The path that leads newcomers to ultimately attain Canadian citizenship is eroding, a trend that the government has yet to acknowledge and address. An analysis of recent operational data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reveals a decline in naturalization, whether shown by numbers of applications for citizenship or by numbers of new citizens. The release of the 2016 census results confirms this trend: Canada’s overall naturalization rate fell to 82.7 percent from the 85.6 percent reported in the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS).

The reversal of some Harper-era policy and operational changes will partially slow this trend, but the government needs to take further steps. The acquisition of citizenship brings benefits to both individuals and to Canadian society.

Overall naturalization

As one would expect, the rate of naturalization, whether of people acquiring Canadian citizenship only or of people taking dual citizenship, is higher among European groups that are long established in Canada, and lower among more recently arrived immigrants.

Overall, European immigrants are 80.3 percent naturalized (single or dual nationality); Latin American and Caribbean immigrants, 75 percent; Asian immigrants, 65.7 percent; African immigrants, 66.6 percent; and immigrants from the United States, 58.6 percent.

Figure 1 shows considerable variation within regions, with perhaps the most striking figure being the low naturalization rate of immigrants from the United States. Dual citizenship appears to be less common for immigrants from Eastern, Southern and Southeast Asia. More recent immigrant groups are generally less likely to have taken up Canadian citizenship.

Figure 2 contrasts naturalization rates by immigration period. The longer an immigrant has lived in Canada, the higher the naturalization rate; the rate is over 90 percent for immigrants who arrived before 2000.

Figure 2 also compares naturalization rates recorded by the previous census (NHS 2011) and by Census 2016. Each census counts immigrants who arrived well before the census and have been in Canada long enough to meet the residency requirement for citizenship; and each census also counts more recent arrivals who do not yet meet the requirement and therefore are not eligible for naturalization.

Immigrants who arrived in 2001-05 had met the residency requirement when the NHS was conducted in 2011; those who arrived in 2006-10 had met the requirement by the time of Census 2016. The numbers for these arrival periods show a significant decline in the naturalization rate: from 77.2 to 68.5 percent, reflecting the impact of the policy and operational changes introduced by the previous Conservative government, aimed at making citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose.”

Only a portion of immigrants who arrived more recently were eligible at the time of each census (in 2006-10 for the NHS, in 2011-16 for Census 2016). The requirement for three years of residency to be eligible for citizenship changed to a four-year residency requirement in May 2015. Pro-rating the numbers for immigrants arriving in 2011-16 (513 out of 1,865 days), the naturalization rate for this group is 30.5 percent, compared with the rate among 2006-11 arrivals of 36.7 percent.

Naturalization rates vary by province, as shown in table 1. The highest post-2001 naturalization rates are in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, and British Columbia has the lowest rates of the largest provinces. Naturalization rates are lowest in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Atlantic Canada. Some of this variation may be due to cuts to the federal department’s regional offices in a 2012 program review exercise, and the impact on processing.

Table 2 breaks down naturalization rates by period of immigration and region of birth, showing a greater drop since 2006 for some regions than for others. Those with declining naturalization rates include immigrants from countries where Canadian citizenship may not provide that much of an advantage for travel (such as countries in Europe) and those from developing countries, where it does.

Over the past 10 years, immigrants were affected by policy changes differently depending on when they applied and when their applications were processed. For legislative changes, the application date determined which of the changes would apply. For operational changes (such as tests), the changes generally would apply at the processing stage; for example, a person who applied in 2009 would be subject to the new citizenship test in 2010.

This means applications processed between 2010 and 2013 were subject to a more rigorous Canadian-knowledge test and language assessment, and operational data showed a decline from a previous high pass rate of 96 percent to 83 percent.

