Citizenship Act bill: An overview of what the committee witnesses had to say

Versions of this post originally appeared in IRPP’s Perspectives and The Hill Times:

A Commons committee has finished hearing witnesses on the proposed changes to the Citizenship Act in Bill C-6, and is proceeding to clause-by-clause examination of the legislation. Contrasting the nature of the committee testimony with that of Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, some two-years ago reveals similarities and differences. A number of suggestions were broadly in line with the government’s overall agenda of diversity and inclusion, and it will be interesting if the government responds to these in amendments to the bill.

Starting with the common elements between the two sets of hearings:

  • An almost complete absence of Quebec-based witnesses and French-speaking witnesses, and thus any Quebec-specific citizenship issues that may reflect its different mix of source countries, particularly from the Maghreb, where revocation, or removal of citizenship, would likely be a particular concern;
  • An almost complete lack of statistical data with witnesses talking either in conceptual terms, anecdotal examples, or principles, without any reference to the numbers of people potentially affected by the changes. Assertions by those impacted, for better or worse, by the previous or current Bill, would benefit from the hard numbers;
  • Both sets of hearings ensured different perspectives.

However, a number of significant differences between the study of the two bills, reflecting the change in government, are also notable:

  • 18 witnesses for C-6 compared to 28 for C-24, reflecting the broader scope of C-24 and a likely tighter timeline under the current government;
  • About 40 percent of witnesses broadly supported the revocation of citizenship provision during the study of the Conservative government’s C-24, in contrast to about 25 percent during the study of C-6, reflecting the previous administration having ensured a majority of witnesses in support of the most controversial change;
  • A generally more open tone in discussion and the questioning of witnesses by all parties. The witnesses for the most part recognized that a change in government meant a needed change in tone and approach. Shimon Fogal of the Canadian Israel Jewish Advocacy exemplified this approach, going out of his way to recognize the arguments against revocation while maintaining his position in favour of it. James Bissett and Martin Collacott, both former public servants with immigration experience, did not, thus undermining their arguments as they largely repeated themselves and their tone from previous testimony.
  • Predictably, witnesses that favour an easier pathway to citizenship, while welcoming the proposed changes of C-6, focused on what they perceived as remaining gaps: procedural protections for revocation of citizenship in cases of fraud or misrepresentation; barriers to refugees and some immigrants with respect to more difficult knowledge test and language assessments;  the need for exceptions to the requirement of physical presence in Canada and not merely the possession of a legal address; and the high cost of citizenship fees ($630) and language assessments (about $200) for all applicants.

Minister McCallum did express some openness to amendments and the nature of the questions from Liberal MPs suggested the same flexibility. While the extent of this willingness is unclear, the following is my take on possible amendments, based on their broad consistency with the government’s “diversity and inclusion agenda” and the principles and philosophy behind Bill C-6:

  • Revocation for fraud or misrepresentation: C-24 removed the rights or «procedural protections » that those facing revocation faced, including recourse to the Federal Court, leaving revocation at the discretion of the Minister and delegated officials. There was broad support to ensure those protections were made comparable to those in place for revocation of permanent residency, which provides for an oral hearing. Some argued for reverting back to the former process requiring a Federal Court ruling, which was lengthy. Others argued for the Immigration Review Board (IRB) to expand its mandate to include citizenship hearings, which would require additional resources.
  • Language and knowledge testing: The government responded to public pressure by reverting to the previous age range of 18 to 54 for the testing, but did not (wisely in my opinion), allow the knowledge test to be taken with an interpreter. The revision of the study guide, Discover Canada, and the related citizenship test questions, will presumably (and should) include a complete rewrite into plain language. This would address many but not all of the issues raised by witnesses, without a further weakening of the language requirements, with language skills so important to integration.
  • Physical presence requirement: This provides a clear and common sense definition of residency. However, given the nature of a more mobile and global world, particularly for many economic immigrants, there is a strong case for some forms of defined exemptions. These exemptions could include those who work for a Canadian company abroad, or leave the country for health and compassionate grounds. Or the exemptions could revert to the previous, broader guidance provided to citizenship judges.
  • Citizenship fees: While not part of legislation, the quintupling of fees in 2014-15 and the additional cost of up-front language testing will reduce the number applying, and thus reduce the naturalization rate, a trend we are already seeing. Fees are a significant barrier for lower income immigrants and refugees. Given that a large part of Canada’s relative success as a diverse society reflects a clear pathway to citizenship, addressing the cost, through a general reduction to perhaps $300, possibly combined with a partial waiver for refugees, would help restore this pathway to citizenship and political integration.

