New citizenship bill toughens rules, targets fraudsters, garners mixed reviews

Rolland Côté has his camera at the ready on Ste. Catherine St. west as he took in the annual Canada Day parade in downtown Montreal Monday, July 1, 2013. THE GAZETTE / John Kenney

TOBI COHEN
POSTMEDIA NEWS

OTTAWA – The federal government wants to triple the cost of citizenship, make it harder to become a Canadian citizen, toughen penalties for fraud, and regulate the citizenship consultant profession, in a move that’s drawing mixed reviews.

Dubbed the “first comprehensive reforms to the Citizenship Act in a generation,” Bill C-24 – the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act – was tabled Thursday in the House of Commons. It seeks to strengthen the value of citizenship, while reducing red tape and eliminating backlogs.

“We are confident that these changes reflect what Canadians want and expect: a system that emphasizes how great a privilege Canadian citizenship is, while protecting it from abuse,” Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said as he unveiled details of the bill at Toronto’s Old Fort York.

“Citizenship is not a right, it’s a privilege.”

Under the new rules, newcomers must reside in Canada for four out of six years, and at least 183 days each year, to be eligible to apply for citizenship. They must also show proof that they’ve filed income taxes during that period. Public servants will be required to do the math to make sure, thus streamlining the process by freeing up citizenship judges to administer the oath.

In rare cases, however, judges will be asked to intervene to determine residency if someone believes they have a good reason for not meeting the requirement that they be physically present.

The current threshold is three years out of four; however, residency is not currently defined as physical presence, nor are there any tax requirements.

In an effort to level the playing field, international students and temporary foreign workers will also no longer be able to count time spent in Canada before becoming permanent residents towards the residency requirement for citizenship.

The bill will also open the door to so-called “lost Canadians”: the children of “war brides” and Canadian servicemen born out-of-wedlock before 1947 when Canada had no citizenship laws of its own.

Don Chapman, a long-time advocate for those fighting for citizenship, said the changes will likely help people such as Jackie Scott, a B.C. woman whose high-profile case is now before the courts.

The bill will also incorporate details of a private member’s bill that would fast-track citizenship for those who serve in the Canadian military – and strip it from dual nationals, including those born in Canada, who engage in armed conflict against Canada.

In an effort to crack down on those who seek citizenship for the sole purpose of obtaining a passport, newcomers will also have to sign an undertaking that they will reside in Canada, at least until they take the oath, when, like all Canadians, they’ll have the right to mobility and thus can’t be prevented from leaving the country for extended periods of time.

“We want new citizens to embrace our rich culture and values and feel compelled to remain active members of Canadian society,” Alexander said.

“Requiring physical presence … better supports the integration of newcomers into Canadian society, it enables prospective citizens to develop a stronger connection to Canada, it encourages their sense of belonging here and it fosters their full participation in Canadian life.”

The bill does not address the contentious issue of whether citizenship by birth should be automatic, particularly in relation to pregnant tourists who come to Canada to “gift” citizenship upon their babies. Alexander said the government is still studying this and may crack down on it in the future.

The citizenship changes are expected to drastically reduce backlogs, which are currently around 320,000, and shrink wait times, which can now be as long as 36 months. The government expects to reduce the backlog by 80 per cent and wait times to less than a year by 2015-2016.

If and when the bill passes, the new streamlining rules will apply retroactively to those in the application backlog but they will not be subject to the new residency requirements, Alexander said.

Sharry Aiken, an immigration law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., expressed a “mixed” reaction.

She “applauds” efforts to resolve the lost Canadian issue and argues that “clarifying and simplifying” the residency rules is a “step in the right direction.” Her “biggest concern,” however, is the decision to concentrate the power to revoke citizenship in the hands of the minister.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Sergio Karas calls the link between citizenship eligibility, physical presence and paying and filing taxes a “sea change in the way we view citizenship.”

That said, he expects the link could hamper streamlining efforts, should people contest the new tax requirement.

He’s also concerned the new physical-presence requirements may put international business people, the sort of economic immigrants Canada is trying to attract, at a disadvantage.

“They will always be a little short on the physical presence requirement and have to content themselves with being permanent residents of Canada or to limit their travel, and that’s a tough choice for a lot of people,” he said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees, meanwhile, expressed concern Thursday with the government’s new powers to strip dual citizens of citizenship in certain cases involving criminality.

“It is wrong to use citizenship rules to punish people for wrongdoing; that’s the role of the criminal system,” president Loly Rico said.

“Treating dual citizens differently is discriminatory and violates the fundamental principle that all citizens are equal.”

NDP immigration critic Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe also raised concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of the minister and the revocation of citizenship for acts of war and suggested the “devil is in the details.”

She’s hopeful the reforms will indeed lead to faster processing but remains skeptical.

“I don’t trust the Conservatives to get this right,” she said. “Their immigration reform record is so bad and when we see more discretionary power in the hands of the minister, that is even more scary to me.”

Noting that would-be citizens are now being asked to pay three times the price for citizenship while waiting twice as long, Liberal critic John McCallum said the fee hike remains his biggest beef.

tcohen@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Tobicohen

Here are some highlights from the citizenship bill:

–It would allow the government to deny citizenship to those charged or convicted of serious crimes outside Canada. The current act only covers crimes committed in Canada. Those deemed a security threat could also be denied under the new rules.

–The penalty for citizenship fraud will increase to $100,000 and up to five years in prison, from the current $1,000 and one year in prison. The government is also streamlining the revocation process for fraudsters, allowing the minister alone to make the decision to strip citizenship. It’s currently a three-step process that has hampered efforts to crack down on fraud. Negative decisions, however, could still face appeal to the highest court.

–The minister is also giving himself the power to grant citizenship to those otherwise ineligible on compassionate or meritorious grounds, a power that currently resides with cabinet.

–Under the bill, those 14 to 65 years of age will have to take a knowledge test and show proof of language ability. The rules currently only apply to those 18 to 54.

–The offspring of Canadian military personnel and public servants who were born abroad will now get to pass citizenship on to their children, even if the children are adopted abroad.

–The cost for adults applying for citizenship was also immediately increased to $300 from $100 in a bid to recover more of the processing costs, though it’s still well below the price in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

–The government also wants the authority to create a new regulatory body for citizenship consultants, similar to the one used to curb crooked immigration consultants back in 2011. Unauthorized service providers could face fines of $100,000 and up to two years in prison. Counselling somebody to commit citizenship fraud will also carry hefty penalties under the new act.

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