Griffith and Omidvar: Canadian citizenship by individual click? That’s not a good idea

Written jointly with Senator Omidvar:

The federal government’s recent proposal to allow applicants to self-administer the citizenship oath instead of being required to do so before a citizenship judge or equivalent undermines the meaningfulness and significance of becoming a Canadian citizen with fellow new Canadians.

Citizenship ceremonies are one of the few special moments in which the federal government can connect with new Canadians and celebrate their becoming Canadian and furthering their integration journey.

From experience attending ceremonies and taking the oath, we know the impact on new Canadians is real and meaningful, as it is on existing Canadians in attendance. Having citizenship conferred is not transactional, unlike obtaining drivers’ licences, health cards or passports. Citizenship allows for political participation through voting and being able to run for office and thus directly influence the future direction of Canada.

The proposed change continues a trend of diminishing the value of Canadian citizenship in practical aspects. There has been the ongoing massive shift to virtual citizenship ceremonies, prompted by the pandemic but expanded (99 per cent since April 2020). As well, there is no updated citizenship study guide despite plans for one more than three immigration ministers ago.

The government justifies the proposed change on operational and financial grounds and is silent on the policy implications regarding integration of new Canadians. The previous government was similarly silent on the implications of its quintupling of adult citizenship fees in 2014-15, which we now know has resulted, along with other factors, in a significant drop in naturalization rates.

The current government is explicit that cost savings will come primarily from reduced citizenship ceremonies, both physical and virtual.

It is striking that a government so attuned to the importance of reconciliation and recognition of past and current injustices and the concerns of particular groups, can be so blind to the power of citizenship ceremonies to bring people of diverse origins together to celebrate them becoming part of Canadian society with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. And arguing, on inclusion grounds, that the change will save applicants two hours of ceremony time misses this broader aspect of inclusion.

Arguably, with pandemic measures largely over, the government should revert to in-person ceremonies as the default option, as these provide a greater sense of community and connection than virtual ceremonies.

The government, early in its mandate, made significant changes to residency and language requirements to improve inclusion, and more recently, changes to the oath of citizenship to recognize Indigenous and treaty rights. Reducing processing and ceremony time are insignificant in comparison.

We know from the recent Statistics Canada and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship analysis that naturalization has declined dramatically from 60.4 per cent in 2016 to 45.7 per cent in 2021, five to nine years after landing, reflecting a combination of factors, including the pandemic and high citizenship fees. A substantive inclusion measure would require the government to implement, at least partially, its platform commitment in the 2019 and 2021 election platforms to eliminate citizenship fees.

Citizenship provides a mix of personal and public benefits.

Applicants personally benefit from the security citizenship provides in terms of mobility and voting rights and the ability to run for office. Canadian society benefits from the “common bond for Canadian-born individuals and naturalized Canadians alike, signifying full membership in Canadian society.”

The proposed change highlights how the government treats citizenship as a service transaction rather than a substantive unifying and integrating process to help new Canadians feel fully part of Canadian society.

Andrew Griffith is the former director general for Citizenship and Multiculturalism and is a fellow of the Environics Institute and of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Sen. Ratna Omidvar is an independent senator from Ontario.

Source: Griffith and Omidvar: Canadian citizenship by individual click? That’s not a good idea

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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