Skip to main content

A soldier salutes Veterans at the conclusion of a remembrance day ceremony at the cenotaph in the All Sappers' Memorial Park in Chilliwack November 11, 2013.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

It was a popular proposal last year that got rolled into the government's sprawling Citizenship Act changes – a passport fast-track for those in the military.

But federal figures show the provision will apply to very few people, and that current rules in some ways block the Conservative proposal.

The notion of a military fast-track to citizenship was first raised in a private member's bill tabled by Calgary MP Devinder Shory, and later championed by Jason Kenney – then the immigration minister – before the bill died on the order paper last summer. This year, Mr. Kenney's successor, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, revived the suggestion by rolling it into the new, wide-ranging Bill C-24, which the government says is the most substantial overhaul of citizenship rules in a generation.

Among the bill's many proposed changes is a provision that means serving in the military will essentially cut a year off the residency time needed for a permanent resident to apply for citizenship, "We want to acknowledge those individuals who devote their lives to serving Canada and making it the great country we know and love," Mr. Alexander said last month, according to his prepared speech, in announcing the bill. He made the announcement at a historic military garrison in Toronto, Fort York, and praised Mr. Shory by saying the provision "really shows our government's support for those who serve our country defending peace, freedom and democracy around the world."

Beyond the overtures and photo-op, however, there are barriers that signal the provision may never be widely used.

The foremost barrier is a blanket ban on permanent residents even serving in the military to begin with – they can only do so if an exception is made for a person with skills that are particularly in demand. And federal figures released under the Access to Information Act show, as of Mr. Alexander's announcement, there were just 23 landed immigrants – non-citizens – in the entire Canadian Forces, with another 30 in the reserves. To put those totals in context, there are 68,000 people in the Canadian Forces and another 27,000 in reserves.

For a non-citizen to be granted a "rare" exemption to serve, the military says an applicant must be seeking citizenship, suggesting the change will apply to most or all of those kinds of cases.

"To be eligible for enrolment in the CAF, an applicant must be a Canadian citizen. In certain rare circumstances, a waiver may be granted to citizens of other countries who hold permanent resident status in Canada," National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an e-mail, explaining the rules.

"A waiver may only be granted in the event that an applicant has a unique skill set deemed of benefit to the CAF, when a Canadian citizen cannot fill the position for which the waiver is sought, and if Canada's national interest would not be prejudiced. Additionally, the applicant must be actively pursuing Canadian citizenship," he added.

Bill C-24 also includes a proposed change that would apply to soldiers, from ally countries, who are stationed in Canada. The numbers there, too, are small. As of February, there were 151 soldiers from nine countries on exchange with the Canadian Forces. Under the proposal, should any of those in service of another country decide to switch to Canada, they can get citizenship a year sooner.

All told, the changes championed by Mr. Shory, Mr. Kenney and Mr. Alexander would apply to, under current military enrolment figures, 204 people – or 0.1 per cent of the roughly 160,000 new citizens Canada welcomes each year.

The bill was tabled Feb. 6, the day of Mr. Alexander's Fort York announcement, and remains in first reading in the House of Commons.

Josh Wingrove is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.