. "We had devalued Canadian citizenship with the kind of paucity of content in the former guide and test. There was virtually nothing on Canadian history; there wasn't a single line on military history," Mr. Kenney said in an interview.

It wasn't anticipated that the new measures would affect different nationalities to such different extents, Mr. Kenney said.

Results are constantly monitored, he noted, and the differences between countries doesn't mean the playing field needs to be levelled. "I think some of those critics would have us fall trap to the poverty of low expectations," he said. "I believe that the test is sufficiently basic."

A de facto language test

Critics say the test functions as a de facto language test, driving many immigrant-service groups to offer citizenship classes in addition to language classes, with a heavy emphasis on grasping Canadian names and vocabulary likely to come up on the test.

The Vietnamese Association in Toronto is one of several groups that launched citizenship programs after fail rates skyrocketed. "The classes are a response to the need of the community," said settlement worker Phuong (Patricia) Do, who runs the classes.

For people born in Vietnam, test fail rates went from 14.8 per cent in 2005 to 41.2 per cent last year. Ms. Do argues that higher language standards are the greatest barrier to getting questions right on the test and reading the guidebook sent to applicants.

"They may have family responsibility such as taking care of the children, or getting a job to share their costs of living, and do not have a chance to learn English as much as they like," Ms. Do said, adding that many immigrants feel they can communicate in daily life but the test requires a higher proficiency.

Lien Le took the test in April in part because she feels citizenship, rather than permanent residency, will allow her to integrate into Canadian life as her two-year-old Canadian daughter grows up. Ms. Le, who worked as a biology teacher in Vietnam, has recently finished a Canadian college nursing program.

"I want to engage, be involved in society because my daughter was born here … so I want to get my citizenship as soon as possible," said Ms. Le, who came from Ho Chi Minh City in 2007 when her husband's application to sponsor her move to Canada was accepted.

She's still awaiting her test results. "Even though I studied hard, I found the test really, really tough," she said, noting many questions weren't straightforward and required critical thinking. She said many of her friends, who work long hours at labour jobs, are unable to dedicate time to studying and face extensive language barriers.

"I have a college diploma, I have experience with writing tests with multiple-choice questions, so I know what should be the best answer," she said. "But for those that … don't even have a high-school diploma, how can they pass the test?"

Ms. Sharifi of the Afghan Women's Organization is considering starting another weekly class this summer in Scarborough, in response to demand from the Afghan population.

The women in the classes often only end up there after they fail on their first attempt. "Most of them are so disappointed and they are coming seeking help," Ms. Sharifi said.

Nooria, who asked that only her first name be used, is one of Ms. Sharifi's students. She arrived in Toronto in 2006 from Pakistan after fleeing her home in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province in the 1990s because of the Taliban.

She and her husband failed the written test earlier this year after studying at home with their teenage children. After that, they went for an oral citizenship hearing with a judge, which is what happens when an applicant fails the written test. But they failed at that level, too.

The couple isn't alone: Approvals at the hearing level fell for all applicants to 50 per cent from 80 per cent in 2005.

"I was discouraged and I was disappointed but I'm trying hard," said Nooria, who used a translator for the interview but can speak English.

She's reapplied to start the citizenship process again and is now taking English and citizenship classes. As well as being able to apply for a Canadian passport, she said she just wants to complete the immigration process.

"I live here," she said. "This is like my home."

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