The proposed changes to the Citizenship Act announced 25 February by Minister McCallum focussed on implementing the Liberal platform and ministerial mandate commitments, rather than full-scale repeal of the previous Conservative government’s legislation and related measures.
The package of measures is carefully balanced between matters of principle — a “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” repealing the national interest revocation provisions — with measures both to remove barriers to citizenship while improving integrity.
Given some of the pressures within the Liberal caucus, particularly those with large number of new Canadian voters, to ease language competency and other requirements, this has to be viewed as a relatively moderate package (the Liberals won the vast majority of seats with large number of new Canadians, and have the largest number of visible minorities in their caucus (39).
In many ways, these changes reflect the establishment of a new centre, one that balances facilitation while emphasizing integration, integrity and meaningfulness.
While Michelle Rempel, Conservative critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has already lambasted the government on repealing the revocation provisions, she is silent on the extent that many of the integrity and process changes introduced by the Conservative government have been maintained, if not strengthened. This significant legacy of former ministers Kenney and Alexander remains, one that addressed long-standing management and integrity issues with the citizenship program.
In his announcement, the Minister emphasized both what was different — repeal of the revocation provisions and removal of barriers — as well as what was unchanged: emphasis on program integrity, and continued emphasis on ensuring that citizenship means a “real and meaningful” commitment to Canada.
Starting with what is different.
Principle that a “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
What will clearly be the most controversial change, judging by the Official Opposition and media, the Government will repeal the revocation provisions for those convicted of terror or treason and restore the citizenship of the one person, Zakaria Amara (a member of the “Toronto 18”), whose citizenship was revoked under the previous government’s legislation.
This was the focus of media questions, and McCallum repeatedly stressed the principle that a Canadian, whether born in Canada or not, whether Canadian only or having dual nationality, should be treated the same and that Canada’s criminal justice system is to punish the convicted. The Government campaigned on this issue and is implementing its platform commitment.
In response to questions regarding that Canada is moving in the opposite direction to other government such as Australia and French, he declined to comment on other governments, and simply reiterated the principle behind the decision, one that the government campaigned on.
Reduce Barriers to Citizenship
As part of efforts to shifting the balance towards making citizenship easier, Bill C-6 includes the following measures:
- Restore the previous age limits for knowledge and language testing to 18-54 year olds (the previous government had increased these to 14-64). This change will affect slightly over ten percent of all applicants. The rationale for requiring testing for 14-17 year olds was never clear (they would have been in the Canadian school system for 4-6 years) whereas for older applicants, 64 was believed to be a better and more consistent definition of senior;
- Repeal the “intent to reside” provision given concerns regarding how this could be interpreted over time, and become grounds for possible future revocation;
- Restoring pre-permanent residency time 50 percent credit towards citizenship, calling the previous government’s removal the “stupidest part” of C-24, given that providing such credit encourages citizenship take-up by international students, in line with the approach of other countries which also ‘compete’ for students. Some IRCC senior officials have previously indicated that this change was prompted in part by concerns of increased competition with Canadian-born students;
- Maintaining the physical presence requirement but reducing the time required to three out of five years compared to four out of six (historically, it was three out of four, making it three out of five provides greater flexibility for those whose work or family obligations take them outside Canada);
- Although not in legislation (nor in the Liberal platform or the Minister’s mandate letter), revise Discover Canada, the citizenship study guide, given concerns about language and content (McCallum cited too much emphasis on the War of 1812 and references to “barbaric cultural practices”). This will be done jointly with the departments of Canadian Heritage and Indigenous Affairs, reflecting a much more inclusive process than when my former team prepared Discover Canada.
McCallum repeatedly stressed that citizenship should mean a “real and meaningful” commitment to Canada. Citizenship misrepresentation and fraud remained a concern. The physical residency requirement remained as did the language requirements (although he said “modest adjustments” would be made).
He also retained virtually all of the integrity-related measures introduced by the Conservatives:
- Physical presence, not just legal residency;
- Knowledge requirement must be met in English or French, not through an interpreter;
- No change to “lost Canadians” provisions;
- No change to expansion of bar granting citizenship to those with foreign criminal charges and convictions;
- No changes to regulations for citizenship consultants;
- No changes to increased fines and penalties for fraud;
- No change in authority for Ministerial authority to revoke citizenship for routine cases (previously, had been Governor in Council);
- No change in authority for Minister to decide on discretionary grants of citizenship (previously, had been Governor in Council);
- Maintain authority to decide what is a complete application (streamlines processing);
- Maintain single-step citizenship processing to reduce duplication (previously was three-step) with reduced role for citizenship judges;
- Maintain requirement for adult applicants to file Canadian income taxes;
- Maintain fast-track mechanism for Permanent Residents serving in the Canadian Forces.
In addition, the Minister is also proposing to increase citizenship integrity further (not highlighted in his press conference) by:
- No longer counting time spent under a conditional sentence order towards meeting the physical presence requirements; and those serving a conditional sentence order are prohibited from being granted citizenship or taking the oath of citizenship;
- Retroactive application of the provision prohibiting applicants from taking the oath of citizenship if they never met or no longer meet citizenship requirements to applications still in process received prior to June 11, 2015; and,
- Authority to seize documents if there are reasonable grounds to believe they are fraudulent, or being used fraudulently.
Issues not addressed include the high cost of citizenship (which rose from $200 to $630 under the previous government). When asked, McCallum stated that his focus was on implementing Liberal platform commitments and that the issue of fees may be examined in the future. Moreover, there was no commitment to reducing the time required to process citizenship applications, or implement and report on how well the department is doing.
Given the media focus on the revocation changes and the degree the previous government emphasized this provision, this will continue to be the focus of the discussion and debate on Bill C-6. It is also the easiest issue for people to understand and debate, as the other changes are largely adjustments (“tweaks” to use the Minister’s word), as the fundamentals — physical presence, knowledge and language requirements — have been preserved.
Taken as a whole, these proposed changes reflect a re-centring of citizenship, a relatively surgical approach to repealing provisions of the previous Conservative government’s 2014 Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (C-24). It aims to define a new balance between facilitating citizenship while maintaining meaningfulness.
Meeting the Liberal government’s public commitments, while retaining virtually all of the previous government’s integrity measures, should reduce fears that the Government is not able to make choices and is not ‘pandering’ to the many ethnic voters which supported it.