The federal government has tabled changes to Canada's citizenship law, billed as the first overhaul in a generation.
The rules make it tougher to get citizenship but also pledge to tackle the backlog of applications. Here are some of the major changes.
Longer waits to apply for citizenship
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.
Tougher language requirements
Applicants from age 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 applied only those aged to 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.
Residency fast-track for soldiers
This offers a faster track to citizenship for those who are a permanent resident who enlists with, or a foreign national on exchange with, the Canadian Forces. Doing so continuously essentially knocks a year off the residency requirement – after three years in the forces, a candidate is eligible to apply for citizenship.
Revoking citizenship from terrorists
Higher fines, prison sentences for fraud
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 are 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.
More power to the minister
The new rules concentrate more power in the hands of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, such as giving him the power to unilaterally grant citizenship. Critically, it also gives him the power to revoke citizenship without a court hearing in cases where “false representation or fraud” led to citizenship being granted. Under the outgoing rules, a subject facing that kind of revocation had a right to a court hearing. They no longer will.
Streamlining the application process
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 applications. 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, which is currently between two and three years and includes 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.
Prospective citizens will need to file taxes in Canada for four out of six years in order to submit an application for residency. The current rules don’t require them to file taxes in Canada. The changes don’t appear to affect Canadians working and living abroad.
Creates standards for registered citizenship consultants
Under the current rules, citizenship consultants aren’t registered or regulated by government, a system Ottawa says is vulnerable to abuse and fraud. The new law will define who an “authorized representative” is and develop regulations to create a regulatory body. Citizenship consultants had asked for this, to ward off those who aren’t legitimate professionals.
More help for "Lost Canadians"
Changes made in 2009 fixed a loophole that excluded citizenship for some so-called “Lost Canadians,” such as Jackie Scott, pictured above. Those changes applied to the vast majority of cases, departmental officials said, but the new rules tabled Thursday will further expand the initiative. Under the new rules, those born before 1947 in the country, and their first generation born abroad, will be eligible for citizenship.