Andrew Cohen: Citizenship should mean more

Provocative commentary by Andrew Cohen on making citizenship more meaningful. Opposite perspective to the article by Elke Winter Becoming Canadian » Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Part of the challenge of citizenship policy is balancing the need for meaningfulness (and integrity) with the realities of today’s globalized world and individuals. If our immigration policy tries to attract more skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants, these are also likely to be more mobile and may have a more instrumental approach to citizenship.

While there are further opportunities to strengthen citizenship, many of Cohen’s suggestions are either not real world solutions or reasonable. For example:

  • Five year continuous residency:  are we really going to deny someone citizenship if they visit their parents once a year?;
  • Taxation of dual nationals, and the determination of who should be taxed, is not easy. Some of the problems the Americans have in implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act – FATCA (see The American Diaspora Meets a Polarized America) illustrate this;
  • Making the test tougher and language requirements harder will continue to disadvantage many non-English and non-French native speakers, as well as those with lower levels of education (e.g., family members). Under Minister Kenney, much of the looseness in the process was appropriately tightened and the rationale for further tightening has not be demonstrated.

I am sympathetic to his view on raising the citizenship test exemption back to 65 and over (the Liberal government changed the exemption to 55 and over), although politically this is likely untenable.

If we are serious about giving substance to our citizenship, let the government reinstate the residency requirement of five years, making it mandatory to remain in Canada the entire time. Let it find a way to tax dual citizens who have never lived in Canada.

Let it establish a tougher test on knowledge and language, and apply it everyone under 65, not 55 (as is the case now). And let it address the injustice of the “lost Canadians” who have been denied citizenship through loopholes in the law.

At the same time, we should re-examine our commitment to country, too. For many Canadians citizenship is no more than paying taxes and obeying the law. It isn’t even about voting.

To give new meaning to citizenship, we should consider universal national service (community or military) for young Canadians; national standards in education for the teaching of Canadian history; a new commitment to encourage lifelong volunteerism and civic activity; and mandatory voting in federal elections.

As Canada goes to the Olympics, expect the usual orgy of chest-thumping and fist-pumping with every gold medal. But don’t mistake cheering athletes, wearing red mittens and sipping double-doubles for patriotism. It isn’t.

Real patriotism, and real citizenship, is knowing who you are, how you got here, what you have, and what you would do to keep it all.

If we ask that understanding of others, shouldn’t we ask it of ourselves, too?

Column: Citizenship should mean more.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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