Japan Times: Canucks abroad fret over new curbs on citizenship

The Japan Times On Line
March 17, 2009

Citizenship can mean the difference between "belonging" and being just a visitor. Some people endure years of waiting in line and filing applications in a bid to change citizenship; others, by virtue of their birthplace and familial ties, begin their lives with the opportunity to be citizens of two or more countries. Citizenship can offer a free ticket out of a crisis, or even be a matter of life and death, as demonstrated by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year, in which attackers reportedly targeted those with British or American passports.

Given the importance of the issue, some Canadian expats are disturbed at changes being made to citizenship requirements under Bill C-37, An Act to Amend the Citizenship Act.

Few people seem to have received any information about it, and what little media coverage there has been on the bill has focused on the fact that it restores citizenship to some 200,000 or so "Lost Canadians" — war wives, children of soldiers stationed overseas — who were stripped of their citizenship by the Citizenship Act of 1947. What expats aren't being told is that the amendment also includes some sweeping changes that will affect many of the estimated 2.7 million Canadians currently living outside the country.

As of April 17, when the bill goes into effect, citizenship by descent will be limited to the first generation outside Canada. For example, if a Canadian citizen born in the U.S. goes on to have a child in Japan, that child will not automatically be granted Canadian citizenship, as would be the case now.

Allan Nichols, executive director of the Canadian Expat Association, says many members of his organization were "horrified" at the bill's implications for their families, and wonders why so few Canadians were consulted about the amendment.

"The CIC (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) really dropped the ball on this," he said by phone from Victoria, British Columbia. "Nobody was aware of these changes. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has chapters in every major city in the world, and none of them received notices about this."

Nichols, whose children were born in Japan, says the new laws don't take into account the reality of Canada's highly mobile, multicultural workforce. "(My children) were born to mobile parents, and there's a strong chance — I encourage it — that they're going to be working abroad," he says. "During this time, you might meet someone special, and you might decide to have children with this person."

The new rules (which can be viewed at www.cic.gc.ca/english/citizenship/rules-citizenship.asp ) are confusing at best: Nichols says that even people at CIC initially gave him contradictory information about the bill, saying the new rules would also apply to children of diplomats (the act states that children of diplomats and members of the Canadian forces would be exempt).

While the law automatically grants citizenship to some Canadians, it imposes new regulations on those with children born outside the country. As of April 17, 2009, first-generation Canadians born abroad will no longer be able to pass down citizenship to children born outside Canada (unless they are working abroad for the government or the armed forces at the time of the child's birth).

Further, second-generation Canadians born after Feb. 14, 1977 (the date when major updates to the Canadian Citizenship Act took place) could even stand to lose their citizenship if they were born to a parent who was not registered as a "Canadian born abroad" until after that date.

"As an organization, we have nothing against restoring citizenship to the Lost Canadians," Nichols explains. "But the government seems to have taken this and run off in a completely different direction."

This "different direction" — the tightening of citizenship requirements — is believed to be part of government efforts to filter out "Canadians of convenience" who were at the center of controversy during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. At the height of the conflict, Canada evacuated an estimated 15,000 passport holders from the war zone. Many Canadians were incensed to learn that although over $80 million in taxpayer dollars were spent on the rescue mission, nearly half the evacuees returned to Lebanon shortly after the ceasefire. Articles in Maclean's magazine and The National Post suggested that many foreigners with Canadian citizenship had little commitment to Canada, and viewed their passport as a get-out-of-jail-free card when troubles arose in their country of residence.

Not long after the controversy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to review the citizenship laws. In the years that followed, Bill C-37 quietly slipped under the media radar until it received royal assent and passed into law last year.

Citizenship regulations in Canada are seen as lenient compared to those of many other industrialized countries. In the U.K., citizenship by descent can only be passed down for one generation. In the U.S., meanwhile, a child of a foreign-born American can obtain citizenship if the parent has lived in the U.S. for at five years, two of which must be after reaching 14 years of age.

Up to now, Canada's policy for transferring citizenship has resembled that of nations such as Greece and Italy, which allow citizenship to be passed down by jus sanguinis (right of blood) for three generations. Moreover, unlike their American counterparts, Canadians living abroad are not obliged to file taxes, making them all the more prone to criticism about enjoying the perks of citizenship without bearing the responsibility that accompanies it.

The CIC in Ottawa reassures expats that they need not panic about the new law. "No one who is a Canadian citizen immediately before April 17, 2009, will lose their citizenship as a result of the new law," writes Jae Won Chung, manager of the Citizenship Program Delivery.

While no one would lose citizenship, second-generation Canadians born after February 14, 1977, need to take steps to "retain" their citizenship by the time they turn 28 (those turning 28 prior to April 17 are encouraged to call the CIC).

Second-generation Canadians who apply to retain citizenship would have to prove substantial ties to the country, such as going to school for several years in Canada after age 14, working in a government post, or being able to demonstrate enough knowledge of Canada's language and history to pass a citizenship test. Nichols stresses that this retention process is only offered to second-generation Canadians born before the law goes into effect in April, and will not be applicable to those born afterward, regardless of their ties to Canada.

Some expats don't agree that the new amendments are asking too much of overseas Canadians. Sheri Love Yasue, who recently completed a thesis on immigration and assimilation in Japan and the West at Nanzan University in Nagoya, feels that Canada can afford to be stricter about its citizenship laws.

"One of the main problems, I think, for Canada is that we give out our citizenship so liberally," she says. "I've noticed that Americans need to jump through a few more hoops, such as their parents having to live in the U.S. for five years, whereas, for example, with my kids Canada just gives them citizenship." She also points out that 70 of the world's 100 most populous nations require their citizens to renounce citizenship of other countries, whereas Canada still allows dual and multiple citizenship.

Yasue says that although she passed down citizenship to her children because she eventually intends to move back to Canada, she would be able to accept more stringent requirements for foreign-born children to obtain citizenship. "It would take more time and energy, but I think that it is better for the Canadian government to say that if you're going to pay taxes and be a resident, then you can be Canadian."

"People want everything. They want to be residents here (in Japan) for 20, 30 years, but they also want their kids to be Canadian," she says. "I think they may be asking just a little bit too much."

Many current expats, however, argue that a wide network of overseas Canadians is a boon to the country, and that the new bill would deprive many children of the only national identity they have.

"Canadians living abroad that I know are among the biggest fans of Canada," says Patricia Bader-Johnston, representative director and CEO of Silverbirch Associates and president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce Japan Chapter. "They constantly promote Canadian trade, culture and education. I cannot imagine a downside to maintaining this connection."

While the CCCJ has no official position on the issue, she personally opposes the amendment, which she says would needlessly "disenfranchise" expat Canadians through their children and grandchildren. Referring to her own Japan-born children, she says that Canadian citizenship is an integral part of their identity, not merely a matter of convenience.

"They will never be seen as Japanese no matter how long they live here," she says. "Without their Canadian identity, they would be truly rootless."

With the new law just a month away from going into effect, millions of Canadians will be looking at ways to pass their citizenship down to the next generation. While some will welcome the changes, others may think twice about having a family overseas, or even settling abroad at all. Fewer people would abuse the citizenship laws, perhaps, but less people would know enough about the country to want to become Canadian in the first place, critics argue.

Bader-Johnston feels that a country like Canada would lose an "incredible generation of ambassadors" as a result of the amendment. Without the social and business networks built by expats, she says, "Canada would become a faceless country on the other side of the world."