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The Globe and Mail

More federal action needed to restore lost Canadian citizenship rights

Lloyd Axworthy was Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1996-2000. Allan Rock was Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations from 2003-2006.

Canada's former Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, recently observed that in the 21st century, there are many good reasons why Canadians choose to live overseas, and that there is no reason to create barriers to their participation in democratic processes.

We agree, but would go further. Canadians living and working overseas face government barriers not only in participating in democratic processes, but also in passing along citizenship. These must be addressed.

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The occasion for the comments made by Ms. Monsef – recently appointed Minister of Status of Women – was the introduction of legislation to repeal provisions of the federal Fair Elections Act. Adopted in 2014, this statute provides, amongst other things, that Canadians living overseas can vote only within five years of leaving Canada, and must have the stated intention of returning home.

In repealing this provision through Bill C-33, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, the federal government will remove one important penalty for Canadians living and working overseas. However, it is overlooking a potentially even greater disincentive.

A little-known 2009 amendment to the Citizenship Act limits Canadian citizenship to just the first-generation of children born to or adopted by Canadians who live outside Canada. Thus, children born to or adopted by Canadian parents who are travelling, studying, or working abroad become citizens of Canada at birth or at the time of adoption, but their children are not entitled to Canadian citizenship if they are born outside Canada.

This is harmful for at least two reasons.

First, the amendment to the Citizenship Act strikes us as discriminatory, and out of step with the principle that "a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian," as articulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The amendment effectively creates two classes of Canadians: those who can pass along citizenship to their children and those who cannot. Furthermore, the amendment discriminates in favour of federal employees and military personnel who serve outside Canada. Under the current legislation, they are explicitly exempted from the limits on citizenship imposed by the amendment.

Second, Canada is deeply interconnected economically, socially and culturally with communities and countries around the globe. Canadians have a long history of important global contributions in international finance, peacekeeping, United Nations' service, and humanitarian action, to name a few. We should be encouraging Canadians to venture beyond our borders to contribute to the broader global community, whether this be as students, travellers, or professionals – now, more than ever. Unfortunately, the current provisions of the Citizenship Act may have the opposite effect, by deterring Canadians from going overseas to work.

To date, the government has sought to justify this provision based on "simplicity and transparency." We respectfully submit that any administrative advantages are substantially outweighed both by the principles of fairness and equity required by Canadian law, and by the importance of maintaining Canada's standing in, and contributions to, the community of nations.

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In terms of scope of impact, it is worth considering that at any point in time, 2-3 million Canadians live, work, or travel overseas. If even 0.5 per cent of these people have children overseas, this would amount to 10,000-15,000 children whose rights are limited and whose options are narrowed by this legislation each year. These numbers underscore the urgency and importance of addressing this matter quickly.

As the Government moves to restore voting rights to Canadians living overseas, it should also restore another fundamental birthright by allowing foreign-born descendants of Canadians who were themselves born outside our country to begin life with Canadian citizenship.

Editor’s Note An earlier version said an amendment to the Immigration Act occurred in 2006. In fact, it was 2009.
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