C-6: Senate Debate – Language and Knowledge Testing Age

In addition to the amendment proposed by Senator McCoy to restore procedural protections for those accused of fraud or misrepresentation, and the forthcoming amendment allowing minors to submit citizenship applications on their own (see C-6: Senate bill would let children become citizens separately from parents), Senator Griffin proposed a (compromise?) amendment, proposing a cut-off age of 60 for knowledge and language testing, compared to the current 65 of C-24 and the proposed 55 of C-6.

To her credit, she went back to the Mulroney and Chrétien eras to find justification for 60 being an appropriate cut-off.

I would, however, take issue with the Library of Parliament’s assertion, according to Senator Griffin’s speech, that it was “not decided at either the political or the senior departmental levels.”

Inconceivable. Any such change would have to be signed off by the Deputy and Minister. Moreover, as the timing of April 2005 was prior to the 2006 election, with the main target being new Canadian voters in key ridings.

One of the problems with all the age proposals is the lack of good evidence and policy analysis of their rationale. ATIP records show that there was no such analysis done in 2005 when then Minister Volpe reduced the cut-off to 55, none in 2014 when then Minister Alexander raised it to 65, and again none in 2016 when then Minister McCallum reduced it back to 55. (I didn’t make any ATIP requests earlier than 2005).

And while good policy and political arguments have been made on both sides of the issue, it is unfortunate that various governments appear to have made their policy choices without documented consideration of departmental analysis, suggesting that the decisions were primarily political.

Her research prompted more research by the Bill’s sponsor, Senator Omidvar, indicating that there was more departmental involvement and advice than ATIP records show.

In the end, the Senate approved the amendment, meaning the Government will need to decide whether to accept this (and other amendments) or, as in the case of assisted dying, send it back to the Senate unchanged.

Have included the text of Senators Griffin and Omidvar to provide the flavour of the debate:

Senator Griffin:

Honourable senators, today I rise to speak to Bill C-6. I want to propose an amendment to the bill, but first I want to give you my reasons why.

The age of 55 to demonstrate sufficient language proficiency is too low and should be increased. This is in part due to the fact that a permanent resident at age 49 to 50, after a five-year waiting period, could become a Canadian citizen at age 55 without any knowledge of either French or English.

I think an amendment to increase that level to 60 years of age is particularly important to people in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and rural Canada.

Note that I support a waiver on compassionate grounds. This is found in section 5(3) of the Citizenship Act. I respectfully disagree with routine waivers simply because an applicant is 55.

I am proposing age 60 due to the evidence-based recommendations by studies during the Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien governments. According to the Library of Parliament, the age of 55 for an exemption from the requirements is a more recent trend that was not decided at either the political or the senior departmental levels.

As well, the Library of Parliament analyst cannot find any record of age 55 being transmitted through ministerial instruction. The age of 55 appears to have been decided at a middle management level via an instrument of delegation.

The age exemptions for language and knowledge were never defined in statute prior to the Conservative government’s changes to the Citizenship Act that legislatively set the age to 65.

Prior to this point, there was a requirement for all permanent residents who wished to acquire citizenship to satisfy the knowledge and language requirements, and individuals who could not fulfill these requirements had to request a waiver.

In the early 1980s, the criteria for a routine waiver was set at 65 and over. By 1994, the waiver was lowered to 60. At some point between 1994 and 2014, the waiver was again lowered, this time to 55. But these lowerings were never done at the political level.

Studies from the Mulroney and Chrétien eras recommended using 60 as the benchmark for waivers. In particular, in 1994, the House of Commons committee from the Chrétien government advocated against the routine waiving of language requirements for older applicants.

To paraphrase its report, the Immigration Committee felt that Canadians must be encouraged to obtain a degree of knowledge in one of the official languages. The committee viewed citizenship as a two-way street, and older immigrants should be encouraged to walk as far along that street as possible. The committee warned that routine waiving of language requirements is a form of misplaced passion that could ghettoize people and hinder participation in the broader Canadian mosaic.

