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Liberals edge closer to repealing Conservative citizenship changes, though Senate remains a wildcard

Jade Calver

The government is one step closer to reversing controversial changes to the way Canada grants citizenship that were brought in under its Conservative predecessor.

Bill C-6 is back before the House, after the House Immigration Committee finished its work last week reviewing one of the government’s flagship pieces of legislation. The Liberal chair of the House Immigration Committee said he hopes the bill will pass into law in time for Canada Day, July 1, but both he and Immigration Minister John McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) have expressed some wariness over how the Conservative-dominated Senate will handle the bill.

Passing Bill C-6 would allow the government to fulfill a Liberal Party campaign promise to repeal “unfair” sections of Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, which was passed into law in 2014 by the previous Conservative government.

Bill C-24 made a series of changes to the laws around granting citizenship, including increasing the amount of time permanent residents must spend in Canada before qualifying for citizenship, expanding the age range in which applicants must demonstrate knowledge of Canada and an official language, and giving the government the power to strip Canadian citizenship from dual citizens who “engaged in certain actions contrary to the national interest of Canada.”

Giving the government powers to strip citizenship from dual nationals proved the most controversial part of the C-24. The Conservatives trumpeted the need to strip citizenship from convicted terrorists, while the Liberals and others argued that Canadians with dual citizenship should not be treated differently from those with only Canadian citizenship. The debate carried into the federal election campaign and beyond, with Liberal politicians frequently deploying the slogan “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” to drive home their point.

Bill C-6 would remove the government’s right to strip citizenship from dual nationals on those grounds. It would also let citizenship applicants count time spent in Canada before they got permanent residency towards a residency requirement, give the government the right to seize documents used to fraudulently obtain citizenship, and more.

Senate unknowns

The House Immigration Committee completed its study of Bill C-6, sending it back to the House with a pair amendments on May 5. The committee heard from 27 witnesses during five meetings devoted to studying the bill.

Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre, Ont.), who chairs the committee, said in an interview that while it was “hard to predict” what would happen once the bill reached the Senate, he was “cautiously optimistic” that “by the time we rise for the summer…we’ll be able to say that once again in Canada, ‘A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.’”

The office of Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.), who shepherds government legislation through the House, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Mr. McCallum told the House Immigration Committee last month that the implementation of C-6 would likely be delayed once it passed into law, “in order to prevent the buildup in [citizenship application] backlogs resulting from this change.”

Mr. McCallum also said that it would be “difficult to predict” how the Senate would handle the bill. There are more Conservatives in the Senate than either Liberals or independents, though Liberal and independent Senators have a narrow majority if they vote as a bloc.

The Senate Social Affairs, Science, and Technology Committee typically handles immigration-related legislation, and in the previous Parliament reviewed Bill C-24. The Conservatives currently have a majority on that committee.

None of the six Conservative Senators on the Senate Social Affairs Committee agreed or were available to be interviewed about Bill C-6. Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie, the committee chair, declined through an office staff member, citing his role as chair.

Conservative Senator and committee member Judith Seidman also declined through a staff member on the grounds that the bill was still before the House.

Conservative Senator and committee member Carolyn Stewart Olsen wrote in an emailed statement that she would not comment on Bill C-6 or make up her mind about it before it was put before the Social Affairs Committee.

Amendments

The House Immigration Committee’s amendments to Bill C-6 include language to require the immigration minister “to take into consideration” reasonable measures to accommodate the needs of disabled citizenship applicants, and to clarify that the minister would still have the ability to grant citizenship to applicants in special cases “to alleviate cases of statelessness or of special and unusual hardship or to reward services of an exceptional value to Canada.”

Mr. McCallum told the House Immigration Committee last month that he was open to the possibility of amending the bill, and would consider a proposal to give people whose citizenship was being revoked by the government for citizenship fraud a chance to appeal that decision.

Cases of citizenship fraud—whereby people get citizenship by claiming to meet the requirements when in fact they don’t—continue to be a problem for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, thanks in part to failures by the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency to share relevant information with the immigration department in some cases, according to a report issued by Auditor General Michael Ferguson last week.

McCallum defends language thresholds

Under questioning from the opposition on the House Immigration Committee last month, Mr. McCallum defended the government’s decision to reverse a change in the Conservative citizenship legislation that expanded the age range in which applicants must pass a test on their knowledge of Canada and proficiency in an official language.

Bill C-6 would exempt applicants below the age of 18 and above the age of 55 from those tests. The Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act had lowered the minimum age to 14 and raised the maximum to 65.

Mr. McCallum said that older immigrants have long come to Canada without learning either English or French, and Canadian society has not been harmed by it.

Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.) asked whether the existing, lower language testing threshold of 14 “will also be of benefit to teenagers in their education? In other words, if they’re going to go to school, they have to be able to understand what’s going on in school, either in French or in English.”

Mr. McCallum said he was not concerned about the effect raising the minimum age for mandatory language testing to 18 from 14 would have on the ability of young immigrants to learn an official language.  

“I’m sure that a 16-year-old new Canadian will have ample opportunity to learn English or French, and will do so. We have seen this throughout our country for many years, if not forever,” he said.

The government already invests tens of millions of dollars in language training and did not consider the possibility of investing more into those programs instead of loosening the language requirements, Mr. McCallum said in response to a question from Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.).