Hill Times: Citizenship bill flies under the radar, it shouldn’t

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander
Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander appears to support
the suppression of testimony unfavourable to Bill C-24.
By Andrew Griffiths

One month ago, Parliamentary hearings started on Bill C-24, the Strengthening the Value of Canadian Citizenship Act. Witnesses ranged from those who support the bill unreservedly, to those who oppose without qualification.

Click here to read original article on Hill Times website and on Andrew Griffith's website Multicultural Meanderings

It was more Kabuki theatre than debate, given the government mainly probed supporting witnesses and the opposition opposing witnesses. However, many had significant nuances, particularly on due process questions, which may prove significant when the bill proceeds to more formal review.
Apart from the Canadian Jewish community, represented by CIJA, B’nai Brith and J-RAN, there is relatively little testimony from the larger ethnic community organizations. There has also been relatively little press coverage that I have seen in the ethnic media. This is somewhat surprising, given the impact that this bill will have on their communities.
Secondly, lawyers testified strongly against the bill, noting major concerns regarding Charter compliance, particularly with respect to revocation, notwithstanding Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s assertion that the bill “is fully compliant with the requirements of our Constitution.” Additional concerns were expressed regarding the increased discretion for officials and the minister. Given the track record of the government before the courts, the minister’s confidence will likely be tested as cases emerge.
Thirdly, opinion is highly polarized between those who support the government’s approach of making citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose,” and those who believe the current approach is largely successful and believe in a more facilitative and flexible approach. Overall, more witnesses were opposed to the overall direction of the government.
This article aims to provide the general state-of-play on testimony to date.
Residency: There is no clear consensus and positions are split down the middle. However, some of those supporting the increased residency time and physical presence expressed the need for more flexibility, primarily for those with business reasons for travel. There was general opposition to removal of half-time credit for temporary residence (e.g., foreign students, temporary foreign workers, refugees and live-in caregivers) towards meeting residency requirements. The “intent to reside” provision was opposed by most witnesses, with some fearing that determination by citizenship officers of an applicant’s “intent” could be arbitrary, in addition to the broader question treating naturalized Canadians differently from born Canadians.
Knowledge and language testing: More organizations opposed increased coverage (from 18-year-olds to 54-year-old and 14-year-olds to 64-year-olds), particularly, refugee and settlement organizations. A number of witnesses also opposed the imposition of up-front language testing (introduced to streamline processing), as this effectively increased the language barrier. While some of the concerns regarding older applicants are valid, the 14-year-olds to 17-year-olds automatically will meet language requirements, as they will have been educated in a Canadian school.
Fee increases: Refugee advocates strongly opposed these increases, given that for many the cost could be prohibitive. Citizenship is particularly important for refugees given that many have had to sever connections with their country of origin.
Criminal convictions abroad: While not subject to much testimony, both those supporting and opposing expressed concern regarding the equivalence between Canadian and foreign courts, which needed greater clarity in the bill.
Revocation for fraud: All supported the principle for revocation of fraud or misrepresentation, but the vast majority opposed this being at ministerial discretion with no appeal to the Federal Court. There was support, however, for the streamlined process that removes the Cabinet role and consolidates revocation and removal proceedings.
Revocation for terrorism, high treason, or who take up arms against Canada: Not surprisingly, this formed the bulk of testimony on both sides of the issue, evenly divided. For many, such crimes break the “fundamental social contract of Canada” given that they are acts against Canadian values. For others, the fundamental issue is treating dual nationals, whether by birth or naturalization, differently from Canadian-only nationals, changing Canada’s long-standing policy since Diefenbaker.
Most of those who supported revocation noted the need to add to the existing test, “was the offence equivalent to Canadian law,” a second test, “was the judicial process also equivalent.”
Others opposed the reverse burden of proof on citizens to demonstrate that they did not have dual citizenship. It is unclear whether this includes only the right to another citizenship (e.g., Israel’s Law of Return which has parallels in a number of countries), or actually formally having exercised that right. Retroactive revocation was also criticized (the Omar Khadr provision?).
Less discussed issues included the reduced role for citizenship judges, the requirement to provide tax returns, providing preference to applicants having served in the Canadian Forces (very small numbers), Crown servant first generation exception, and the regulation of citizenship consultants.
A number of witnesses supported the expansion of “lost Canadians” to those born before 1947 (date of the first Canadian Citizenship Act) as well as their first generation born abroad. However, the government suppressed the testimony of long-standing activists Melynda Jarratt and Don Chapman who remain concerned that the bill only fixed war brides and their children, not posthumously recognizing Canadian citizenship of those who died before 1947, including Canadian war dead.
One of my favourite comments, from the Canadian Bar Association, is that the bill should be completely redrafted, with less cross-referencing, in plain language.
After the initial flurry of interest and commentary, the hearings are largely happening under the radar. Mainstream media are not covering it and ethnic communities and media are largely absent. Neither opposition party appears, at this stage, to be making this a major issue, in sharp contrast with C-23, the Fair Elections Act, and controversy over Temporary Foreign Workers. Alexander is lucky indeed.
There are some obvious areas where the government could respond to some of the testimony without changing the fundamentals. There seems no sound policy or political rationale not to count pre-permanent residency time towards citizenship. The intent to reside provision needs further clarification on how citizenship officers will decide whether it is genuine or not. It seems pointless to extend language assessment to 14-year-olds to 17-year-olds given that they have been in Canadian schools for six years before applying. There should be some flexibility for fees for low-income refugees. Greater clarity on Canadian equivalency on foreign criminality convictions will improve fairness. Revocation for terrorism and treason should similarly also test for equivalence to Canadian judicial processes, and have greater clearer criteria and language (e.g., “act” rather than “offence”).
None of this will address the philosophical differences between the government and its supporters, and those of its critics. The overall tightening of citizenship will likely reduce the number of permanent residents taking up citizenship. Increased residency and related requirements may make Canada less attractive to the “best and brightest,” and most mobile immigrants Canada wishes to attract. Revocation for terror and treason changes long-standing policy of treating all Canadians equally, whether born in Canada or naturalized.
As Bill C-24 moves to more formal parliamentary debate, we shall see if the political dynamics change and Canadians start pay more attention to this tougher approach to Canadian citizenship, and the likely effects over time, on Canada.