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A Canadian flag flies in the wind at Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday June 30, 2014. Canadians will mark the country's 147th birthday on Canada Day, Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckDARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Canada Day is a time when many of us reflect happily on what it means to be Canadian. This year, the federal government has given us little reason to celebrate after passing legislation that dramatically redefines and substantially weakens what that means.

In one respect, Bill C-24 is commendable. It strengthens Canadian citizenship by making it more difficult to acquire. The new law lengthens the residency requirement and asks for a statement of intent from would-be Canadians, to make sure they actually plan to live in this country. These are good moves that will undoubtedly reduce the number of "Canadians of convenience" – people holding Canadian passports for travel or consular assistance, but having little connection to Canada.

But the law has a flip side that is much darker. It gives the government the discretion to strip the citizenship of any dual citizen convicted of terrorism, treason or spying abroad. The consequences are disturbing and unfair for Canada's 863,000 dual nationals. They run the risk of being treated as somehow less Canadian. There is an ugly, xenophobic side to this law, which may play well with some voters, but has no place in a modern, multicultural Canada.

Of course Canadians found guilty of crimes in credible courts of law should be punished according to the law, and they are. But Bill C-24 gives the government the power to revoke citizenship as some kind of additional penalty. It is redundant in cases where a citizen is in fact guilty of a crime. It is downright dangerous for those who are not. Under the new law, for example, Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy could be stripped of his Canadian citizenship because he was convicted of terrorism by an Egyptian court. Ottawa has said it would not apply the law in Mr. Fahmy's case, but the mere fact that it has had to answer the question should give us all pause.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has defended his bill by arguing citizenship is a privilege, not a right. He is wrong. It may come with responsibilities, but it is a right. And once legitimately acquired, by birth or naturalization, it cannot be taken away. Bill C-24 gives the government the kind of sweeping power that is common in dictatorships, not in a democracy built upon the rule of law, where all citizens are equal. The changes to the Citizenship Act erode those basic principles, creating a two-tier citizenship that dilutes what it means to be Canadian.

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