Whether the government will consider amendments, or whether the selection of witnesses was part of a strategy to allow the government to demonstrate flexibility, will tell us both about the specific citizenship policy directions as well as their general approach to governing. Will they view Parliament only as a way to deliver on their political commitments, or will they view Parliament as a significant forum for more open policy discussions, debates and decisions?

The upcoming clause-by-clause review starting May 3rd will illustrate their approach in both the particulars of C-6 as well as the broader context.

C6_-_Citizenship_Hearings_and_Possible_Amendments.png

Citizenship Deck and Statistics Update: Conference Board Immigration Summit Presentation

Will be presenting today this updated and tightened version of the Metropolis deck presented a month ago with the full 2015 operational data. Overall trends remain the same: current pass rate remains about 90 percent and the trend of declining naturalization remains.

Citizenship – Conference Board April 2016

Citizenship: 2015 Full-Year Data – Backlog largely eliminated

Citizenship - Conference Board April 2016.001My quick analysis of the 2015 operational data released a few days ago.

  • The increased funding of $44 million provided in Budget 2013 to address the backlog has clearly worked: 235,000 in 2015, slightly down from 263,000 in 2014, but significantly greater than earlier years when it dropped as low as 113,000;
  • The backlog has been reduced from a high of 396,000 in 2013 to 130,000 in 2015, a major achievement;
  • In election year 2015, significantly more citizenship ceremonies were held (3,300) compared to previous years averaged around 1,900, likely reflecting a conscious decision to do more ceremonies, smaller in numbers, in more places; and,
  • While the number of applications appears less (130,000) compared to 2014 (198,000), the data is often revised as any delayed or incomplete applications originally not entered into the system are backdated to the original date of the application (the 2014 data, originally showing 130,000 was revised only in the third quarter of 2015).
  • While it would be premature to declare a trend, logic suggests that the various changes made by the previous government, including the fee increase to $630, would result in a decline of applications.

As the proposed changes to residency and testing in Bill C-6 need to go through the parliamentary process, followed by coming-into-force provisions, these unlikely to be implemented much before 2017.

My Take of the #Citizenship Act Changes: Finding the Centre

The proposed changes to the Citizenship Act announced 25 February by Minister McCallum focussed on implementing the Liberal platform and ministerial mandate commitments, rather than full-scale repeal of the previous Conservative government’s legislation and related measures.

The package of measures is carefully balanced between matters of principle — a “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” repealing the national interest revocation provisions — with measures both to remove barriers to citizenship while improving integrity.

Given some of the pressures within the Liberal caucus, particularly those with large number of new Canadian voters, to ease language competency and other requirements, this has to be viewed as a relatively moderate package (the Liberals won the vast majority of seats with large number of new Canadians, and have the largest number of visible minorities in their caucus (39).

In many ways, these changes reflect the establishment of a new centre, one that balances facilitation while emphasizing integration, integrity and meaningfulness.

While Michelle Rempel, Conservative critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has already lambasted the government on repealing the revocation provisions, she is silent on the extent that many of the integrity and process changes introduced by the Conservative government have been maintained, if not strengthened. This significant legacy of former ministers Kenney and Alexander remains, one that addressed long-standing management and integrity issues with the citizenship program.

In his announcement, the Minister emphasized both what was different — repeal of the revocation provisions and removal of barriers — as well as what was unchanged: emphasis on program integrity, and continued emphasis on ensuring that citizenship means a “real and meaningful” commitment to Canada.

Starting with what is different.

