Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Weakening Canadian citizenship

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Citizenship is supposed to mean that every member of a country is equal in all respects. It's a lifetime entitlement that can never be taken away, unless an individual decides to revoke it in favour of another nationality or committed fraud in obtaining it.

The Harper government, however, is threatening to undermine that principle with its Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), which could create two classes of citizens.

If the legislation is passed, Canadians with dual citizenship could be deported if they are convicted of treason or terrorism in Canada or elsewhere, or if they join a foreign army or group that is hostile to Canada. The bill would also require new Canadians to declare their intent to live in Canada, a test that applies to no other natural-born citizen.

Many Canadians have dual citizenship, even if they were born here. That's because some countries automatically confer citizenship to the children and even grandchildren of expatriates. Some countries, including Canada, do not automatically revoke citizenship when people move to other countries. The result is there are many thousands of Canadians with dual citizenship, even if they aren't aware of it. There are some 250,000 people with Canadian passports, for example, living in Hong Kong.

Treason and terrorism are serious crimes, but Canadians suspected of those offences should be tried in the courts. That's how Canadian citizens are treated; under the new legislation that would change for those with dual citizenship, making them lesser Canadians.

Citizens should not be subject to different laws and consequences based on the nature of their citizenship.

There is also a risk in linking Canadian citizenship to participation in contemporary events. A quick review of some key moments in Canadian history illustrates the point.

Louis Riel led two violent uprisings and was hanged for treason, but today he's remembered as a "father of Confederation" and defender of minority rights.

Following the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, one of the strike leaders was deported. Fearing a communist uprising, the federal government subsequently amended the Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of any alien or Canadian not born in Canada if they advocated for the overthrow of the government by force. Several hundred trade unionists and communists were deported in the 1930s for actions that today would be regarded as lawful protest.

The federal government passed a law in 1937 making it an offence to "enlist with a foreign state at war with a friendly state," but it ultimately took no action against Canadians -- most of them socialists and communists -- who went to Spain to defend the legitimate socialist government against the fascists.

The point is the government's legislation could easily be abused or misused. Some Canadians, for example, may be fighting in Syria's civil war, but are they there to defend their families and oppose oppression, or to spread terrorism? Under the government's legislation, there would be no distinction.

All Canadians are accountable for their actions, but the proposed legislative amendments would make some Canadians more accountable than others.

The Canadian Bar Association says the law is probably unconstitutional and at least one lawyer has pledged to challenge it in court.

The legislation contains some good provisions, including measures to award citizenship to Canadians who believed they were citizens, but who never obtained it because of a variety of circumstances.

There is always a risk that a new Canadian will be a poor citizen or rebel against his or her country, but the same risk exists for natural-born citizens. In the end, Canadian citizens are equal in their duty to obey the law. They should not be punished differently.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2014 A14

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