Applications received after February 6, 2014, were subject to a tripling of the adult citizenship processing fee (from $100 to $300). Applications received after January 1, 2015, were subject to a further almost doubling of the processing fee, to $530. The legislative changes that affected most immigrants — an increase in the residency requirement from three out of four years to four out of six years, and extension of the age range for language and knowledge assessment from ages 18 through 54 to ages 14 through 64 — came into force only on May 28, 2015, contributing to a spike in applications in 2014 by people wishing to take advantage of the shorter residency requirement. (The Liberals reversed those changes in October 2017).

Gender and Age

The impact of the policy changes in terms of gender was small: the 2006-10 cohort was 52.8 female, declining to 51.4 percent for the 2011-15 cohort. Among 55-to-64-year-olds — the group most affected by the more rigorous knowledge and language assessment — there was a more significant change; 5.9 percent of the 2006-10 cohort were from this age group, declining to 3.7 percent for the 2011-15 cohort.

Overall, 52.4 percent of all immigrants (whether naturalized or not) are female. This overall number varies by place of birth, as shown in table 3 (with large variations highlighted). In general, the percentages of female immigrants who are Canadian citizens only, dual citizens and non-citizens reflect the overall percentages among all immigrants. Female citizens and non-citizens of Southeast Asian origin are relatively overrepresented; women from West Central Asia/Middle East and Northern and Western Africa are relatively underrepresented.

Other notable exceptions to the general pattern include non-citizens from Eastern Asia, Northern Europe, Eastern Europe and Oceania; Canadian citizens from the Caribbean; and dual citizens from Southern Europe and Central Africa.

Figure 3 provides an analysis by age cohort. A majority of citizens of Southern, Northern and Western European origin, who arrived in earlier waves of immigration, are 65 years or older. About 20 percent of immigrants of West Central Asian/Middle Eastern, Northern, Western and Central African origin, and over 30 percent of immigrants from the United States are 24 years old or under.

Males are generally slightly overrepresented among the younger cohorts (age 24 or under) of recent groups. As one would expect, given longer life expectancy for women, more women than men are generally found in the 65-and-over cohort.


Figure 4 provides the breakdown by level of education. While there were small differences in the attainment of citizenship for earlier waves of immigrants, the gap between those with university education and those with no certificate is greater for more recent waves, growing from 5 percent (1981-95) to 9 percent (1996-2005) to 15 percent (2006-10). This increase likely reflects the impact on less-educated immigrants of the Conservative government’s changes. (During the roll-out of the new citizenship test in 2010, a study by Statistics Canada for Citizenship and Immigration Canada — never made public, to my knowledge — indicated that education level was the best predictor of pass rates.)

Table 4 displays the decline in naturalization between the period 1996-2005 and the period 2006-10, broken down by education level and region of birth. The overall pattern of a greater decline in naturalization for immigrants from Eastern Asia (mainly China) is apparent across all education levels. For immigrants from Southern Asia (mainly India and Sri Lanka), the decline is greater for those with lower levels of education; there is also a bigger drop for immigrants with only secondary and apprenticeship qualifications from Southeast Asia (mainly the Philippines).

Immigration categories

A high naturalization rate among earlier waves of immigrants is seen in table 5. However, naturalization in the family class (including spouses, parents and grandparents) starts to break with this pattern in the period 1996-2000, and the trend only accelerates in subsequent censuses. Refugees, given the importance of citizenship to their security and identity, seek naturalization at a rate equal to or greater than the rate for the economic class.

Table 6 shows the decline in naturalization broken down by region of origin and immigration category. Economic and family class immigrants from Eastern Asia, refugees from Southeast Asia and people from Oceania (Fiji) had the greatest decline. Naturalization decreased to a lesser extent among immigrants from South America and most of Africa.

This overall picture conceals differences within the various categories. For the economic category, table 7 breaks down the naturalization rates for each class and, where appropriate, as between principal applicants (overwhelmingly male, except for caregivers) and secondary applicants (spouses, overwhelmingly female, and children).

