Ottawa Citizen: Column: Citizenship should mean more

by Andrew Cohen, Ottawa Citizen January 27, 2014

If there is a recurring theme in the statutory media reviews of the Conservatives on and around the eighth anniversary of their election, it is their fondness for incremental change.

From Stephen Harper, no big vision or grand plan. No big ideas on constitutional reform or economic re-engineering. No interest in addressing the social conservative agenda on abortion, gay marriage and capital punishment.

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This is change by quarters and halves, in small, mincing steps. None of them monumental, few of them memorable, all of them (except, perhaps, free trade with Europe), reversible.

The exception is citizenship and immigration, which was long the prerogative of Jason Kenney, the most effective minister in this government. His successor, Chris Alexander, is promising “the first comprehensive reform of the Citizenship Act in a generation.” This is something to watch.

Kenney began with the belief that citizenship should mean something — that it should be a reflection of commitment. He saw citizenship not as a right but a privilege, the greatest gift a nation can confer.

But he also thought, with cause, that citizenship was being abused in Canada, that we were offering it too easily to those with no real attachment to this country. Behold, the Casual Canadian.

Among nations, Canadian citizenship is among the easiest to get and the hardest to lose. Because we did not care what it represents, we did not care who acquires it and keeps it. This made us pushovers, a strange detachment author Richard Gwyn called “the lightness of being Canadian.”

When the Canadian Citizenship Act was introduced in 1947, Paul Martin, Sr., who guided it through Parliament, said the law wasn’t really about residence, naturalization, revocation or other legal matters. It was about full “partnership in the fortunes and future of the nation.” It was about loyalty, community and unity. It was about nation-building.

Kenney saw it that way. Presumably Alexander does too, as he finishes the work Kenney started. There is much to do.

Immigrants used to have to wait five years before becoming Canadian citizens and they could not hold dual citizenship. In 1977, the second Citizenship Act reinstated dual citizenship, and reduced the residence requirement to three years.

The new law fostered an idea of citizenship in terms of rights and benefits more than duties and responsibilities. It perpetuated a weak, amorphous view of citizenship, in which we simply don’t expect much of the 265,000 immigrants who come here every year.

Kenney tried to address that. He re-wrote the manual for new Canadians, a pocket history of Canada and its values and ideals which was widely applauded. (The manual has flaws, but it is far better than its sorry predecessor.) Moreover, the government underscored the requirement of speaking English or French, and demanded proof of linguistic competence.

Kenney introduced a tougher citizenship test, which meant that more applicants failed the first time. He also cracked down on immigration fraud. This has helped create a more rigorous process, though still imperfect.

Although applications are mighty slow to be processed, immigrants have a comparatively easy path to citizenship. They are supposed to stay in Canada for three of four years, but tracking them is not foolproof. Many still do not speak either official language and never will, which creates future problems in our diverse society.

Some are Canadians of convenience, with no emotional or material interest in Canada; their motive is to get citizenship and return home to places like Hong Kong. For too many, our passport is an insurance policy, an escape hatch, or a bolt hole.

If we are serious about giving substance to our citizenship, let the government reinstate the residency requirement of five years, making it mandatory to remain in Canada the entire time. Let it find a way to tax dual citizens who have never lived in Canada.

Let it establish a tougher test on knowledge and language, and apply it everyone under 65, not 55 (as is the case now). And let it address the injustice of the “lost Canadians” who have been denied citizenship through loopholes in the law.

At the same time, we should re-examine our commitment to country, too. For many Canadians citizenship is no more than paying taxes and obeying the law. It isn’t even about voting.

To give new meaning to citizenship, we should consider universal national service (community or military) for young Canadians; national standards in education for the teaching of Canadian history; a new commitment to encourage lifelong volunteerism and civic activity; and mandatory voting in federal elections.

As Canada goes to the Olympics, expect the usual orgy of chest-thumping and fist-pumping with every gold medal. But don’t mistake cheering athletes, wearing red mittens and sipping double-doubles for patriotism. It isn’t.

Real patriotism, and real citizenship, is knowing who you are, how you got here, what you have, and what you would do to keep it all.

If we ask that understanding of others, shouldn’t we ask it of ourselves, too?

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. Email:
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