The Salisbury-Addison Convention indicates that the Senate should generally not defeat major campaign platform commitments. Effectively, the Senate must defer to the wisdom of the electorate on major platform commitments. However, the lowering of the exemption age to 55 is not a campaign promise. The closest phrase is found in the backgrounder brief called “A New Plan for Canadian Immigration and Economic Opportunity” which states:

“We will repeal the unfair elements of Bill C-24 that create second-class citizens and the elements that make it more difficult for hard-working immigrants to become Canadian citizens.”

With creativity and imagination, the government could claim that this promise implies the repeal of the age requirement in statute and a restoration of the traditional waiver system. It is clear that entrenchment in statute of age 55 is not contemplated in this promise.

At present, there is a paradox where middle management decision-makers have gradually lowered the age requirement while the lifespan of Canadians is increasing. Age 55 is quite young. I do note with a certain degree of irony that this issue is being debated in this chamber where our average age for a senator is 65.

I draw attention to the comment that former minister John McCallum made to the House of Commons Immigration Committee about the language requirements.

“We did not have consultations specifically on the economic implications of returning to the 55 to 64, but I’m told neither did the previous government on the impact going the other way. So we are reverting to the status quo ante and our predecessors didn’t consult our moving away from it.”

The minister is incorrect in his statement. As discussed earlier, a return to the status quo ante implies not defining 55 in statute and there was no political or senior management direction supporting lowering the age to 55. I stress the lower age runs contrary to the evidence-based recommendations from the Mulroney and Chrétien eras.

One of the primary elements of citizenship is participation in the democratic process, and as a reflection of the smaller population in Atlantic Canada, elections and civic engagement are key elements to successfully integrating into the community.

For example, in Prince Edward Island, the average provincial riding size is about 4,000 people. In the case of my home riding, Vernon River—Stratford, in the last election, after a recount, the two top candidates were tied so the returning officer, according to law, flipped a coin to decide the winner.

Several other ridings were decided by fewer than 100 votes, so this highlights the point that every vote is important and new citizens do have a right to vote, whether or not they can understand the candidates. It is difficult in Eastern Canada for individuals to participate fully in society and in the democratic process without having a working knowledge of either French or English.

I note that a significant number of committee witnesses who spoke to Bill C-6 focused on the national security provisions of the legislation. With respect to age requirements, a cursory examination appears to show none of the witnesses were from Atlantic Canada and the vast majority were from Ontario.

In light of this, I’m putting forward this amendment to highlight that legislative amendments on Canadian citizenship must involve more stakeholders than solely those from the larger population centres.

As well, I’ll point out that in proposing this amendment I am fulfilling the Prime Minister’s vision that senators examine and revise legislation while representing regional, provincial and minority interests.

Senator Omidvar:

Honourable senators, I find I’m rising yet one more time to speak to you about Bill C-6. I wish that were not the case but I wanted to start off on a positive note.

Thank you, Senator Oh, for sharing your amendment with us and your notes. It makes all our jobs so much easier when we understand what you’re thinking. I agree with our facilitator, Senator McCoy, that in fact this should become not just good practice but standard practice. I look forward to working with all those who make these agreements to further this idea.

I would also like to thank my colleague Senator Griffin for her interest and her contribution to the dialogue and debate on this very important bill. And in particular I want to thank her for her readiness and willingness to step up to the plate. I spoke to her yesterday — I think it was eight o’clock in the morning — and I asked whether she would be ready to speak on her amendment. She blinked maybe once and then said “yes,” so kudos on your responsiveness, really.

I will say as much as I admire my colleague from beautiful P.E.I. — and I have learned something about P.E.I. in my conversations with her — I do not support this amendment and I will be voting against it.

First, honourable senators, let me remind everybody this is a repeal bill. It means it repeals certain provisions to take them back to where they were before, not to another place, not to tweak it, to massage it or find another playing field, but to bring it back to where we were before, and that was age 55.

Second, changes to the Citizenship Act were part of the election promise. The Liberal government was elected on a platform with a particular mandate and this change is part of it. As the Prime Minister said, “We will repeal the unfair elements of Bill C-24 . . . that make it more difficult for hard-working immigrants to become Canadian citizens.”

