The long list of changes in the Conservative’s newly introduced “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act” seem like a solution in search of a problem.
Thus far, media reports have primarily focused in on how the changes will affect wait times. For example, those applying for citizenship will have to reside in Canada for 4 out of 6 years before they apply, rather than 3 out of 4 years. Applicants will also be required to prove that they have spent 183 days per year residing in Canada and they will have to confirm that they “intend to reside” in Canada. More immigrants will be required to pass language tests to prove eligibility, and those taking the citizenship test will no longer be permitted to rely on interpreters. In the press release announcing the changes, Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander reports:
We are proud to introduce changes that reinforce the value of citizenship while ensuring the integrity of the immigration system is protected.
Unfortunately, the focus mass media reporting has put on wait times feeds right into the hands of the Conservatives. The government’s stated goal is to reduce the initial time it takes for applications to be processed. But the media is allowing them to message the changes within this simplistic frame. The Conservatives are right that if the choice is between waiting to have one’s initial application processed and “waiting” to become Canadian while residing in Canada, the latter is a much superior option. No one likes waiting just to know if one will be considered further, or if an application is incomplete (for example, a friend’s application was recently returned to him for having failed to translate his doctoral degree from Latin into English).
But the more fundamental question the media seems to have glossed over is whether there is any evidence Canadian citizenship is undervalued to begin with? To date, none has been presented.
The justifications being offered by Alexander in defense of these changes – to ensure loyalty to Canada, to protect the integrity of the system, to support the value of Canadian citizenship – are thin. There is no evidence that longer wait times increase loyalty to a state – just look at so many European states, where the average wait times for citizenship extend much longer than they do in Canada. Immigrants to European states exhibit no more, and often less, loyalty to their receiving state. The problems to which this Act is responding appear to be mere phantoms, even by Alexander’s own admission. He acknowledges that Canadians value their citizenship highly – “Canadian citizenship is uniquely valuable in the world”, he observes, implying that immigrants may somehow fail to understand this. Yet, among those Canadians who value Canadian citizenship are presumably the millions of immigrants who acquired citizenship through an expedited process.
Moreover, the Conservatives’ record on reducing waiting leaves something to be desired. The decision to reduce the immigration application wait list in the first place, by simply returning applications to applicants, is now under judicial review. The decision to reduce the number of “false” refugee claimants by simply designating some states so safe that their emigrants will be entitled only to an non-appealable, expedited process for consideration (a process that makes it nearly impossible for them to prove they are genuinely entitled to asylum) puts Canada at ongoing risk of violating its obligations under the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. It is perhaps not surprising that the stated strategy for reducing wait times, at least as presently announced, is to reduce the number of individuals who consider any individual application, thus leaving the discretion for critical decisions in the hands of one citizenship officer. We must at least press the government into instituting a fair appeals process for applicants who are rejected at this stage, for what they believe are unjust reasons.
More generally, an overview of the citizenship acquisition rules look more like what the Conservative Party’s ideologically driven machine would produce than a response to real problems. For one thing, we see again a concern with alleged fraud – penalties for fraudulent applications have increased significantly. For another, permanent residents who are willing to join the Canadian Army will be entitled (uniquely) to have their applications for citizenship fast-tracked, highlighting the Conservatives’ ongoing moves to make the Canadian military central to Canadian identity. This last move is objectionable for the trade it asks individuals to make – that they be willing to lay down their lives for Canadians before they themselves are Canadian. And for another, we see a worrying willingness to increase the discretion and power of the Minister to revoke citizenship for dual nationals accused of terrorism and other crimes, and to grant citizenship in cases where he or she believes it is deserved.
This latter change – the right to rescind Canadian citizenship from dual nationals accused of a range of crimes (associated with the expansion of the list of crimes that makes one ineligible to be Canadian in the first place) – is perhaps the most worrying of those introduced. The Minister has been granted the right to revoke citizenship in “routine cases”, but surely there can be no such thing. Not only does the right to revoke discriminate severely against immigrants who come from states (many of which are in the Middle East) that make revocation nearly impossible, thus leaving some individuals in a permanent state of citizenship limbo, the process of revocation can never be routine. On the contrary, it can only be understood as a profoundly violent and aggressive way to treat individuals who come to rely on the protection of a state, only to find that they are its targets.
These changes are, overall, ideologically driven, unnecessary solutions to fabricated problems.
Patti Tamara Lenard is Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on immigration policy.