Challenging Misinformation: Canadian Citizenship Law Explained

On February 6, 2014, the federal government tabled Bill C-24, introducing sweeping changes to Canada’s citizenship laws.  In our view, this new law will turn Canadian citizenship law upside down, and take away one of the key features of Canadian citizenship: its permanence. The government’s statements in support of Bill C-24 appear to the BCCLA to perpetuate a number of myths and inaccuracies.  

The circulation of these myths and inaccuracies is one of the biggest barriers to understanding the highly problematic effects of this proposed legislation. This blog highlights some of the proposed law’s key provisions in order to to correct the record and provide accurate information. For more detailed information about Bill C-24, please see the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers’ excellent legal primer.

What does citizenship mean?

Citizenship is the badge of membership in a political democracy.  It forms the foundation of political community, of political rights, and of identity.  Not only does citizenship entail special legal rights through our laws and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but it also has strong implications for feelings of identity and membership that make up the character of a nation.  It forms the basis for the relationship between members of a society and their state, as well as members of a society and each other.

Citizens, collectively, form the state. The concept that citizens constitute the state provides the foundation for the rights of citizens to vote, to have access to government records and to express themselves freely. In this way, citizenship is perhaps the single most fundamental political right, forming the basis for all others.

  1. Citizenship is not a licence the government can revoke for misbehaviour
  2. Citizenship stripping is not commonplace in other countries.  Bill C-24 makes Canada an outlier among western states
  3. It is the role of the criminal justice system, not elected officials, to punish people for wrongdoing
  4. The new law does not just target criminal wrongdoers; it poses a serious threat to the rights of all Canadians
  5. Citizenship is not a privilege; it is an interest fundamental to full membership in Canadian society
  6. The new law greatly reduces due-process rights, replacing fair judicial process with Ministerial discretion
  7. The new law diminishes the ties non-permanent residents have established in Canada
  8. The new law does not adequately ensure citizens maintain strong ties to Canada
  9. The new law does not strengthen or protect the value of Canadian citizenship; it diminishes it

1. Citizenship is not a licence the government can revoke for misbehaviour

Bill C-24 proposes to give the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration the authority to strip dual nationals of Canadian citizenship in certain circumstances.  Stripping a person of citizenship is an arbitrary and medieval practice that serves no valid purpose, and is inconsistent with basic notions of justice as outlined in Canadian law.

The words of United States Chief Justice Earl Warren remain as true today as they were in 1958: “Citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior . . . And the deprivation of citizenship is not a weapon that the government may use to express its displeasure at a citizen’s conduct, however reprehensible that conduct may be.”

In fact, the courts have recognized that taking away citizenship is a violation of a person’s constitutional rights. The cluster of citizenship-related rights, ties and obligations amount to a legal and political status which has serious enough implications to engage section 7 of the Charter. As explained by Justice Martineau in his recent judgment in the Taylor case, “A person’s right to security (such as obtaining state protection) and liberty of movement is inextricably linked with his national, or as the case may be, his citizenship status.  Nationality and citizenship are so intimately attached to an individual that I am ready to accept that any deprivation or loss of nationality or citizenship by an act of the state – whether or not it renders someone ‘stateless’ – engages an individual’s rights to ‘liberty’ and ‘security of the person.” (Taylor v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2006 FC 1053 at para 232.).

2. Citizenship stripping is not commonplace in other countries.  Bill C-24 makes Canada an outlier among western states

The federal government has claimed that citizenship stripping is commonplace in other countries, and that the new law “brings Canada in line with most of our peer countries”.  This is inaccurate. In fact, the only western state to make use of this practice in the last few years is the United Kingdom, and it is an outlier whose use of it should serve as a cautionary tale.  Citizenship stripping has been unconstitutional in the United States for over 50 years.

3. It is the role of the criminal justice system, not elected officials, to punish people for wrongdoing

The new law proposes to give elected officials the power to strip Canadian citizenship of people who commit a handful of very serious criminal acts. These acts include treason and terrorism. Obviously the BCCLA shares the goal of a Canada that is safe from the threat of terrorism, or from those who seek to use violence against Canada and Canadians. But it is not the job of elected officials and government bureaucrats to punish people for such acts. Canadian law already has established mechanisms by which to punish criminal wrongdoers. It is obviously the job of Canada’s criminal justice system to deal effectively with individuals who violate the law.  We have the benefit of a modern judicial process that includes prosecution, trial before an independent judge and, in the event of conviction, a just punishment that achieves the goals of deterrence, retribution, denunciation and rehabilitation.. We do not need to throw Canada back to the dark ages and revive the medieval practice of banishment as a way of punishing people.

