TORONTO — Some Jewish officials have turned thumbs down to the federal government’s proposed sweeping reforms to the Citizenship Act.
Critics say the changes will erect roadblocks to citizenship for those who need protection, and could pose an abuse of power by the government.
In what Ottawa called “the first comprehensive reform to the Citizenship Act in more than a generation,” Bill C-24 is intended to crack down on fraud and weed out those convicted of terrorism, treason or spying.
If passed, it would require would-be citizens to live in Canada longer before applying for citizenship, while permanent residents applying for citizenship would have to live in Canada for four of the last six years, instead of the current three years out of four.
“Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege,” Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said in introducing the measures.
Among other provisions, the bill would:
• No longer count time spent as a non-permanent resident (such as students or workers) toward the residency requirements for citizenship;
• Require citizenship applicants to declare their intent to reside in Canada;
• Expand the age for applicants required to demonstrate language proficiency and take a test to age 14 to 64, up from the current 18 to 54;
• Increase application fees for each adult to $300 from $100;
• Reduce access to courts. Under the new proposal, a person whose citizenship is revoked will have to apply to the Federal Court for permission to appeal. Currently, appealing revocation is an automatic right.
• Grant the minister powers to revoke citizenship. Currently, citizenship can only be removed by a judge.
Guidy Mamann, a Toronto immigration lawyer and board member of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) is bothered most by the bill’s language requirement.
“It will affect people who come here under the family class, who have come later in life and find learning a new language a tremendous challenge,” Mamann told The CJN. “Typically, [for] those who come as a sponsored parent or refugee in their 40s or 50s, it’s going to be very difficult to learn a new language.”
He’s also sour on the bill’s residency requirements.
“The quality of your contribution is not what is important to this government. It’s the number of days you have your feet on Canadian soil,” he said. “There should be a provision to grant citizenship to people who have been permanent residents for four years and who have made a significant contribution to the Canadian economy or cultural or artistic life, and who do not otherwise speak the language.”
If passed in current form, the changes are “clearly going to put full participation in our Canadian way of life out of reach for many immigrants,” Mamann said.
Ken Rosenberg, chair of the recently formed Jewish Refugee Action Network (JRAN) said his group’s focus is refugee matters, not citizenship.
But that didn’t prevent JRAN’s founder, Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, from sharply criticizing the bill.
“I’m very concerned about the implications of this bill in terms of increasing the centralization of authority… specifically granting one minister the right to make decisions which, up until now, have been made by the courts,” Rabbi Bielfeld said.
“As Jews and as human beings, we have a real need to make sure that every Canadian has the right to a legal hearing of his or her claim.”
He compared Canada’s proposal to Switzerland’s recent decision to cap all immigration and introduce quotas.
“What we’re seeing is a strong shift to the populism of the right that is going to affect many countries,” said Rabbi Bielfeld, a longtime advocate for refugees. “As Jews especially, we know how dangerous it is when countries begin to close borders [to] people who are oppressed.”
A scathing indictment of the proposals was issued recently by Lorne Waldman, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and Audrey Macklin, professor of law at the University of Toronto.
Writing in the Toronto Star, Waldman and Macklin said Bill C-24 represents “a serious threat to the rights of all Canadians” because it would “make citizens vulnerable to abuse of power by the government” and “broadly expand the requirements for citizenship in ways that will make it inaccessible to many, while dramatically reducing a person’s due process rights when the government seeks to take citizenship away.”
An implicit “threat” in the bill is that if a naturalized Canadian citizen takes a job somewhere else or leaves Canada to study abroad, the government may move to strip the person of citizenship because they misrepresented their intention to reside in Canada, the pair claimed.
Rather than strengthening the rights of citizens, the bill “demeans citizenship. Like the changes to the refugee laws that Ottawa sold by branding refugees as bogus, these proposals represent new Canadians as objects of suspicion and mistrust.”
Speaking on behalf of JIAS Canada, Mark Zarecki, executive director of Jewish Family Services in Ottawa, said the legislation would decrease the number of citizens who have “extra status” – immigrants who receive Canadian citizenship in addition to keeping their native citizenship status – and then leave permanently. “It should close that loophole,” Zarecki said.
Overall, he said, he has “no serious qualms” about the bill.