Kelsey P. Norman is a Fellow for the Middle East and Director of the Women’s Rights, Human Rights & Refugees program at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. She is the author of Reluctant Reception: Migration, Refugees and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa.
Recently, I finally began the process of preparing my infant son’s Canadian citizenship application ahead of his first birthday. We are hoping to finally travel from the United States to see his Canadian grandmother for the first time later this summer, and I thought that having Canadian identification for both of us would ensure an easier border crossing amid COVID-19 restrictions. Only in preparing the application did I learn that I will not be able to pass my Canadian citizenship to him.
My mother was born in Canada, as was her mother, but I was born in the United States. As a baby she made sure to promptly apply by mail for my Canadian citizenship, and I still have a national identity card with my pudgy nine-month-old face on it. At the time, my Canadian citizenship – earned via descent – was not yet of a lesser quality.
When I was a child, my mother took steps to cultivate my love and pride for Canada. We spent summers in Canada with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We saw the view from the CN Tower in Toronto, we took a train through the Rockies from Calgary to Vancouver, and we saw orcas swimming in the Georgia Strait. My mother rightfully taught us to frown upon anything but pure maple syrup, and I faithfully learned the words to O Canada. By my high-school years, I embraced my Canadian identity fiercely, proudly reminding friends that I was Canadian as well as American at every opportunity. I studied French in high school rather than the more obvious choice of Spanish given our location in southern California, and after my first year of university I spent a summer working in British Columbia, absolutely enamoured with the province’s natural beauty.
But it wasn’t until I was 23 that I fully embraced my Canadian citizenship. When it came time to apply for a master’s degree, I was accepted to study public policy at the University of Toronto, a city that I fell in love with. I was able to see my family in Ontario on weekends and holidays, and when I finished my degree, my citizenship allowed me to easily stay and work in Toronto for several research institutes and civil society organizations.
Eventually, I came back to the U.S. for my Ph.D., having been told I would have an easier time returning to Canada to find work after graduation with an American doctorate. Conversely, while I was able to secure a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, the only long-term jobs I was offered were in the United States. And by virtue of remaining in the United States for employment – and by giving birth to my son here – I am unable to pass on my Canadian citizenship to him.
In 2009 the Harper government passed an amendment that prevented Canadian citizens who were themselves not born in Canada from passing on their citizenship to children also not born in Canada. This was part of a larger trajectory of limiting access to naturalized citizenship and privileging Canadians without dual citizenship. In 2015, Bill C-24 came into effect under the Harper government. The most controversial aspect of this act was that it allowed the government to potentially strip dual-citizen Canadians of their nationality should they be found guilty of terrorism, fraud, treason or serving in a foreign army – among other reasons – but the act did not apply the same standards to citizens born in Canada. As such, rights groups such as Amnesty International argued that the act discriminates against foreign-born Canadians and creates a hierarchical model of Canadian citizenship. Predictably, this trajectory has and will continue to disproportionately affect brown and Black Canadians who – whether by necessity or choice – live outside of Canada for educational or employment opportunities or because of family obligations at the time their children are born.
Supporters of the Harper government’s move toward a narrower naturalization and dual citizenship law focused on the idea that the citizenship should not be seen as a commodity. Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration at the time Bill C-24 was proposed, proclaimed in 2014, “Canadians value their citizenship. They understand it applies to us who live here and who are connected to Canada. It’s not for sale, it’s not free and it’s not without any obligations.”
For my son, this issue is not about the “value” of Canadian citizenship. And as far as passports go, he is equally as privileged with an American passport as he would be with a Canadian one. What I mourn is the lack of a connection to Canada that citizenship by descent entails. We will visit his grandmother in B.C., and I will introduce him to his family in Ontario. I’ll even find ways of passing on cultural cues and traditions, but he will never have the promise or ease of living and working in Canada himself and fostering his own connections to the country, as I did.
I may currently live in the U.S., but I file Canadian taxes, I visit regularly – pandemic aside – and I maintain strong connections with my Canadian family, friends and colleagues. Interestingly, during the House of Commons committee debates prior to the adoption of the 2009 amendment, the committee considered allowing the transmission of citizenship by descent to children born abroad to a Canadian parent, provided that the Canadian parent resided in Canada for a period of time before the child was born. Instead, the government argued that doing so would be too complicated and opted for “one simple transparent rule” that removed the possibility of citizenship by descent for the second generation.
Even though I would have personally benefited from a modification that allowed Canadians by descent who had lived in Canada to pass on their citizenship, this would not have resolved the underlying flaw of the 2009 amendment. The bottom-line is that allowing some Canadian citizens – those born in Canada – the ability to transmit their nationality while denying others – Canadians by descent – from doing so creates an unequal, hierarchical model that ultimately tarnishes what it means to be Canadian.
My inability to pass along my citizenship is a loss for my son and a loss for Canada, especially at a time when the birth rate is at a record low and the government is scrambling to find ways of increasing immigration. Citizenship has the potential to act as an instrument of inclusion rather than exclusion. With all the government’s fanfare about the strength of multiculturalism, it certainty seems like an apt time to revisit the trajectory of using citizenship to exclude, rather than expanding and celebrating dual nationals who want to share their Canadian citizenship with their children.
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