WHAT does it mean to be Canadian? What kind of Canada do we want? If you’ve tuned into the election coverage lately, you’ll know these aren’t meaningless questions. They’re being hotly debated by our federal party leaders because of a new law that fundamentally changes the answers to those questions.
Bill C-24 came into effect earlier this year, turning millions of Canadians born abroad (or whose parents or grandparents were born abroad) into second-class citizens.
The way this law has been written, anyone getting citizenship now could lose it if they move abroad for work, study, or family reasons. Taking care of a sick parent abroad, moving to another country to marry, or studying at a prestigious foreign university could leave someone legally vulnerable to having their citizenship revoked.
That’s because new Canadians now have to promise they intend to live in Canada. If they move away, the government could decide they’ve broken their promise and that they lied about their intentions when they became a citizen. Now, a young person whose family is new to Canada might have to think twice about accepting that full scholarship to Harvard—because it could mean putting her Canadian passport in jeopardy. Her Canadian-born competitor, however, doesn’t have to worry. People born here have no fear of losing their citizenship because they move away. Government officials have claimed that they don’t actually intend to use the new law to punish new Canadians in this way, but they refused to remove those sections of the bill. Instead, they have deliberately created a two-tier citizenship regime.
That’s bad enough, but this new law also penalizes new Canadians and their families in other ways. That’s because the federal government decided that it can, in some cases, revoke the Canadian citizenship of anyone with another passport (or anyone the federal government thinks is even eligible for one) – whether they are born in Canada or abroad.
Many Canadians born and raised in this country who have a right to foreign citizenship through their parents, grandparents, or spouse, or because of a right of return to an ancestral homeland, are suddenly vulnerable. Some Canadians now have fewer rights than other Canadians, just because of where they or their families are from. Under the new legislation, individuals convicted of certain serious crimes in Canada, or convicted of such crimes abroad (including in countries that do not have fair trials or rule of law) could lose their citizenship. Dictatorships often accuse human rights activists and journalists of terrorist offences to silence and punish them. Canadian law now penalizes such people by placing their Canadian citizenship at risk.
But even in cases where individuals have legitimately done wrong, the argument that Bill C-24 makes us safer doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, it dangerously misses the point. People who are a legitimate threat are best dealt with through the criminal justice system, where they are incarcerated and separated from society. Far from eliminating the threat, the ancient practice of banishment only displaces it. At best, by expelling a dangerous offender, we’re shunting our problems off onto other nations. At worst, we could be sending a dangerous offender to a country that is hostile to Canada and lacks the rule of law. This makes us decidedly less safe.
In practice, these aspects of the new law will disproportionately affect visible minority Canadians, who have arrived in Canada in great numbers only one or two generations ago. By promoting unequal treatment of Canadians, the law is discriminatory and violates the Charter. The BC Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have launched a constitutional challenge, because it violated fundamental human rights guaranteed to all of us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—and because we believe it’s fundamentally wrong to treat some Canadians as second class.
Other parts of the bill are equally problematic, but unfortunately we have little recourse to challenge them in the courts. Canada has always been a country of immigrants. Bill C-24 will change that by making it more difficult for immigrants to gain citizenship by lengthening the time it takes, increasing the cost, adding barriers for the oldest and youngest immigrants, and removing the possibility of appeal. Time spent in Canada as a student, temporary worker, live-in caregiver, or refugee will no longer count towards citizenship. The application fee has tripled in price, in addition to a costly language testing process which now is required of immigrants as young as 14 and as old as 64 (previously, only adults age 18 to 55 needed to take the test).
Canada used to have some of the highest naturalization rates in the world. High naturalization rates are associated with higher employment rates and greater integration—outcomes that are good for everyone. This will change under Bill C-24.
Immigrants built our country, and we should continue to welcome them. We believe that all of us should be treated as equals under the law. It doesn’t matter what colour our skin is, or what country our families came from. But with Bill C-24, the government is telling millions of Canadians that they are somehow less Canadian than others – that despite their building this country and making Canada their home, they don’t really belong here.
That’s wrong, and it diminishes all of us. That’s why we are fighting it. We’re fighting for the Canada we want to be, and the Canada that, until now, we’ve always been – where every Canadian is treated equally under the law.