COVID-19 upended all aspects of immigration policy and programs, requiring government flexibility with respect to documentation, time limits and other requirements. In many ways, this has been beneficial as it required rethinking processes and procedures and adapting to a more online world.
Citizenship was no exception, exposing the underlying weaknesses of citizenship program management: extensive paper-based processes and a dated IT infrastructure.
While Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) consistently meets its immigration targets (with the exception of during the first pandemic year), the number of new citizens has fluctuated widely over time, reflecting resource and administrative weaknesses. This is in contrast to the steady increase in the number of new permanent residents (figure 1).
For 2020, the number of citizenship applications declined 26.5 per cent (from 268,608 in 2019 to 197,472 in 2020). The number of new citizens dropped over twice that number – 55.9 per cent (from 250,083 to 110,214). Finally, new permanent resident applications declined by almost half at 45.9 per cent (from 341,175 to 184,615). Overall, as immigration numbers continued to grow, the naturalization rate of immigrants has declined.
Citizenship is simpler than the myriad immigration programs, and, unlike immigration, falls under exclusively federal jurisdiction. While changes to citizenship are more straightforward, it is a lower priority at both the political and bureaucratic levels than other IRCC programs.
While IRCC was quick to recognize the advantage of encouraging immigration from temporary residents already present in Canada during the pandemic, it initially shut down the citizenship program despite applicants already being in Canada and known to the department.
The 2021-22 IRCC departmental plan notes how the department later responded through virtual citizenship ceremonies, piloting on-line knowledge testing and e-applications. Working with the citizenship program in 2008, during an orientation visit to the Sydney, N.S. processing centre, I was shown a large room of paper files that still had to be entered into the tracking system.
Budget 2021 includes $428.9 million over five years « to develop and deliver an enterprise-wide digital platform that would gradually replace the legacy Global Case Management System” to « enable improved application processing and support for applicants, beginning in 2023.” This would be a welcome change if my own experience is any example.
Modernization should result in more informative and timely citizenship information (currently, the government reports on the monthly number of new citizens by country of citizenship). However, there is no public reporting of monthly citizenship applications, province of residence or demographic data such as age, gender or immigration category, in contrast to most immigration datasets.
Modernization also needs to be accompanied by a meaningful citizenship performance standard, based upon the percentage of permanent residents who become Canadian citizens within five to nine years of arrival. This compares to the current and rather meaningless standard which uses the number of all immigrants, whether they arrived five or 50 years ago.
A more ambitious approach, albeit riskier, would help citizenship applicants by pre-populating their forms with permanent residence data and documentation (for example social insurance numbers and tax returns). With exit information now being collected from air carriers, determining whether an applicant has met residency requirements is more straightforward. Overall, applying for citizenship should become a largely automatic process. One could even go further and ensure invitations to apply are sent automatically to eligible applicants to encourage citizenship take-up.
The IRCC also needs to deliver on existing commitments, including publishing the update to the citizenship guide, first promised in 2016. A change to the citizenship oath to reflect Indigenous treaty rights is currently before Parliament. The government appears to have walked back from its 2019 election commitment to eliminate citizenship fees as this was not included in the 2021 budget.
The delay in releasing the revised citizenship study guide, Discover Canada, provides an opportunity to reflect on whether more efforts should be made with respect to citizenship education beyond the revising guide and holding high-profile citizenship ceremonies (e.g., at public locations such as a hockey arenas).
Given government plans to increase immigration and provide more pathways for less-educated and lower-skilled persons to become permanent residents, there is a greater need for citizenship education.
The 2018 evaluation of the IRCC’s settlement program indicated that while “Settlement clients reported having knowledge of Canadian laws, rights and responsibilities, …only employment-related services had a positive impact on the level of knowledge.” The 2020 evaluation of the citizenship program revealed that test “Pass rates are lower among applicants with less education and lower language proficiency.”
These evaluations, and census data on naturalization, confirm the need for greater citizenship preparation and training to help new Canadians better understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, particularly in the context of an increase in immigration numbers. Current training offered by settlement agencies and public institutions narrowly focuses on citizenship test preparation rather than a more fundamental understanding of Canada.
Consideration needs to be given to expand the current focus on early arrival integration to include citizenship preparation, either on a stand-alone basis or integrated into language training at intermediate levels, with the curriculum based on, but not limited to, the new citizenship study guide. This would facilitate civic integration, particularly those with less education and language proficiency, and should help address the decline in naturalization among recent arrivals.
COVID-19 continues to provide opportunities to rethink government programs and services, with immigration and citizenship being no exception. While existing government policies and processes make change complex and difficult, IRCC and other departments have been able to make some practical changes to improve existing processes and requirements to attenuate some of the impacts of COVID-19 and pave the way for further changes.
For citizenship, modernization of the IT infrastructure and related processes is key to addressing long-standing inefficiencies and deficiencies in the program. Broadening settlement programming to support more vulnerable groups becoming Canadian citizens should be viewed as part and parcel of increased immigration objectives.