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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

The Conservative government's proposed changes to Canada's citizenship laws include such dramatic gestures as stripping terrorists of their citizenship and requiring applicants to declare their intent to live in Canada.

But while many of the changes are substantive, such as the lengthening of residency requirements and a commitment to cutting citizenship wait times, they are also about conveying a message of what it means to be Canadian. Some observers suggest they are just the latest step in the slow and steady transformation of Canada's national symbols under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Even the location of Thursday's press conference was chosen for its symbolic value. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced the raft of proposals at Fort York, a historic site and former military barracks in downtown Toronto, rather than in Parliament. Mr. Alexander mentioned the fort's role in the War of 1812 and the importance of the "fight for Canada" in the development of the nation and its institutions.

Among the crowd of journalists were several members of the Canadian military in dress uniform. They were singled out by the minister and thanked. Seated in the front row and introduced before the minister's remarks was the managing director of the True Patriot Love Foundation, an organization dedicated to Canadian veterans. The minister also pledged, as part of this legislative package, that those serving in the military would soon be fast-tracked to the front of the line for citizenship applications. A similar provision exists in the U.S. It's not likely to apply to large numbers in Canada, but it does send a signal that the government values military service as one of the highest expressions of citizenship.

"More than anything, I think these reforms are about symbolism," said Sharry Aiken, an immigration expert and law professor at Queen's University. "They will play a big role in the public's understanding of what citizenship means."

Andrew Griffith, a former government director-general of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, also said that, in his view, a large part of the impact will be symbolic rather than practical.

The key message is that the government wants to enhance the value placed on citizenship by making it more difficult to obtain and by cracking down on those who try to obtain citizenship fraudulently. The government also intends, when possible, to revoke the citizenship of those who commit acts of terrorism, treason or spying abroad or take up arms against Canada, provided they are dual citizens and won't be rendered stateless.

"Citizenship is a privilege, not a right," Mr. Alexander said. "As a government we are confident these changes reflect what Canadians want.

"First they reinforce the value of citizenship. Second they strengthen the integrity of citizenship by countering fraudulent attempts to gain citizenship."

One of the biggest changes announced Thursday was that prospective citizens will be required to reside in Canada for four years out of six, rather than three years out of four. Prospective citizens will also now have to declare an intent to reside in Canada, a largely symbolic gesture according to Mr. Griffith, but one that signals a desire to target those who might want to obtain the benefits conferred by citizenship and reside in another country.

The bill also gives Mr. Alexander the power to grant discretionary citizenship on his own, or make a final decision on stripping citizenship in a "routine" case. Since 1977, about 100 people have had citizenship revoked for various reasons, the vast majority being fraud cases, according to a departmental spokesperson. Complex cases, such as a terrorism-related revocation, would be done through court under the new law.

The use of citizenship rules as an instrument of symbolic change began in 2009 with the introduction of a new citizenship study guide, Discover Canada, that placed significant emphasis on the monarchy and the military. The new citizenship tests, which were much more comprehensive and challenging, demanded more substantial knowledge of Canadian history, particularly military and political history, than they had in the past. In 2011, the government gave members of the military a prominent role at citizenship ceremonies. They are now to be included on the podium, alongside the citizenship judge, and invited to give a short speech, as well as to be included in the receiving line to congratulate new citizens.

"It's consistent with the government's attitude to active members of the military," Mr. Griffith said."In Discover Canada, one of the ways the government suggested that people could contribute was in the military and police."

What's in Bill C-24

Anti-terrorism provisions

This is a major change carried forward from a private member's bill that failed to pass last year. Critically, it applies only to dual citizens, as Canada isn't able to leave someone stateless. The new bill would allow Canada to strip citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism, treason or spying abroad. Authorities could also revoke citizenship from dual citizens involved in an organized "armed conflict" within Canada, and deny citizenship to permanent residents who do the same.

Catherine Dauvergne, a law professor at the University of British Columbia who studies immigration, called this change "possibly the most dangerous" reform because it creates a two-tier system and "expresses a profound lack of trust in the Canadian justice system," which would otherwise deal with criminal charges in domestic cases.

Shrinking role of the courtsThe Tories are shoving the courts aside in certain cases – not terrorism, but when Canada says a would-be citizen lies or commits fraud in an application. The old rules allowed the person facing that accusation to appeal to court, which could agree with the government or not. Under the new "streamlined" rules, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has unilateral power to strip citizenship from people he says committed fraud. The only recourse a person has is to make an argument to Mr. Alexander himself.

Only in extreme cases such as terrorism or espionage are the courts involved, and even then appeal rights are limited. The government acknowledged Thursday the minister can "decide on routine revocation cases," and that the court "could" be involved in others. It raises fears among some. "They're not routine cases, I'm dealing with them all the time," says Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman. "This act represents a serious erosion in the due process rights of Canadian citizens when the government considers revocations of citizenship."

Longer wait times to apply

The wait time for a resident to apply for citizenship is getting longer. Under the new rules, when passed, a resident will need to have lived at least four of six years in Canada, including at least half a year physically in the country for four of those six years. Previously, the requirement was that an applicant live three of four years in Canada, though with no minimum requirement to be physically present in those years, so long as they could somehow demonstrate they were living in the country.

The changes will also include a new question on a citizenship application form, asking applicants to declare an "intent to reside" in Canada as a citizen, with the government saying the purpose is to signal citizenship is meant for people who want to live in Canada. Departmental officials said no one will check if citizens actually do, but the Immigration Minister now has the power to revoke citizenship if people make "false representations" on their applications.

Faster processing

The current process takes three steps and includes a citizenship judge. The new one will take one step and require only a citizenship officer, with judges instead mostly presiding over citizenship ceremonies. The number of citizenship judges – 30 full-time-equivalent positions, currently – is expected to decline. The government is also adding a new $300 fee for adult applicants, who currently pay only 20 per cent of an application cost. A "right of citizenship" fee of $100 also remains in effect. Amid it all, the government hopes to cut down a backlog, currently between two and three years and including 320,000 cases, to one year by 2015-2016.

Liberal immigration critic John McCallum has doubts about raising the fee at a time when wait times have soared, roughly doubling since 2008. "The question that sticks out at me like a sore thumb is the quadrupling of the fee and the doubling of the processing time," he said.

Tougher language requirementsApplicants from ages 14 to 64 will now have to meet a language requirement in English or French, as well as a knowledge requirement in either language. Current rules apply only those aged 18 to 54, and the knowledge requirement could be done with the help of an interpreter. Interpreters now will not be allowed.

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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