Michael Adams is president of the Environics Institute; Audrey Macklin is a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto; Ratna Omidvar is president of the Maytree Foundation.
The federal government argues that its proposed new Citizenship Act will "protect the value of citizenship." We are concerned that it may have the opposite effect: making Canadian citizenship harder to get and easier to lose, and creating second-class citizens along the way.
The government is introducing stricter residency requirements, increasing the required period of permanent residency to four years from three. At first glance, this may not seem like a major change. But this is in addition to processing delays that stretch from one to three years.
Consider this scenario: A foreign student completes her master's degree here in three years. She wants to stay in Canada – and is just the kind of highly skilled immigrant Canada needs – but she's not eligible to apply for permanent residence yet. First, she must find suitable employment and work for a year. Having done so, she applies for permanent resident status, which takes another year to process. She has now been in Canada for five years, but none of it counts toward the four-year permanent residency requirement. Under the old rules, she would have received partial credit for years lived in Canada as a temporary resident. No more.
She is now a permanent resident, just at the starting line of the four years she must spend in Canada to apply for citizenship. Her Canadian employer asks her to work in one of its overseas offices (perhaps to take advantage of her language skills and cultural knowledge). But under the new rules any time spent outside Canada will further delay her eligibility for citizenship and could even jeopardize her permanent residence. She refuses the career opportunity.
Four years later, she has fulfilled her permant residence requirement and applies for citizenship. Based on existing delays (the result of staff shortages, not law), she will have to wait about two years before her application is processed. She's been here for eleven years, six of them as a permanent resident. Only now can she call herself "Canadian" and vote for the representatives that collect her taxes and make decisions that affect her life.
Too bad for her? Maybe. But too bad for Canada as well: citizenship tends to promote engagement and contribution. Research indicates that the sooner people get citizenship, the sooner and more fully they invest themselves in their new society.
In addition to making citizenship more difficult to obtain, Bill C-24 will make it easier to lose. The Act grants the federal minister of immigration authority to revoke the citizenship of those found guilty of major crimes, including terrorism.
Of course, no one wants terrorists roaming around Canada or travelling on Canadian passports. The question is, is the revocation of citizenship the right tool for preventing terrorism or punishing criminals?
Some Canadians commit serious crimes. The foreign-born are no more likely than the Canadian-born to do so (some evidence suggests they are less likely to) but small numbers in each group do break the law. Nor are dual citizens more likely than mono-citizens to commit crimes. Today, citizens (including foreign-born and dual citizens) are equal before the law and are treated the same way as other Canadians if they are accused of a crime. They undergo due process and, if convicted, are punished according to the provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada. If their crimes are committed abroad, the procedures are different but their treatment by the Canadian government is identical.
Adding citizenship revocation as an extra prospective punishment for dual citizens (many of whom, but not all, are foreign-born) is tantamount to creating a second class of citizenship. This is a change that cuts to the core of what it means to be Canadian – and in order to solve what problem?
Canadian citizenship is a solution, not a problem. Canada has traditionally had exceptionally high naturalization rates; nearly nine in 10 immigrants (89 per cent) have become Canadian citizens. This pattern has been praised as a strength of our immigration program: a sign that immigrants are invested in Canada and Canada is invested in the successful integration of its immigrants.
When immigrants become citizens they can vote, stand for office (and win: in 2011, 44 of our sitting MPs were born outside the country), and generally become fully contributing, fully participating members of Canadian society. To turn citizenship from a tool of integration into a reward for good behaviour – to be revoked at the discretion of one minister on grounds of bad behavior and without due process – is to undermine the meaning and value of citizenship for all Canadians.
Some argue that the Bill C-24 addresses public concerns about dual citizenship, divided loyalties, and some Canadians' lack of tangible attachment to Canada. We are not dismissive of these concerns. In a globalized world, where 215 million people live outside their countries of origin and where new technologies make borders feel thinner, the question of what it means to be a citizen is one worth asking.
It may be a valid goal to encourage all Canadian citizens to live in Canada. But is it fair to use citizenship law, as this bill does, to make some categories of Canadians promise not to reside elsewhere? After all, if Canadian-born monocitizens want to spend winters in Florida or a decade working in New York, nobody proposes to stop them.
In 2011, we conducted a study that investigated Canadians' attitudes about citizenship. We undertook this work – a project supported by the Environics Institute, the Maytree Foundation, CBC News, RBC, and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship – precisely because we believed a thoughtful conversation about citizenship was overdue in this country. What we found was that citizenship is seen as an important step toward full integration into the Canadian economy and society.
We have each had different paths to Canadian citizenship. Two of us became Canadian by the sheer good fortune of being born in Canada to citizen parents (one of whom arrived as a refugee). One of us was born in India and earned Canadian citizenship as an immigrant. One of the things we all love about this country is that, as citizens, we are equal in every respect. Canada does not reserve special rights for people who were born on its soil, or who hold only Canadian citizenship. A Canadian is a Canadian. If the government is interested in protecting the value of Canadian citizenship, it should start with protecting that.