It was 800 years ago this week that an unpopular king sat down with England’s barons to draft up the Magna Carta. For just as long, that document has served as the backbone of democracy, informing Canada and many countries in the Commonwealth’s most important rights and freedoms.
So it’s with some degree of irony, says Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, that the federal government’s controversial Bill C-24 – which gives the government expanded rights to revoke citizenship – also came into full effect this week.
“It’s a huge step back,” Paterson said to Yahoo Canada. “England, 800 years ago, banned exile and eight centuries later, here we are bringing it back. Exile is something that was practiced back in medieval times when they didn’t have proper criminal justice systems and the rule of law – we don’t think that that’s appropriate, we think that if people are committing various offences it should be enough to deal with them through our Canadian criminal justice system.”
Paterson is referring specifically to the revocation elements of the new bill, which gives the government discretion to strip the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorism or treason – provided they have or are eligible dual citizenship. Although the bill – referred to by the federal government as the Strengthening Citizenship Act – was tabled last February, it didn’t go into full effect until this week.
A Canadian who is born here whose grandparents are from Italy for instance and could get dual citizenship, could have their citizenship stripped under this act.
—Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association
“The concern you’ve seen expressed by people like the BCCLA (is that) this doesn’t create one citizenship, it creates two classes of citizens,” explains Jonathan Shapiro, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. “Those who will never have their Canadian status removed and those who will be subject for the rest of their lives to the potential of having their citizenship removed should the condition necessary be met.”
Under the previous system, the ministry of immigration could only revoke citizenship if it was proved you lied on your application. Now, the immigration minister has the right to revoke your citizenship if you commit one of a list of offenses under the treachery or terrorism banner including equivalent foreign terrorism laws.
“A Canadian who is born here whose grandparents are from Italy for instance and could get dual citizenship, could have their citizenship stripped under this act if they were involved in any of the activities,” adds Paterson. “Meanwhile someone who arrived newly and became a citizen from a country abroad that doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, wouldn’t be able to have their citizenship stripped – you have this weird situation where you could have two people who committed exactly the same activities and one of them would be liable to being exiled and the other wouldn’t be.”
But your opinion on the bill depends on whether or not you view citizenship as a privilege or a right, says Shapiro.
“This government in particular has viewed citizenship very much as a privilege,” he adds.
Bill also grants citizenship in certain circumstances
C-24 is a robust bill; there are other elements, some that haven’t seen as much scrutiny as the revocation part.
“There’s a number of changes, the first dealing with the Lost Canadians,” says Chris Veeman, an immigration lawyer based in Saskatoon.
Lost Canadians, explains Veeman, are people who for a number of reasons – ranging from being a war bride that wasn’t naturalized to a person that took citizenship of a country before 1977 – weren’t recognized as Canadians. In some cases they didn’t even know they weren’t Canadians until they tried to apply for healthcare or pensions.
“About seven years ago it came to light that there are a lot of cases like this so the government changed the law in 2009 and granted citizenship to a lot of those people,” says Veeman. “There are more provisions in this more recent bill C-24 that correct some of the ones that were left behind in 2009, so that’s a good news story – the government is just trying to patch up a few of those remaining cases.”
The next change brought in by C-24 was an adjustment to the process of becoming a Canadian citizen, including the definition of residency.
“In the past it was a little bit loose and there was a lot of confusion over what it meant to be a resident in Canada,” says Veeman. In the past, to be deemed a resident you needed to be in Canada the equivalent of three years in the past four years.
Questions arose; for example, if you’re a resident for tax purposes or if you went on a two-week vacation before the period of your citizenship application, did that count against you? Did you not get to count those days towards your 1095-day requirement? Or if you were posted abroad by your employer for part of your time, could you count that?
“It was basically a bit of a dog’s breakfast in terms of that issue – this legislation clarifies that it has to be physical presence in Canada,” says Veeman adding that now you need to be present four years out of six and physically in Canada for 183 days in each of those years.
“The other big change is that you don’t get any credit for time in Canada before you become a permanent resident,” adds Veeman. “Under the old system, if you were here as a temporary foreign worker and then became a permanent resident you could apply for citizenship – that’s gone now.”
Bill C-24 also expands the range of ages that need to take the knowledge test from between 18 and 55 to having to take the test if you’re over the age of 14 and under 65.
“In the past, you used to be able to write the knowledge test with the benefit of the interpreter, now you have to do it in English or French,” says Veeman. “That was criticized because there’s already a language test and so this seems like a double language test.”
As the bill’s name suggests, fundamentally, the series of changes will work to strengthen the meaning of being Canadian. And there’s no denying there are some aspects of “privilege” to being a citizen, says Shapiro.
“It’s perfectly reasonable for the government to expect you to have to speak one of the official languages, to know something about Canada, to spend some time in Canada before you can become a full citizen,” he says. “I don’t think anybody objects to that general idea and that does feel a bit like privilege.”
He points out that Canada is a proud country, one that excitedly (and sometimes exhaustingly) espouses its multiculturalism and adamantly defends its own.
“People travel all the time with flags on their backpacks, we have Molson Canadian commercials that say I am Canadian and it becomes part of who you are once you obtain it,” says Shapiro. “I think people expect the hurdles but once you obtain it, then it starts to feel like a right and not a privilege – citizenship should be a uniform concept, you shouldn’t have different rules dependent on how you got it.”