Senator Griffin is absolutely right; she has done her research very well. There is no particular reference to age, but I believe that lowering the age exemption is part and parcel of this promise and one that I am personally delighted that the Prime Minister has chosen to keep.

Senator Griffin is proposing to raise the waiver age for exemption of language and knowledge testing from 55, which is in the bill, to 60 — five years. And I would like to focus my comments on why five years matter and to whom.

I would like to start with evidence, just as Senator Griffin did. She pointed to some research in the Mulroney and Chrétien eras. I won’t dwell too much on this point. I just want to remind everyone that the source of immigrants to Canada has diversified significantly since then, especially in the 1990s, which would not be captured in the statistics available at that time. Policy recommendations at that time made sense, perhaps, for a country of primarily European immigrants.

But I wanted to look for recent evidence, so I turned to one of the most knowledgeable people in the field of citizenship, and that is Andrew Griffith, the former Director General in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. He filed an access to information request to find the documentation behind the 2014 decision to raise the waiver age from 55 to 65, and the department returned his request with zero documentation. Mr. Griffith concluded: “We are in an evidence-free zone.”

But did I find some evidence. I looked for it in a different place with a different lens, and I found it in the gender-based analysis that was conducted for Bill C-24. No gender-based analysis was conducted for Bill C-6 because it was felt it still held in that one year. This is what we know, because it is what the GBA said: that from 2000 to 2004, when the waiver age was 60, which is exactly what Senator Griffin is proposing to do, applicants aged 55 to 60 had a 5 per cent lower test pass rate than the rate of all other age groups. In other words, testing impacted those aged between 55 and 60.

I went back a little further in history, and I determined that it was in 2005, under Prime Minister Paul Martin, that the age was lowered from 60 to 55. The Minister of Immigration was Joe Volpe, in Prime Minister Paul Martin’s cabinet. I just picked up the phone yesterday, called him and was lucky enough to find him. I said, “Mr. Volpe, can you remember if there was evidence behind your decision?” We are dealing with memory, I understand, but he was very clear when he said to me that he relied on evidence to make this decision, and the evidence was collected by the department and concluded that testing poses a particular barrier for older immigrants.

He went on to say that it didn’t make sense to deprive them of the opportunity to become citizens. It didn’t make sense that one could only be an exemplary citizen or a good citizen if you could pass a test.

There is some other evidence that I will cite briefly. We know there is a falling rate of applications for citizenship; this is documented, again, by Andrew Griffith. He found a nearly 50 per cent drop in applications in the first nine months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. I want to remind us all what Senator Eggleton said: The fees for citizenship applications have risen an astronomical 500 per cent. It costs roughly $630 per person to apply for citizenship.

I want you to consider someone who is 55 years old, who is lower income, who is supporting a family and putting food on the table, and they have to then put $630 on the table for a citizenship application test, and they are nervous about passing it. So I conclude that testing has a disproportionate impact on older immigrants and therefore constitutes a disincentive.

Let me talk a little bit about who this change will impact. It’s a small minority, by the way, of citizenship applicants. Historically, only about 8 per cent of the total number of citizenship applications received each year has come from this age group. Who are they? We are not talking about people who choose to come to Canada for the labour market. Their age would, in fact, be a great disqualifier. We are talking about refugees, parents, grandparents and spouses. In particular, I am talking about women who have come to Canada as sponsored spouses, a parent or as a refugee.

Elke Winter, Associate Professor of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa, testified during witness hearings on Bill C-24 that, for the “less educated, non-European-language speakers, and the economically vulnerable,” it makes citizenship much harder to obtain.

Let me restate what I have pointed out in both of my speeches on Bill C-6. Sadly, I think there are way too many people who need to hold down more than two jobs simply to make the rent and pay their bills. These people, again, many of them women, work in factories where they operate within a context where language acquisition either does not matter or is not necessary.

Again, these women aged 55 and over are good enough to work, good enough to raise their children, good enough to send them to university and good enough to pay taxes, but they are not good enough to become Canadians.

