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A new Canadian holds a Canadian flag, their citizenship certificate and a letter signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they sing O Canada after becoming a Canadian citizen, during a special Canada Day citizenship ceremony in West Vancouver on July 1, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The federal government will at some point this year allow new citizens to skip the ritual of mass swearing-in ceremonies and instead let them take the citizenship oath alone at home, on a secure website, with no authorized individual overseeing them, simply by ticking a box on their computer screen.

It’s a move Ottawa says will help eliminate a backlog of 358,000 citizenship applications (as of last October), reduce by three months a processing time that can stretch two years – double the published service standard – and spare low-income working people the difficulty of taking an unpaid day off in order to be present at a ceremony.

It’s part of a broader government effort to accommodate a surge in citizenship applications. In a fractious world, a Canadian passport is increasingly desirable. Ottawa says applications more than doubled between fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2022, rising to 243,000 from 113,000.

With immigration surging under the Trudeau government to as high as 500,000 people a year, the demand is only going to keep growing. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is hoping to process 300,000 citizenship applications this fiscal year, a 34 per-cent increase over the previous year.

To do that, it has already moved the application process online. And it has made the oath of citizenship an almost entirely virtual experience. Of 15,457 swearing-in ceremonies involving 549,290 applicants since April, 2020, Ottawa says 15,290 were video calls.

And now the government wants to go one step farther and reduce the final step to becoming a Canadian – taking the oath of citizenship – to something akin to agreeing to the terms of service on a smartphone app.

That’s one step too far. While it is obvious that the case can be made to allow some applicants in urgent circumstances to take the oath online, gaining Canadian citizenship is too important to be voided of all ceremony for the sake of convenience.

Ceremonies and rituals matter. They unite communities around various milestones – momentous days on the calendar, births, graduations, marriages, anniversaries and deaths – and in doing so reinforce shared values.

The moment of becoming a new citizen is among those milestones. Arguably, gathering to mark it is as important as the taking of the citizenship oath itself.

For new Canadians, the ceremony signals the end of a long and at times arduous journey from emigration to permanent residency to taking the citizenship test to becoming a full citizen. It’s a chance to celebrate with friends and family. Many who’ve been through it will tell you how much it meant to them to sing the national anthem as a citizen for the first time, in a room surrounded by others like them.

The ceremony is just as important for the host country. An in-person ceremony is a chance for the federal government to show its appreciation for the people who’ve chosen Canada. It also serves as palpable recognition of the immense value that immigration holds for this country, and signals to those already here how welcome the newcomers are.

Above all, the in-person nature of the ceremony reinforces the idea of Canada as a community of people who share the same values – something that won’t happen in the cold isolation of the internet.

Ottawa absurdly hopes that its proposal will reduce the demand for in-person and online ceremonies (which will still be optional), and thereby save it a few dollars.

That is a robotic, unthinking cost-benefit analysis. So is Ottawa’s argument that its plan will cut a few months off the waiting time for taking the oath.

If Ottawa wants to speed up the citizenship process, it should find ways of doing it without eliminating the citizenship ceremony. It is trying to save a small amount of money at the expense of a critical moment of human connection.

Ottawa should instead limit the click-here-to-officially-become-a-Canadian option to specific exceptions. The same goes for the online video option. The government needs to get citizenship judges out of their basements and bring back the in-person ceremony for the vast majority of cases.

Canadian citizenship is precious. So is the willingness of people to seek it out.

These are things that deserve a sense of ceremony and grandeur. They should not be reduced to the equivalent of checking a box to add fries to your order.

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