Canada is overhauling its citizenship laws, raising the bar for people to apply to become Canadian and increasing penalties for those who scam the system.
The changes, tabled as Bill C-24 in the House of Commons on Thursday, will require would-be Canadians to wait longer to apply for citizenship and pass tougher language requirements to get it. It also aims to tackle a two- to three-year backlog of applications by streamlining the review process, while concentrating power in the hands of the Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander.
"Canadian citizenship is uniquely valuable in the world, a weighty privilege that involves both duty and rights, opportunity and responsibility," Mr. Alexander said at an announcement Thursday, adding: "As a government, we are confident these changes reflect what Canadians want."
The bill would give government the new power to strip citizenship in certain extreme cases, such as if a dual citizen takes part in a terrorist attack, and heavily beef up its existing power to revoke citizenship if someone lied to get it by allowing the minister to revoke citizenship without, as is currently required, giving the subject a chance to go to court.
The bill introduces a new $300 application fee for adult applicants, who currently only pay 20 per cent of their application costs, and pledges to cut the backlog to one year by the 2015-2016 year. It would do so by reducing a three-step citizenship approval process, that included a ciitzenship judge, to a one-step process that does not. "This may be the most welcome news in the short term," Mr. Alexander said of the aim to lower processing times.
He billed the overhaul as the most significant since 1977 when the Citizenship Act was introduced. Broadly, Bill C-24 is designed to send a message that Canada is looking for people who plan on settling in the country permanently and spending time here. "There's only one way to really to get to know Canada … and that is through direct experience of the life of this country," the minister said Thursday.
However, one professor who spoke to a parliamentary committee last year about some of the changes, when they were proposed in a since-abandoned bill, said the overhauls represent the government's "changing attitude towards immigration" and essentially move Canada away from the principles of multiculturalism.
"Rather than an open-door, multiculturalism policy, this is a policy about tightening up the meaning of what it is to be Canadian, and that narrows the meaning," said Catherine Dauvergne, a law professor at the University of British Columbia who studies immigration. "… A policy like this really says that we're concerned people are not Canadian enough, and that we need to police that more closely, and that the Canadian government has a monopoly on that definition of what it means to belong here."
One of the bill's biggest changes is an increased waiting period for residents who want to apply for citizenship. Under the outgoing rules, applicants had to reside in Canada for three out of four years, though there was no rule about how much time they actually spent physically in the country. The new rules allow them to apply after four years of residency in a six-year period, and they must be physically in the country for at least half the time in four of those years. They also have to file Canadian income taxes while waiting to apply for citizenship, and did not before.
"Requiring physical presence for this length of time in Canada better supports the integration of newcomers in Canadian society. It enables prospective citizens to develop a stronger connection to Canada. It encourages their sense of belonging here and fosters their full participation in Canadian life," Mr. Alexander said.
Language requirements are also stiffer. Previously, those 18 to 54 had to speak English or French and pass a Canadian knowledge test, with the help of an interpreter if needed. Now, the age range applies to those 14 to 64, and interpreters are no longer allowed.
The law will also allow Canada to strip citizenship from dual citizens if they're convicted of terrorism, treason or spying abroad – but not if they only have Canadian citizenship, as Canada can't leave a person stateless. They can also strip citizenship from dual citizens who are part of an "organized armed group engaged in armed conflict in Canada," or block citizenship applications from such people. It's a populist measure championed by one of cabinet's most powerful figures, Jason Kenney, though Prof. Dauvergne called it "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.
Other changes including closing a loophole to give citizenship to so-called lost Canadians born before 1947, and their foreign-born children. Speaking shortly after the bill's tabling, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said his party supported this provision, but said the bill had other problems, which he did not specify. "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," he said, adding the Conservative government has overhauled the immigration system to put a higher priority on temporary foreign workers, and less a priority on citizenship.
The bill will also fast-track citizenship applications for permanent residents who serve in the Canadian Forces, with Mr. Alexander making the announcement Thursday alongside soldiers at historic Fort York in Toronto, but it's unclear how many people that would affect.
The law would also create federal government guidelines to recognize professional citizenship consultants, and dramatically increases the fines for those convicted of immigration fraud – the maximum fine is hiked from $1,000 to $100,000, and the maximum prison sentence rises to five years from one.
Bill C-24 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.
Most of the changes will take effect once the bill is passed, though those already in the queue may see their applications processed more quickly.