Principle that a “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

What will clearly be the most controversial change, judging by the Official Opposition and media, the Government will repeal the revocation provisions for those convicted of terror or treason and restore the citizenship of the one person, Zakaria Amara (a member of the “Toronto 18”), whose citizenship was revoked under the previous government’s legislation.

This was the focus of media questions, and McCallum repeatedly stressed the principle that a Canadian, whether born in Canada or not, whether Canadian only or having dual nationality, should be treated the same and that Canada’s criminal justice system is to punish the convicted. The Government campaigned on this issue and is implementing its platform commitment.

In response to questions regarding that Canada is moving in the opposite direction to other government such as Australia and French, he declined to comment on other governments, and simply reiterated the principle behind the decision, one that the government campaigned on.

Reduce Barriers to Citizenship

As part of efforts to shifting the balance towards making citizenship easier, Bill C-6 includes the following measures:

  1. Restore the previous age limits for knowledge and language testing to 18-54 year olds (the previous government had increased these to 14-64). This change will affect slightly over ten percent of all applicants. The rationale for requiring testing for 14-17 year olds was never clear (they would have been in the Canadian school system for 4-6 years) whereas for older applicants, 64 was believed to be a better and more consistent definition of senior;
  2. Repeal the “intent to reside” provision given concerns regarding how this could be interpreted over time, and become grounds for possible future revocation;
  3. Restoring pre-permanent residency time 50 percent credit towards citizenship, calling the previous government’s removal the “stupidest part” of C-24, given that providing such credit encourages citizenship take-up by international students, in line with the approach of other countries which also ‘compete’ for students. Some IRCC senior officials have previously indicated that this change was prompted in part by concerns of increased competition with Canadian-born students;
  4. Maintaining the physical presence requirement but reducing the time required to three out of five years compared to four out of six (historically, it was three out of four, making it three out of five provides greater flexibility for those whose work or family obligations take them outside Canada);
  5. Although not in legislation (nor in the Liberal platform or the Minister’s mandate letter), revise Discover Canada, the citizenship study guide, given concerns about language and content (McCallum cited too much emphasis on the War of 1812 and references to “barbaric cultural practices”). This will be done jointly with the departments of Canadian Heritage and Indigenous Affairs, reflecting a much more inclusive process than when my former team prepared Discover Canada.

Retain Integrity

McCallum repeatedly stressed that citizenship should mean a “real and meaningful” commitment to Canada. Citizenship misrepresentation and fraud remained a concern. The physical residency  requirement remained as did the language requirements (although he said “modest adjustments” would be made).

He also retained virtually all of the integrity-related measures introduced by the Conservatives:

  1. Physical presence, not just legal residency;
  2. Knowledge requirement must be met in English or French, not through an interpreter;
  3. No change to “lost Canadians” provisions;
  4. No change to expansion of bar granting citizenship to those with foreign criminal charges and convictions;
  5. No changes to regulations for citizenship consultants;
  6. No changes to increased fines and penalties for fraud;
  7. No change in authority for Ministerial authority to revoke citizenship for routine cases (previously, had been Governor in Council);
  8. No change in authority for Minister to decide on discretionary grants of citizenship (previously, had been Governor in Council);
  9. Maintain authority to decide what is a complete application (streamlines processing);
  10. Maintain single-step citizenship processing to reduce duplication (previously was three-step) with reduced role for citizenship judges;
  11. Maintain requirement for adult applicants to file Canadian income taxes;
  12. Maintain fast-track mechanism for Permanent Residents serving in the Canadian Forces.

In addition, the Minister is also proposing to increase citizenship integrity further (not highlighted in his press conference) by:

  1. No longer counting time spent under a conditional sentence order towards meeting the physical presence requirements; and those serving a conditional sentence order are prohibited from being granted citizenship or taking the oath of citizenship;
  2. Retroactive application of the provision prohibiting applicants from taking the oath of citizenship if they never met or no longer meet citizenship requirements to applications still in process received prior to June 11, 2015; and,
  3. Authority to seize documents if there are reasonable grounds to believe they are fraudulent, or being used fraudulently.

