Every year, several hundred people from across Ottawa gather in a city park in late June for a day-long festival of soccer (football), sweat, and citizenship. Yes, citizenship.
Community Cup – celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – is a hugely successful multicultural event that does more than feature teams from ethnic communities, the police service, fire department, media and local colleges playing (mostly) friendly matches. There’s music and dance, health and wellness booths, and the centerpiece of the day: a citizenship ceremony under a big white marquee.
This year 42 new Canadians swore the oath in front of assembled dignitaries and volunteers, pledging to “bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors,” and “faithfully observe the laws of Canada” and fulfill their “duties as a Canadian citizen.”
The newly minted citizens laughed, they wept, and in an instant, they became Canadian. Then they had a piece of the giant Canadian flag cake that miraculously had not melted into a red and white puddle in the soaring temperatures.
A little while later, I was talking to one of the organizers when up walked Tony, a Rwandan-Canadian whose nieces sang the national anthem to open the ceremony.
“Do you know something?” said Tony. “I felt more Canadian watching that citizenship ceremony that at any other time in the 15 years I’ve been here. It just filled me up.”
Moments like that put a serious crack in the outer shell of my cynical hack credentials. They remind me that, in spite of all the challenges migration entails, at some point you’re bound to see and hear deeply heartfelt declarations about what it means to have found a home in Canada.
Becoming a citizen isn’t the only expression of belonging, but it’s a big one. Newcomers love this place so much that 86 per cent of Canada’s foreign-born residents acquire citizenship (a very high rate). Canadians who become citizens through migration are forced to ponder the meaning of citizenship, the rights and responsibilities it entails, and work hard to get it. Often they choose to give up rights and claims to their homeland in favour of staking their claim to life in the true north strong and free. They have to meet specific criteria for age, language and length of residence, among other things; study a guide about Canadian history, institutions and values (issued by the government and marked by its own controversy) and finally, take the citizenship test – sometimes more than once before they get it right.
Those of us born here? We think our country is pretty great and we know a Canadian passport is one of the most powerful in the world, but most of us don’t think about citizenship much at all beyond our national holiday on July 1, which is a great excuse to dress in red and white, wave the flag and watch some fireworks.
And that’s a shame (the apathy, not the fireworks), because it means most weren’t paying attention earlier this year when the government introduced a new naturalization framework that threatens to turn a thing of beauty and sanctuary into a tool of division and exclusion. Bill C-24, An Act to Amend the Citizenship Act, was introduced last February and received Royal Assent on June 19.
The government says it is protecting Canadian citizenship by making it harder to obtain and easier to lose, because “citizenship is a right, not a privilege.” That’s news to many outside the ruling Conservative party, and as it galloped through the House of Commons, Parliamentary committee hearings and Senate review, Bill C-24 gathered critics who catalogued its flaws. Chief among the red flags, according to critics: longer residency requirements, a stipulation that citizens give a declaration of intent to reside in Canada and – most ominously – expanded powers to revoke citizenship from foreign-born dual citizens.
The government produced some nifty graphics to explain differences between the old and new systems, and to bolster its case that the new framework is a streamlined one. However, for a neutral assessment of the nuts and bolts of any piece of legislation, the Library of Parliament’s legislative summary is the best place to start.
It tells us that the Act replaces legislation passed in 1977, which itself was the first update since 1947, when the concept of Canadian citizenship (as distinct from British) was created. There have been tweaks to the rules along the way, and that is generally where C-24 looks good. It corrects ambiguities of past laws and clarifies provisions the courts have found problematic. It also codifies a partial solution to a longstanding injustice: the so-called “lost Canadians,” many of them elderly men and women who were shocked to discover, after living in Canada their entire lives, that they were not citizens because some quirk in their personal history had quietly dropped them through arcane loopholes.
But what has sparked the most concern is the law’s significant changes to the way immigrants can achieve citizenship, and how they could lose it.
Currently, newcomers to Canada who want to become citizens are required to establish residence here for three out of four years, but residence did not require physically being on Canadian soil. Under the new law, “residence” is now defined as actual physical presence in Canada for 1,460 days over six years, and a minimum of 183 days of physical presence per year in four of six years. This is a direct attack on what have been called “Canadians of convenience,” people who come long enough to get the passport, then return home armed with their Canadian safety net.
One prominent immigration lawyer applauded the clarity the law brings to the residency issue, by providing the first actual definition in law. But as other commentators pointed out in a national newspaper, the residency provision is at odds with our increasingly mobile and diverse workforce. Many permanent residents will have to pass up overseas assignments – positions for which they might have been hired, given their diversity of language skills and global contacts – unless they want to jeopardize their citizenship aspirations.
And international students should take note: the Library of Parliament points out that under the new system, “Time spent in Canada as anything other than a permanent resident no longer counts towards the residency period.”
Most controversially, the law establishes new grounds for revoking citizenship. Currently the only cause for revocation of citizenship is fraud, i.e. lying to the government in your application for citizenship or permanent resident status. This provision has been exercised many times, most notably to strip citizenship from former war criminals.
The new law establishes three new grounds for revoking citizenship in addition to fraud, all applicable to dual citizens. If the person fought against Canada in armed conflict, was convicted of treason or spying offences and sentenced to life in prison, or was convicted of a terrorism or equivalent offence at home or abroad and sentenced to five or more years in prison, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration may revoke citizenship. The previous framework required approval by both the Minister and the Governor in Council, with appeals being heard by the Federal Court. Now only the minister is involved, and the appeal consists of written representations from the individual. Only cases involving national security would be referred to the Federal Court.
The new law is clearly a new weapon to use against problems the government would like to ship offshore, a weapon with fewer checks. As several columnists noted, it applies neatly to one of the Conservative government’s biggest security headaches, Canadian-born former Guantanamo Bay inmate Omar Khadr.
Critics and media commentators pointed out this effectively sets up two classes of citizenship: the one for people born here who have no citizenship ties elsewhere, and one for everyone else. “To turn citizenship from a tool of integration into a reward for good behaviour – to be revoked at the discretion of one minister on grounds of bad behavior and without due process – is to undermine the meaning and value of citizenship for all Canadians,” said one commentary, signed by a leading Canadian pollster, a human rights expert and a prominent integration advocate.
Human rights experts told a Parliamentary committee the government will end up facing Supreme Court challenges on this and other aspects of the citizenship law that they say restrict the movement of Canadians and interferes with the rights of citizenship.
There was no shortage of informed critique of the legislation, but the issue failed to catch fire with the general public. One migration advocate said privately last week she and her allies were shocked that the issue failed to move Canadians. It affected each one of us, after all, and a national survey in 2012 found that most of us – naturalized and citizens by birth alike – felt existing citizenship provisions were good enough. But to become bigger, the issue would have had to resonate not just with the quarter of Canadians who were born outside the country, but with the so-called “Canadian mainstream” of citizens by birth – exactly the people most likely to rarely think about citizenship at all.
The law will be in force soon, but the bitter aftertaste remains. Thousands more new Canadians will swear loyalty to the Queen this year, knowing – for better or for worse – their new home has put clear boundaries on their citizenship. Is that how we build a stronger sense of belonging?