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The alarming new blueprint for Canadian citizenship and immigration policy


Important changes to Canadian citizenship and immigration policy have broken into the headlines of late, from the introduction of the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act to serious abuses of the controversial temporary foreign worker program to refugee determination concerns.

One can think of the changes underway as renovations to what former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney liked to describe as the “house” of the Canadian nation.

Showing how seemingly disconnected floors and rooms of the "house" are related reveals a troubling blueprint of change — a renovation that will overhaul the very architecture of rights and membership in Canada. 

Kenny’s analogy is instructive in understanding the nature of the changes underway.

The existing model of citizenship can be understood as a house inhabited by citizens and permanent residents. They share basic rights, at least on paper, but citizens have nicer rooms and permanent residents must first live in designated areas that act like a waiting room before acquiring full citizenship. Most immigrants to Canada enter the house as permanent residents, going directly into the waiting room.

In contrast, temporary residents occupy a makeshift holding area, a mud room attached to the house. This mud room wasn’t considered a problem as long as it was small and people either left it after a while or were able to get a foot into the main house by applying at the front door or via a narrow pathway for live-in domestic workers.

This model, however, is now being replaced. The house now has a narrower doorway to citizenship, a more difficult passage for direct entry into permanent residence, and a larger yet more crowded mud room for temporary residents.

Most troubling, the crowded holding area now includes distinct rooms: one dressed up to look like a guest room for temporary residents classified as highly-skilled, a group eligible to apply for permanent residence; a very basic and crowded room for temporary residents designated as low-skilled — most of whom are not eligible for permanent residence and thus destined to long-term temporariness or exit; and finally, drafty rooms for illegalized or non-status residents and people who prolong their stay by churning between categories of temporariness and lack of status.

Understanding the policy changes

The new Citizenship Act will make it more difficult to become a citizen.

It will take longer because the Act increases the length of the residency requirement, and time spent as a temporary resident will no longer count. Changes also include more stringent language requirements and higher fees. Finally, it also establishes Ministerial discretion to revoke, deny, and grant citizenship under specified conditions. 

There are two ways to become a citizen in Canada: through birth and naturalization. 

Only permanent residents can apply for naturalization. Since the waiting room for citizenship is composed entirely of permanent residents, we need to consider how policy changes are shaping who gets in to the waiting room, how, and when. It also means taking a closer look at temporary residents in the holding area, and whether and how they can move from temporary to permanent residence.

Starting in the 1960s, Canadian newcomers were selected by the federal government and Quebec and were admitted via the point system as economic immigrants, under the family class, or based on humanitarian criteria. These newcomers arrived as permanent residents and went directly inside the house and into the waiting rooms for citizenship.

Some temporary residents could make their way to permanent residence, but the system was not designed for that. It was premised on a separation between the temporary holding area and the rest of the house. It allowed for a narrow path towards citizenship for some temporary residents (eg accepted refugee claimants and live-in caregivers), but others had to line up and apply through the point system.

The rise of temporary residency

Things began to change with the 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and related policies. They established a pathway from temporary to permanent residence for high-skilled workers and students with Canadian experience, and for others nominated by the provinces. This group makes up a growing share of movement into the house, which means that the share of permanent residents who arrive with permanent status on arrival is declining.

Analysts describe the emergent system as “two-step” immigration: enter with temporary residence and then apply for permanent residence based on certain criteria of eligibility. 

I prefer to call this a probationary system. Two-step conjures a vision of orderly steps to a certain end. Probation highlights the uncertainty and dependence on third parties such as employers, spouses, and government staff and Ministers now needed to have one’s permanent residence approved. Moreover, what is often left out of the discussion is that current policies are also producing temporary residents with no clear path to permanence, people who lose their authorized status but remain in the country, and others who churn between temporary and/or no status.

There are areas of the mud room that are aren’t even on the blueprint.

Probation will also be an increasingly apt term with the Conservative government’s introduction of the new Expression of Interest Program (EOI), set to launch in early 2015. Under the EOI program, would-be immigrants will apply to join a pool of candidates who qualify based on language, education or skill criteria. Employers will select those they wish to hire, and those chosen will arrive as temporary residents. 

This will shift immigrant selection to employers, and add to the share of temporary rather than permanent entries.

Eroding paths to permanent residence and citizenship

The recent and pending policies mean that a growing proportion and number of citizens in waiting will arrive without the benefit of immediate permanent residence. More people will also spend longer periods of time before attaining permanency, and some people will reach the holding area but never progress. The makeshift mud room is growing, but we don’t know by how much.

We do know that the waiting temporary residents do not have the same rights or protections of permanent residents, much less full citizens. Some of them may have only temporary access to health insurance, either public or private; others will be entirely uninsured. Those with children may experience difficulties accessing other presumably public services, including education. 

If temporary residents are authorized to work, their Social Insurance Numbers identify them as temporary and make them vulnerable to abuse by employers. We know from recent reports that employers can and often do treat temporary residents and people without status poorly, and that vulnerable workers usually do not complain.

Implications for rights, membership and nation-building

The shift towards temporary residence as a prerequisite for permanence marks a major change in access to citizenship and routes to permanent residence, which signals fundamental changes in Canada’s blueprint for nation-building.

Canadians have a record of challenging social inequities based on racialization, gender, ability, sexuality, social class, and so forth. We are now witnessing the rise of migrant legal status as an axis of lasting social inequality. 

In the new blueprint we can make out at least five legal status “classes”: citizens, permanent residents, temporary residents with clear access to permanent residence, temporary residents without access to permanent residence, and people without authorized status. It stands to reason that creating increasingly complicated and lengthy legal status trajectories will crosscut and complicate opportunities for newcomers, but also for permanent residents and citizens. 

Lowering the floor on rights and protections for a growing segment of the population, even a relatively small one, exerts downward pressure for everyone. 

The mud room is in fact attached to the house, and it can’t be hidden. It’s time to look more closely at the blueprint and bring the entire house up to code. 

Luin Goldring is an associate professor of sociology at York University.

Photo. wwworks. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.