The differences between principal and secondary applicants for entrepreneurs and investors are striking. Family members have a significantly higher naturalization rate than principal applicants, who may have difficulty meeting the residency requirements because of frequent travel or who reside overseas where they have greater economic opportunities (for instance, in China, Hong Kong or Dubai). The region of birth of about 73 percent of business class immigrants is Eastern Asia or West Central Asia/Middle East.

The greatest variation in naturalization rates within the family and refugee classes can be seen in table 8. The period 2006-10 saw a particularly sharp drop for parents and grandparents (about 72 percent of whom are from Eastern, Southern and Southeast Asia), reflecting the more difficult knowledge and language requirements introduced in 2009 and the requirement (since reversed) for 55-to-64-year-olds to take the knowledge and language test after May 28, 2015. The reasons for the greater decline in naturalization by government-assisted refugees versus privately sponsored refugees may reflect in part the heavier burden imposed by the fee increases, because government-assisted refugees tend to have lower incomes in the short term.


Naturalization correlates with higher income, as shown in table 9. Although median incomes differ considerably by category, non-citizens have median incomes that are between 80 and 90 percent of the income of citizens in the same category, with a few notable exceptions, primarily before 2006.

Since 2006, for the economic category, perhaps the most notable aspect is the low incomes of entrepreneurs, investors and the self-employed — lower than the incomes of refugees in most cases — which signals the failure of these programs. In contrast to the fluctuations in the other categories, in the family class the income difference between citizens and non-citizens has gradually but steadily increased. The gap between citizens’ and non-citizens’ incomes is relatively small for sponsored refugees, but it is large with respect to protected persons (in-Canada asylum seekers).

A comparable analysis of naturalization among people whose income is below the low-income cut-off before-tax (LICO-BT) threshold showed comparable results: those in LICO had naturalization rates on average between 5 and 10 percent lower than those with higher incomes, with the exception of family class immigrants.

The richness of census data provides a longer-term perspective than that of IRCC’s operational data. The variations in naturalization rates between immigrants from different regions in relation to gender, age, immigration category, education and income, and how these interact with one another, provide insights and lead to questions about whether these differences reflect policies or immigrants’ own motives. In general, naturalization correlates positively with education and income and is higher in the economic class and refugee categories; it is also higher for those whose country of birth permits, officially or unofficially, dual citizenship. These data should be useful for qualitative research.

The Conservative policy and operational changes were designed to improve the integrity of the citizenship process and shift the balance slightly away from facilitating citizenship toward making it more meaningful in terms of residency, knowledge and language. The Liberal policy changes were relatively modest, and most of the Conservative operational and legislative changes remain intact. The Liberals reversed some Conservative changes; changing back to a three-year minimum for residency will have a one-time impact and eliminating language and knowledge assessment for 55-to-64-year-olds will have an ongoing impact. But high fees continue to remain a major deterrent to naturalization.

For a long time IRCC appeared to be in denial over the impact of these changes on naturalization, with some senior officials arguing that we were seeing a “delay,” not a decline. The ongoing story told by IRCC’s operational data and confirmed by the Census 2016 data should force the department to examine options to address the now well-documented decline in citizenship uptake.

Further relaxation of the requirements is neither warranted or needed. Rather, the government should recognize that citizenship provides societal benefits, by encouraging greater participation in Canadian political life, as well as private benefits to individuals. The current full-cost-recovery approach, resulting in fees of about $1,500 for a family of four, should be reviewed in light of this balance. Total fees should be no more than $300 per adult and $100 per child.

Photo: A citizenship ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Sept. 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Andrew Griffith
Andrew Griffith is the author of “Because it’s 2015…” Implementing Diversity and Inclusion, Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote and Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism and is a regular media commentator and blogger (Multiculturalism Meanderings). He is the former director general for Citizenship and Multiculturalism, has worked for a variety of government departments in Canada and abroad, and is a fellow of the Environics Institute.

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