The changes proposed by the Liberal government to the Citizenship Act are largely surgical, rather than a comprehensive overhaul of the system.

This week, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration starts its deliberations on the changes to the Citizenship Act (Bill C-6), announced in February by Minister John McCallum. These changes are largely limited to Liberal platform and ministerial mandate commitments, rather than full-scale repeal of the previous Conservative government’s comprehensive legislation and related measures.

The package of measures (Bill C-6) is carefully balanced between matters of principle on citizenship, while at the same time improving the integrity of the system.

Given some of the pressure coming from within the Liberal caucus to ease language competency and other citizenship requirements, the proposed changes should be seen as a relatively moderate package.

In many ways, these changes reflect the establishment of a new centre, one that balances facilitating the path to citizenship, while emphasizing the integration of immigrants, the integrity of the system and the meaningfulness of becoming a Canadian.

Let’s recall some of the major changes made by the Conservative government:

  • A more comprehensive citizenship study guide, Discover Canada, accompanied by a more rigorous citizenship test, applicable to those between 14-64;
  • A more consistent language assessment, with pre-assessment required;
  • More aggressive anti-fraud and misrepresentation measures;
  • Requiring longer residency (four out of six years) and physical, not just legal, residency;
  • A number of administrative measures to streamline processing and improve integrity, such as the ability to return incomplete applications and tax returns to applicants
  • Ministerial discretion in revocation of citizenship in cases of misrepresentation, without recourse to the courts;
  • Citizenship revocation in cases of terror or treason; and,
  • More than quintupling the cost of citizenship: from $100 to $530, plus an application fee of $100 and third-party language assessment costs for some applicants of about $200.

The net effect of these changes was not surprising: fewer applicants made it through the citizenship test, particularly visible minorities, as shown in the chart below:

Citizenship - Conference Board April 2016.008

And while additional funds largely addressed an accumulated backlog of applications, the recent naturalization rate declined, reflecting both long-term trends and the impact of some of these policy changes:

Citizenship - Conference Board April 2016.007

In other words, the changes introduced by Conservative ministers Jason Kenney and Chris Alexander met their policy objectives of making citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose.” To a large extent, many of the measures brought in by the Conservatives to strengthen the integrity of the citizenship and immigration system are being maintained, if not strengthened.

In his original announcement on changes to the Act, the McCallum emphasized both what would be different and what would be left unchanged.

Here’s what will look different:

A “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

What will clearly be the most controversial change, judging by the Official Opposition and media coverage, is that the government will repeal the revocation provisions for those convicted of terror or treason. It will also 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.

McCallum has repeatedly stressed the principle that all Canadians, 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 designed to punish the convicted. The government campaigned on this issue and is implementing its platform commitment.

Reduce Barriers to Citizenship

As part of efforts to shift the balance towards making citizenship easier to obtain, Bill C-6 includes the following measures:

  1. Restore the previous age limits for knowledge and language testing to 18-54. 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;
  2. Repeal the “intent to reside” provision, the requirement for applicants to attest to their intention to remain in Canada during processing of their citizenship application. There are concerns over how this could be interpreted over time, and become grounds for possible revocation of citizenship;
  3. Restoring the credit towards permanent presidency for time already spent (legally) in Canada. McCallum has argued that providing such credit encourages citizenship take-up by international students, in line with the approach of other countries which also ‘compete’ for students;
  4. Maintaining the physical presence requirement for applicants, 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);
  5. Although not in legislation (nor in the Liberal platform or the Minister’s mandate letter), revising Discover Canada, the citizenship study guide, given concerns about language and content, McCallum has 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.

Here’s what will look roughly the same:

Retain Integrity of the Citizenship and Immigration system

McCallum has 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 “modest adjustments” are proposed). He retained virtually all of the integrity-related measures introduced by the Conservatives, such as a ban on interpreters at knowledge tests, the requirement to submit income tax returns. Moreover, a number of additional integrity measures were included, such as the ability to seize documents in the case of suspected fraud.

Issues not addressed include the increased cost of citizenship, and the ministerial discretion to revoke citizenship in cases of misrepresentation without the right to oral hearings or the courts. The government has also made no commitment to reducing the time required to process citizenship applications.

Given the media and opposition focus on the citizenship revocation changes, this will likely be the focus of the discussion and debate in the Commons committee. 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). The fundamentals 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 and emphasizing the meaningfulness of it.

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 ‘pandering’ to the many ethnic voters which supported it.

However, these changes alone are unlikely to make a significant difference to the overall declining rate of naturalization. That declining rate is eroding the overall Canadian model of immigration leading to citizenship, and in turn, will weaken social inclusion.