The Conservative government's overhaul of Canada's citizenship rules is on the verge of passing in the House of Commons despite a threat of a legal challenge and with minister Chris Alexander under fire over the new powers in the bill.
Bill C-24, touted as the first robust update of citizenship laws in a generation, was set to pass third reading as soon as Thursday evening in the House. It is under simultaneous study in the Senate, suggesting it could become law before summer.
(How is Ottawa changing citizenship laws? Read The Globe's 10-point breakdown)
The bill generally makes it tougher to become a Canadian, with residency and language requirements, while giving the minister more power to strip citizenship in certain cases and boosting penalties for fraud.
"This bill is historic because it addresses an asset that Canadians consider absolutely fundamental to their identity," Mr. Alexander, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, said on Thursday.
However, the bill has been a lightning rod in Parliament – senators admonished Mr. Alexander on Thursday in an often-heated committee meeting for being overly partisan – and among many experts who have spoken against it.
A letter sent this week to MPs from Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati – who filed a successful challenge against the government's appointment of Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court – objected to the provision on stripping people of their citizenship, saying Bill C-24 should be immediately referred to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. Mr. Galati, writing on behalf of the Constitutional Rights Centre, threatened to take "every judicial proceeding possible against Bill C-24."
Mr. Alexander stressed that citizenship can be taken only from dual nationals – Canada would not leave someone stateless – who have been convicted of treason, espionage or terrorism. The provision could apply to a Canadian-born citizen who has citizenship in another country. "We're talking about revocation of dual-nationals wherever they're born for very rare and very serious crimes," Mr. Alexander told The Globe this week. Citizenship can also be revoked if people lie, or commit fraud, in their application.
Barbara Jackman, a member of the Canadian Bar Association's National Immigration Law Section, told Senate hearings the bill is a slippery slope that could lead to citizenship being revoked for lesser crimes, and "may well be beyond the constitutional framework."
Another critic, however, said citizenship revocation is not new.
"They've been doing that for a long time. I was born in Canada; they removed my citizenship in 1961," said Vancouver resident Don Chapman, head of a group called Lost Canadians. The bill tries to restore citizenship to people such as Mr. Chapman who lost it when they or their parents moved, or who were born to a Canadian abroad, but Mr. Chapman says it falls short.
"This is just a band-aid on top of a band-aid on top of a band-aid," he said.
The bill will also require citizenship applicants to declare an "intent to reside" in Canada, another controversial move. Along with boosted penalties for fraud, it raised fears people would be stripped of citizenship for leaving the country. "The government should be encouraging citizenship, not discouraging it. Amend this bill and remove the 'intention' clause," Barbara Caruso, another member of the CBA's Immigration Law Section, told senators.
Mr. Alexander said flatly that would not happen. "There's no requirement for a citizen of Canada to remain physically in Canada, once granted in citizenship," he said.
Liberal Senator Art Eggleton said the bill does allow for a court hearing for people who object to losing their citizenship. The power is in the hands of the minister. Mr. Alexander earlier said there is a de facto appeal right. "Anyone can go to the federal court if they think the government has not fulfilled its statutory mandates. And they do go," he told The Globe.