Issues not addressed include the high cost of citizenship (which rose from $200 to $630 under the previous government). When asked, McCallum stated that his focus was on implementing Liberal platform commitments and that the issue of fees may be examined in the future. Moreover, there was no commitment to reducing the time required to process citizenship applications, or implement and report on how well the department is doing.

Given the media focus on the revocation changes and the degree the previous government emphasized this provision, this will continue to be the focus of the discussion and debate on Bill C-6. It is also the easiest issue for people to understand and debate, as the other changes are largely adjustments (“tweaks” to use the Minister’s word), as the fundamentals — physical presence, knowledge and language requirements — have been preserved.

Taken as a whole, these proposed changes reflect a re-centring of citizenship, a relatively surgical approach to repealing provisions of the previous Conservative government’s 2014 Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (C-24). It aims to define a new balance between facilitating citizenship while maintaining meaningfulness.

Meeting the Liberal government’s public commitments, while retaining virtually all of the previous government’s integrity measures, should reduce fears that the Government is not able to make choices and is not ‘pandering’ to the many ethnic voters which supported it.

Changes coming soon to #Citizenship Act, John McCallum says

Messaging is more in the nature of relatively minor changes/reversals, in contrast to his earlier reference to “radical changes” (McCallum promises ‘radical changes’ to Citizenship Act | hilltimes.com). We should know which is it in a few weeks:

But McCallum said the Liberal government has two main goals when it comes to making its changes to the Citizenship Act.

“We would make it impossible for the government to take away someone’s citizenship, and we would reduce the barriers currently in place that people have to overcome,” he said.

One of those barriers is a test to prove language proficiency in English or French. Bill C-24 expanded the age range for people required to take that test, to those aged 14 to 64 from a ranged of 18 to 54.

McCallum hinted the government is considering restoring the original age limit, among other changes.

“We could bring it back to [age] 54,” he said. “That’s an adjustment at the margin on the grounds that some older people coming to this country may not be fully proficient in English, although their children will be and their grandchildren certainly will be.”

“It’s one of the things we are potentially considering,” he added.

But McCallum made clear the government has no plans to scrap the language testing.

“I think you could call it tweaks to the system, and certainly not ditching the system.”

As for when Canadians can expect an announcement from the government, McCallum said to be on watch “in the coming days and weeks, but not very many weeks.”

Source: Changes coming soon to Citizenship Act, John McCallum says – Politics – CBC News

The Liberals are blowing up the citizenship system again. Why? Kheriddin

While I agree with Kheiriddin on the importance of language, she ignores that language and knowledge were assessed by previous Liberal governments, albeit with significant integrity and consistency problems which Conservative reforms largely addressed.

While political considerations play a role (as they did with the previous government), Liberal MPs are also likely responding to constituent and supporter representation from those ridings with significant numbers of immigrants and visible minorities – which the Liberals won overwhelmingly.

But the Conservative reforms created another problem: a declining rate of citizenship take-up and a dramatic fall of some 30 percent in the number of immigrants applying for citizenship over the past three years.

We do not yet know what will be in those ‘radical changes’ (my ‘transition advice,’ drafted before the election, Citizenship: Getting the Balance Right (October 2015) highlights possible changes).

So the question for the current Government, is to find the right balance between facilitating citizenship (making it accessible) and making it more meaningful in terms of language, knowledge and residency, and in so doing, consult, engage and listen to the range of views of what that balance should be:

Lack of language proficiency also hurts elderly immigrants. It makes them dependent on family and isolates them from the wider community. Immigrant women in abusive relationships often have nowhere to turn because they lack the language skills to get help from police, a shelter or social workers. Language barriers are a frequent problem cited by immigrant women’s rights advocates — and it doesn’t stop being a problem at age 54.

The solution is not to have every government worker learn every minority language, as some might suggest. It’s to empower immigrants with the basic language skills they need to live, thrive and participate in Canadian society.

