Vancouver Observer: Government muzzles expert witnesses on major citizenship bill

Citizenship advocate Don Chapman sits in an empty committee room. ©2014 Jean Chartrand

Citizenship advocates Don Chapman and Melynda Jarrett are fuming after seeing what they call a flagrant violation of the democratic process in Parliament unfold before their eyes.

Just moments before they were set to testify before the Citizen and Immigration committee on Monday, Conservative caucus member Ted Opitz  motioned to close the meeting to the public, preventing them from speaking on bill C-24, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Chapman, stunned by the move. "This is an important bill that will determine who's a Canadian, and yet they don't want to hear from stakeholders about it?"

'Do they think citizenship legislation is a joke?' 

Jarrett, a historian, was invited by the government at the taxpayer’s expense to provide expert testimony on the history affecting this legislation, along with other concerns. Chapman and Jarrett arrived in Ottawa from Vancouver and New Brunswick respectively, but didn't get any chance to say a word before the committee.
“Do they think citizenship legislation is a joke?” said Jarrett, angered by the last-minute changes.

The pair were ushered to leave the committee along with various members of the public, media and parliamentary staff in unusual afternoon drama after Conservative MP Ted Opitz motioned to move the meeting to in camera, which was carried by a majority vote.

Photo of Don Chapman. ©2014 Jean Chartrand

The Conservative-dominated committee – of which five members are Canadian immigrants from countries including India, Sri Lanka and Taiwan – is currently reviewing the bill, which has already been lambasted as a “Trojan horse”, giving the Harper government unprecedented power to strip Canadians of their citizenship.
Liberal MP John McCallum left the meeting in frustration shortly after the decision was made to muzzle the witnesses. “I can’t talk about what happened in-camera, but as you can see by my actions, I’m not happy,” he said. 

The bill, which Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander called the most comprehensive overhaul of citizenship legislation in over a generation, specifically includes a section on "Lost Canadians" --  legitimate Canadians who lost their citizenship due to racial discrimination, sexism and the federal government’s insistence that Canadian citizenship began after 1947 despite Supreme Court precedents that clearly state otherwise.

Even though the government made national headlines by saying it was finally going to fix legislation flaws that caused Canadians to lose citizenship, its exclusion of witnesses suggests that the law won't be open to any input from people directly affected by the legislation. 

Muzzling witnesses and scrapping democratic process  

Both Chapman and Jarrett have extensive knowledge and personal experience with the issue of Lost Canadians, and were shocked to have been denied their say.

“I’ve always felt this was a transparent process of democracy in being invited to speak as an expert. Now, I feel insulted and it’s brought out the worst of how people perceive politicians in Ottawa," Jarratt said. "The look on their faces today with their sense of entitlement --- how they can treat members of the public, and taxpayers money, with such contempt?”

A visibly frustrated Champan wasn’t as diplomatic.

“I’m glad Canada was accepting of you, when you needed help,” he said to Conservative MPs Joe Daniel, Chungsen Leung and Devinder Shory – who are Canadian immigrants – as they left the committee room once the meeting adjourned.

“They wouldn't even look at me," Chapman said indignantly. "They're undermining the democratic process by ignoring the evidence of witnesses.”

Conservative MPs Devinder Shorey, Joe Daniel and Chungsen Leung leave Monday's Citizenship and Immigration Committee . ©2014 Jean Chartrand

The new bill also changes an individual’s ability to challenge the government in court, which experts say is disconcerting.

“There’s intent to shift power from the judiciary to the executive, and which undermines the constitutional role of the courts in Canada’s democratic systems” said lawyer Bill Kinsel.

Thousands of Canadians remain without citizenship, many of whom go most of their lives without knowing that they don’t have Canadian citizenship until they apply for passports, healthcare, driver’s licenses or old age pensions.

Also escorted out of the room that afternoon was Heather Harnois, 25, an Ontario-based mother of Ojibwa heritage. Despite her family's strong roots in Canada, the federal government does not recognize Harnois as either Canadian or aboriginal, due to rule that prevented Indian women from passing on status.

As a result, Harnois is unable to apply for a social insurance number or receive health care coverage. She has repeatedly asked for lawmakers to grant her Canadian citizenship, to no avail. Her case is similar to that of Donovan McGlaughlin, a half-Aboriginal Yukon resident of Susquehannock origin who has lived in Canada for over 40 years but has been denied citizenship due to lack of government documents.  Others denied citizenship in the past include children of Canadian soldiers, and Canadian veterans of the Second World War.

"They're doing this all wrong," Chapman said. "The term 'Lost Canadians' comes up 20 times in the Legislative Summary of Bill C-24, yet they don't have one Lost Canadian to speak to the committee. They're not interested in the truth. This is bill number seven on this issue and they still can't get it right."

Chapman had also been calling Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Parliamentary Secretary Costas Menegakis repeatedly for a week, and said neither even acknowledged him.

"I've called Menegakis at least 20 times," he said. "No response."

Citizenship and Immigration Canada was reached for comment but did not provide a response in time for publication.