Citizenship is the neglected child of immigration-related policies. It attracts less attention, and it has a lower profile and fewer resources than other areas. This is evidenced by wide swings in the number of new citizens, periodic funding shortfalls and the paucity of data, compared with that for immigration. Party platforms are noticeably light on citizenship: a case in point is the May 2019 immigration policy speech by Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, who made no reference to citizenship.
Nevertheless, the incoming government will face unfinished business in the citizenship file, such as revisions to the Study Guide – Discover Canada – The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, and new pressures, such as addressing the issue of people affected by the first-generation limit on transmission of citizenship. The issues will, of course, reflect whether the prime minister appoints a politically strong minister of immigration.
Here is a glimpse, in advance of the policy platforms, of how these issues might be handled by the Liberals in a second mandate, or the Conservatives if they form the next government.
The citizenship study guide
If the Liberals are re-elected, revisions to Discover Canada, the study guide for the citizenship test, have long been promised and are overdue. Press reports indicate that the changes might include more emphasis on Indigenous history and reconciliation, in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) recommendation 93, and a more balanced approach to military history and other histories. If the Conservatives are elected, it is unlikely that they would undertake any major revisions to the guide.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation 94 (citizenship oath)
In May 2019, in a last-minute effort to meet a 2015 campaign commitment, the government introduced Bill C-99, proposing new wording for the citizenship oath:
I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
This is an expanded version of the TRC’s recommendation 94, which added only these words to the oath: “including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples.” If the Conservatives don’t support the bill, it will no doubt be revisited after the election.
Language and knowledge testing ages
If the Conservatives win the election, they would have to decide whether the changes to language and knowledge testing and the residency requirements the Conservatives made in 2014 in Bill C-24, which in 2017 the Liberal government reversed in Bill C-6, should revert to the status quo ante. (Bill C-24 expanded the age range for testing from 18 to 54 to 14 to 64 years old, and it increased the residency requirement for Canadian citizenship applications to 4 out of 6 years, from 3 out of 5 years.) While one can argue the merits of both approaches, any change would affect those applying for citizenship and disrupt citizenship program operations.
A controversial issue an incoming Conservative government would have to deal with is whether to reinstate Bill C-24’s revocation of the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism-related crimes or treason, which the Liberal government has reversed. There is considerable public support for the citizenship revocation, but its effectiveness and fairness were questioned, as a single national Canadian would only serve jail time, while dual nationals serve jail time and are banished, which means two punishments for the same crime.
Public concerns over the increase in birth tourism (women coming to Canada to give birth so their children can become Canadian citizens), which is particularly prevalent in Richmond, BC, will need to be addressed. In 2012, the Conservative government attempted to revert to a qualified birthright citizenship (for children born to citizens or permanent residents) but backed off because of the costs involved, as well as provincial opposition in light of the financial and operational implications for provincial vital statistics agencies and health care. At a 2018 policy convention, the Conservatives passed a resolution in favour of curbing birth tourism, but it is unclear whether this would be a priority, given the failure of the recent attempt.
A study underway by the Liberal government will provide greater precision on the numbers, but this is unlikely to change the public debate. As long as the numbers remain small — less than 1 percent of total births — regulatory solutions to address the birth tourism industry would be more appropriate than a costly change that would affect all births.
The former, Conservative, government increased citizenship application processing fees to $530 from $100 to reflect the processing costs. The Liberal government maintained the new fees. There is emerging evidence that the overall naturalization rate is declining from its historical level of 85 percent of all immigrants becoming citizens, and this partly reflects the high fees.
The fees, amounting to almost $1,500 for a family of four, are unreasonable and counterproductive. Considering that citizenship brings benefits that are personal (the rights of being a citizen) and public (political integration and participation), there is a strong case for lowering the fees, or at least waiving them for low-income immigrants.
An ongoing concern is the paucity of citizenship-related data compared with the data for other programs at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). In particular, the absence of timely and reliable data on the number and type of citizenship application data makes it difficult to assess trends and operational efficiencies. While the census does allow for this analysis every five years, having application data broken down by immigration category, gender and country of birth would address this gap.
First-generation limit to citizenship by descent
In 2009, the Conservative government implemented a first-generation limit to replace a provision that required children born abroad to Canadian citizens to apply for citizenship before the age of 28 for their application to be successful. This administrative simplification meant that only the children born abroad to a Canadian citizen parent would be granted citizenship automatically, but grandchildren and subsequent generations would not. The move was in part a result of a situation where Lebanese Canadians who were evacuated to Canada after the Lebanese civil war of 2006 had a limited or nonexistent connection to Canada, as well as a general sense that many expatriates were “Canadians of convenience.”
The Liberal government has not revisited this issue, but there is pressure on government to do so. This is fuelled in part by media stories about people who have been affected by the first-generation limit.
Given that before the introduction of the first-generation limit, transmission of citizenship was allowed indefinitely across generations, regardless of Canadian residency, and given the administrative complexity of making changes to this provision, doing so would be a mistake.
The Liberal government implemented Bill C-76, which repealed the five-years-residence-outside-Canada-limit to acquire voting rights. The bill provides for indefinite voting rights, no matter how short a person’s residence in Canada. Given that this has been upheld by the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that a future government would wish to re-open the issue.
Meaningfulness of performance standard
The citizenship program has been a secondary priority for governments and the IRCC ever since it was transferred from Canadian Heritage to the IRCC in 1993. We can see this low priority in the sharp fluctuations in the number of applications for citizenship, the number of immigrants (permanent residents) granted citizenship, in contrast with the steady increase in the number of new permanent residents (figure 1). In most years, the number of applications exceeds the number of new citizens, because of backlogs in the processing of citizenship applications.
The current performance standard — the number of eligible immigrants who become citizens — is meaningless, as it covers all immigrants, regardless of whether they arrived 3 years ago or 30 or more years ago. Furthermore, it sets a benchmark of only 75 percent of all eligible immigrants becoming citizens, well below the actual long-term naturalization rate of 85.6 percent. In other words, IRCC can never fail to meet the standard.
A performance standard that would be meaningful is the percentage of eligible immigrants who have become citizens, based upon the average of the previous census period. The table in figure 2 is based on census data, and looks at the annual average of the number of immigrants, comparing the performance standards of 85, 80 and 75 percent of immigrants becoming citizens, from census periods 2001-05, 2006-10, and 2011-15.
To demonstrate what a meaningful performance standard would translate into, the annual average of the number of immigrants in 2011-15 was 242,416, so setting a performance standard of 80 percent would mean a 2021-25 standard of 193,000 new citizens.
In 2006-10 the annual average of the number of immigrants was 211,219, so setting a performance standard of 80 percent would mean a 2016-20 standard of 169,000.
While the government would not have met this standard in 2016 and 2017 (148,000 and 106,000 new citizens, respectively), the implementation of the changes in Bill C-6 in 2017 means that it did meet this standard in 2018, with 176,000 new citizens.
An incoming government, no matter its political orientation, will need to place greater priority on citizenship, given the importance of acquiring citizenship in the integration journeys of new Canadians. Replacing the current ─ meaningless ─ performance indicator with one that measures naturalization of recent immigrants would ensure greater focus on citizenship management by government.
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