The Liberal proposal ignores another very basic truth, one which Quebecers know all too well. Language amounts to more than words. Language is culture. Learning a language brings with it knowledge of the culture that produced it, and engenders an appreciation for that culture. It allows the speaker to connect to that culture, to feel part of it. It’ll be interesting to see how Quebec reacts to any such changes, as the province has maintained its own immigration requirements for years — including French proficiency.

So why are the Liberals doing this, and why now? The likeliest explanation is the crass one: They’re doing it for the votes. Just as the Conservatives avidly courted immigrants’ support over the last decade, the Liberals are determined to take it back. Chen represents Scarborough North, the riding with the highest percentage of visible minorities in the country, at 90.1 per cent. McCallum represents Markham-Thornhill, which has the third-highest number (82 per cent) of visible minorities in the country, and where 50.1 per cent of residents were born in Asia as of the 2011 census. The second-highest visible minority population (87.6 per cent) is in the riding of Brampton East, Ont., which is also represented by a Liberal, MP Raj Grewal.

McCallum is right in saying that these would be “radical” changes; they surely are, for all the wrong reasons. They do nothing to strengthen immigrants’ sense of belonging to Canada, or the linguistic duality of our country.

In fact, in their zeal to erase every single vestige of Conservative policy, the Liberals are actually betraying the legacy of their own party. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau championed bilingualism and enshrined English and French minority rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While he also supported multiculturalism, he made sure his children became fluently bilingual. One would hope all Canadian kids — and their parents — would have that same chance under the Liberal party in 2016.

The Liberals are blowing up the immigration system again. Why?

McCallum promises ‘radical changes’ to Citizenship Act | hilltimes.com

No details yet on the ‘radical changes’ promised but a strong indication of Liberal caucus concerns, which seem primarily around language assessment.

However, Minister McCallum’s mandate letter only had three commitments:

  • Work with the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to repeal provisions in the Citizenship Act that give the government the right to strip citizenship from dual nationals.
  • Eliminate regulations that remove the credit given to international students for half of the time that they spend in Canada and regulations that require new citizens to sign a declaration that they intend to reside in Canada.

But a clear signal of intent to do more.

I find it somewhat amusing that after being critical of some of the changes to citizenship made by the previous government, I now find myself defending them on language assessment:

Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government will be “producing radical changes” to the Citizenship Act in the next few weeks. Liberals have been telling him that the government should eliminate the language requirement for new immigrants to apply for Canadian citizenship, which was brought in by the Conservatives in 2014 as part of the controversial Bill C-24.

Mr. McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) told The Hill Times that he’s aware of the concerns and will make an announcement in a few weeks. We’re going to be producing radical changes to the citizenship bill,” Mr. McCallum said. “We’re going to be announcing the details of those changes in just a few weeks.”

Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that although they want new immigrants to acquire proficiency in both or at least one of the two official languages of Canada, it’s also a question of fairness, saying the language requirements disenfranchise new immigrants from their right to take part in the political process.

“It’s a big problem the way the system has been set up under the previous government for language requirements,” said rookie Liberal MP Shaun Chen (Scarborough North, Ont.) whose riding has the highest visible minority population of 90.1 per cent, in the country.

But in some cases MPs said new immigrants fail to achieve the required proficiency for a variety of reasons. For example, some immigrants come to Canada under the family sponsorship program, as parents or grandparents and may not have any knowledge or a limited understanding of English or French. At that age, MPs said, it becomes an uphill battle, for some, to learn a new language. Also, when new immigrants move to Canada, the first priority for them is to provide for their family and take care of the expenses and a significant number take up any odd job to earn a living which can mean they don’t have the time to learn a new language, MPs said.

“Often times, families are sponsoring elders and grandparents at a very elderly age. It’s very challenging and difficult for them to be at such a high proficiency of English or French. To me, it makes sense for us to [adopt a system] that’s more inclusive,” said Mr. Chen. “It’s helpful to families that need to sponsor, for example, grandparents. Those new Canadians play an important role to look after children to be there and to support the family and, absolutely, it’s something that we will need to revisit and look at.”

Canadian citizens have a significant number of advantages over permanent residents, including the ability to work, participating in the political process by voting and running for political office, having a passport that makes it easy to travel internationally, and having the right to get consular support overseas.