I have heard no credible evidence that changing the age one way or another is an incentive to learning a language. But I have heard that it is a real barrier based on your socio-economic status, your gender and your race. I feel I am hugely disadvantaged in this chamber because I do not speak French. I think it is a big disadvantage. I know I can try to learn it, but I figured out that it would be incredibly difficult to get up to the fluency of Senators Pratte and Dupuis. I try to listen to them, but I know it is hard. I am someone who has a natural tendency to learn languages — I speak six of them — but I know now it would be too hard to learn that language.

Barriers like being too poor, too busy, too badly needed at home, too fearful and too risk-averse: for vulnerable people, a barrier is a barrier. I’m afraid I cannot see an incentive in it.

Miss Avvy Go of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian legal clinic reminded us that your ability to learn a language depends on your mental health, family status, income, working hours and more.

I will agree with each one of you that we need to spend more money on languages. Language is invaluable for those who have it, and we should strive to open our official languages to include more of our citizens. But we should not do this by erecting barriers. We should not do it at the cost of disenfranchisement.

We heard yesterday that language requirements can be waived on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Senator Eggleton posed the very pointed question: How many times has this policy actually been applied?

Today, in the morning, I was speaking to the director generals and deputy ministers of the department. I asked them this question, and there was, sadly, no answer.

Let me make an assumption: If passing a test is a challenge, I wonder how much more challenging it would be to arrange a waiver. But I do have some very concrete evidence about the good things that happen when you do become a citizen. It is scientifically proven that you have a greater attachment to the labour market. You develop a greater sense of belonging to Canada and its institutions. You have a greater investment in ownership, and you invest in this country in many ways. I really believe this is the spirit of what both Senator Griffin and I want.

Senator Griffin made a very interesting point about political participation. Her story, about the one vote being decided in a coin toss, was fascinating. Senator Griffin is rightly anxious that more people participate in the democratic process. But she is also anxious that they participate in it in an informed way. Well, frankly, I’m not sure whether other Canadians are well-informed about our system or not. We don’t have a test for them, and they participate in it.

But I do know this: Immigrants have a knowledge of civics from an unusual source of information, and this is from a flourishing ethnic press, both online and offline. I spoke to Naomi Alboim, a distinguished professor from Queen’s University, who said to me that not being able to speak the language does not mean you don’t understand the democratic process and the rights and responsibilities attached to it. She pointed to the ethnic press and its prevalence and role in civic education.

So I did some research this morning. I had some fun. I discovered that the largest immigrant group on Prince Edward Island is Mandarin-speaking. There is a Mandarin-English publication called Ni Hao PEI. It’s a quarterly newspaper. And I looked at the top news stories in 2017. They were not about mainland China politics. Here are three headlines: Get to know a farmer!; P.E.I. farmland — the new investment of choice; P.E.I. rural schools: natural decline or time for change?

I don’t think we should assume that Canadian civics and curiosity requires a certain degree of English and language. You can get it from other sources.

I have a case in point. My mother lives with me; you have heard me talk about her. She is a delightful mother, close to 90 years old, although she wants to be 85. She got her citizenship in the late 1980s, when she was much younger. I do not remember what tests there were, but there were tests. In the meantime, the bars on language and knowledge testing has been raised. It’s become digital. I doubt whether she would pass.

Here is also something that is true: She is up on politics, sometimes more than I am, because she is glued to the wonderful South Asian television channel called OMNI. She has her daily dose of Bollywood drama. But she quizzes me often, especially when I come home from the Senate, on things she has heard about on the South Asian news. This became really clear to me when we were talking about assisted dying, because it’s a matter relevant to her. She asked me every day: What is the access? What are the provisions? Who will administer it? She really gave me the run-through.

I reject the notion that if your English or French is not good enough to pass a test it is not good enough to understand how to participate in the political process. Let us try telling that to all our Italian, Greek, Polish and Ukrainian immigrants.

Let me conclude with five years. Five years is a long time. I’m a rookie senator today. In five years, I hope to be a halfway competent senator. Let me think about what happens to a low- income woman who is 55 years old.

Source: C-6 Debates: Language and Knowledge Assessment April 5

C-6 Debates: Language and Knowledge Assessment April 6

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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