4. The new law does not just target criminal wrongdoers; it poses a serious threat to the rights of all Canadians

The new law allows the Minister to revoke citizenship if he believes citizens did not have the intention to live in Canada when they applied for citizenship.  This means that Canadian citizens could be stripped of their citizenship without a hearing, if they move to another country to be with a dying relative, to live with their children, or to pursue a business, academic, or other employment opportunity.

5.  Citizenship is not a privilege; it is an interest fundamental to full membership in Canadian society

In support of the new law, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander has statedthat “citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege”.  This is inaccurate.  When a Canadian is born here, she has the right of citizenship. When a Canadian is naturalized as a citizen, she acquires the full rights of being a Canadian citizen.

Canadian courts have long recognized that citizenship is foundational to one’s membership in Canadian society.  The Supreme Court of Canada, for example, has stated that it “could not imagine an interest more fundamental to full membership in Canadian society than Canadian citizenship”.  The Federal Court of Canada has similarly stated that citizenship “constitutes both a fundamental social institution and a basic aspect of full membership in Canadian society”.  The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has also held that the revocation of citizenship clearly triggers the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canada has also pledged its commitment to the aspirational rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has a right to a nationality, and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of nationality.

6. The new law greatly reduces due-process rights, replacing fair judicial process with Ministerial discretion

Under Canada’s current laws, citizenship can only be removed after a hearing before a judge. Under the new law, the Minister will, in most cases, make this decision without a hearing.  Bill C-24 intends to remove the right of citizens to appeal to the courts.  Instead, a person whose citizenship is revoked will have to apply to the Federal Court for permission to start an appeal. It is likely that in many cases, the Federal Court will be reluctant to disagree with the Minister’s assessment of the evidence so the scope of any review by the Courts will be very limited.

7. The new law diminishes the ties non-permanent residents have established in Canada

The federal government has stated that the new law will “ensure citizenship applicants maintain strong ties to Canada”.  Under the new law, a person who applies for citizenship will not be able to count time spent in Canada as a non-permanent resident towards his/her citizenship application. There is no reason why time spent as a non-permanent resident should not count towards citizenship. If the idea behind imposing wait time for citizens is to ensure that citizenship applicants have lived in Canada, it should make no difference that the applicant was in Canada with some other form of status other than permanent residence status (for example, as a student).  This proposed change would also adversely impact refugees, who often have to wait for years to obtain permanent residence in Canada.

Creating a longer wait time for people who have otherwise duly applied and qualified for citizenship merely creates an unnecessary barrier to people accessing the full rights of citizenship.

8. The new law does not adequately ensure citizens maintain strong ties to Canada

The federal government has stated that the new law reinforces the value of Canadian citizenship.  The new law introduces a requirement that persons who apply for citizenship must show intent to reside in Canada after they obtain citizenship. Of course, the government may legitimately encourage present and future Canadians to reside in Canada.  But that’s not what this provision does.  Rather, it empowers government officials to speculate on an applicant’s future intentions, and then potentially deny them citizenship on the basis of that conjecture – without a shred of evidence. It also holds out the implicit threat that if a naturalized Canadian citizen takes up a job somewhere else (as many Canadians do), or forms a relationship with someone abroad (as many Canadians do), the government may move to strip him/her of citizenship for supposedly “misrepresenting” their intention to reside in Canada when they were granted citizenship.  Whether the government acts on the threat is not the issue; it is enough that people will be made insecure and apprehensive by the possibility that a government official may arbitrarily decide to launch revocation proceedings against them if they leave Canada too soon, or remain away too long.

9.  The new law does not strengthen or protect the value of Canadian citizenship; it diminishes it

The federal government has stated that the new law will protect the value of Canadian citizenship.  This is patently untrue.  The value of Canadian citizenship does not lie in cruelly depriving some citizens of their most basic rights, or in drawing distinctions that represent new Canadians as objects of suspicion and mistrust.  Instead, the value of Canadian citizenship lies in a commitment to rights protection, equality, dignity, and multiculturalism, as outlined in theCanadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  As Canadians, we make our citizenship feeble if we give government ministers the power to extinguish it.  The value of Canadian citizenship is diminished – not enhanced – by the new law proposed by the government.

FOR ALL THESE REASONS, WE ARE CALLING ON CANADIANS TO STAND UP AGAINST BILL C-24. SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR EQUAL CITIZENSHIP, SIGN THE PETITION NOW.

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