….Liberal MPs Darshan Kang (Calgary Skyview, Alta.) and Sukh Dhaliwal (Surrey-Newton, B.C.) also told The Hill Times that they are in favour of eliminating the language proficiency test as a requirement to apply for Canadian citizenship.

“Why don’t we let those individuals who are part and parcel of this economy, that are part and parcel of building Canada, the Canada we all aspire, why should they be denied a right to participate in our democratic process which is the fundamental difference that Canadians have over many other countries that we have come from,” said Mr. Dhaliwal, who came to Canada as an immigrant from India and whose riding has a 70.2 per cent of visible minority population. Mr. Kang’s riding has a 59.6 per cent of visible minority population.

Mr. Griffith, however, said that language proficiency is a critical element of a new immigrant’s integration and success in a new country. He said that he’s in favour of requiring new immigrants to learn English or French but also said that if new immigrants over the age of 54 are not able to learn either of the languages, this requirement should be waived.

“If you don’t learn English or French, depending on where you are, you’re basically hurting yourself. It means you’re not going to be able to integrate properly, you’re not going to be able to help your kids with school work, and everything like that. If you start to waive the language completely, you’re basically not helping people succeed in the society,” said Mr. Griffith.

Source: McCallum promises ‘radical changes’ to Citizenship Act | hilltimes.com

Canadian Bar Association Immigration Law Conference: My Presentation – Citizenship: “Harder to Get, Easier to Lose”

Impact of Citizenship test changes.001I will be presenting this deck on citizenship at the plenary session May 8th. Looking forward to a good discussion with David Manicom of CIC and the audience, moderated by Carter Hoppe.

Citizenship – CBA 8 May 2015 – Final

Not a Canadian citizen? Why you should think about applying now

After the rules change Before the rules change
If you are 14 to 64 years old, you will have to:
  • show language ability in English or French, and
  • prove your knowledge of Canada in English or French
Only if you are 18 to 54 years old do you have to show language ability and knowledge of Canada.
And you may be able to have an interpreter in your own language to help you prove your knowledge of Canada.
You can apply only after you have lived in Canada as a permanent resident for:
  • at least 4 out of the last 6 years, and
  • at least 183 days each year for at least 4 out of the last 6 years
You can apply after you have lived in Canada for 3 out of the last 4 years.
And you may be able to include time that you lived here before becoming a permanent resident.
Only time when you are in Canada will count as living in Canada. Time when you are outside Canadamay still count if your permanent home is here.
You need to file your income tax returns for 4 out of the last 6 years. You do not have to show that you have filed income tax returns.
You must plan to continue living in Canada. If you leave Canada and live somewhere else, the government may be able to take away your Canadian citizenship. You do not have to plan to live in Canada. If you become a Canadian citizen before the rules change, you cannot lose your citizenship only because you live somewhere else in the future.

 Another example of organizations providing advice re the impact of the changes to the Citizenship Act, and why it is important to get applications in before the coming into force next summer.

 Their table above is particularly clear, although their interpretation of the ‘intent to reside’ provision, while supported by most lawyers, differs from Minister Alexander’s clear statements that the provision only applies during the application process, not once one is a citizen:

Not a Canadian citizen? Why you should think about applying now | CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario / Éducation juridique communautaire Ontario).

Citizenship Act Coming Into Force Provisions

From CIC’s newsletter, details of which provisions have come into force:

Provisions from Bill C-24 that came into force immediately upon Royal Assent included:

  • fast-tracking citizenship applications for members of the Canadian Armed Forces;
  • improving clarity on the first generation limit on citizenship for those born abroad;
  • enabling children born abroad to serving Crown servants to pass citizenship on to their children born or adopted abroad;
  • and streamlined decision-making for issuing discretionary grants  under section 54.

Provisions in the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act that came into force on August 1, 2014, included:

  • the new decision-making model for citizenship applications;
  • various measures to improve efficiency of the application process;
  • and a new judicial review and appeals process.

Other provisions will come into force on a date to be determined by the Governor in Council

E-newsletter.