Honourable senators, it is my privilege to rise in respect of second reading debate on a most important piece of legislation. It is my pleasure to speak to Bill C-24, the strengthening Canadian citizenship act.
Citizenship in Canada is a privilege, not a right — a gift granted by birth or by choice and one that encourages actions on the part of its recipient. Colleagues, citizenship is defined as the fact of belonging to a community because you live in it and the duties and responsibilities that such belonging brings with it. But it is more than this. As former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said: "Citizenship consists in the service of the country."
For hundreds of thousands of people seeking citizenship, it represents two things: a personal choice they make and an affirmation of the values of the society of which they wish to become full members.
We in Canada know this better perhaps than any other nation in the world, for we are a young country and one virtually comprised of immigrants. Also, we have the highest naturalization rates in the Western world.
Since Confederation, immigration has been the fuel that has forged our great country and the key ingredient that makes Canada a country of choice for those seeking a better life, an opportunity to positively influence their society, and a place where prosperity and safety are within reach for all.
The Canada of today is richer by virtue of those who have chosen to become its citizens. Indeed, as former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once said about the impact of immigration:
The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.
The success of our immigration programs has not gone unnoticed in the world. As another former U.S. President, Bill Clinton, said:
In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity, and mutual respect.
As I just noted, Canada has the highest naturalization rate in the world, with over 85 per cent of permanent residents becoming citizens, outstripping the rates seen in Australia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. In fact, last year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada received 333,860 citizenship applications, representing, as I have mentioned, the highest volume ever.
But if we are to continue to be a world leader in immigration and naturalization, it's incumbent upon us to keep our citizenship programs robust, sustainable and effective. That is why our government embarked upon the most sweeping reform of the Citizenship Act in a generation.
Make no mistake; this needs doing. We must improve unacceptable wait times that plague those seeking citizenship. We must take strong measures to combat citizenship fraud. We must deal with the matter of those who seek to be "citizens of convenience," who use their citizenship as a shield for purposes that fall far outside the intended provisions of Canadian identity.
The improvements this bill will bring about will continue the historical tradition of incremental improvement to our citizenship program beginning in 1910 with the Immigration Act; built upon with the Naturalization Act of 1914; entrenched in 1947 with the Citizenship Act; and further enhanced by comprehensive amendments to the statutes in 1977.
We declared our intention to refresh and invigorate the Citizenship Act in the 2013 Speech from the Throne, with a commitment to strengthen and protect the value of Canadian citizenship.
Bill C-24 delivers this by introducing comprehensive reforms to the Citizenship Act. We believe that enacting Bill C-24 will achieve these important measures. It will increase efficiency to help qualified applicants acquire citizenship sooner. It will strengthen requirements for becoming a Canadian citizen. It will combat fraud while greatly enhancing program integrity. It will enable us to honour those who serve Canada and seek to become citizens and will recognize the service of those who have served this country and deserve recognition for this through citizenship.
Colleagues, Canadian citizenship is of tremendous value. It is a major contributor to both nation-building and to our ongoing economic vitality. It is something in which Canadians take immense and unprecedented pride. It's about embracing the balance between recognizing the benefits that go with it on the one hand and taking responsibility to apply the obligations and respect the rights it grants on the other hand.
I am reminded today of the words in the first address I delivered in this august chamber five years ago. I shared with this chamber my view that our country is one of the few in the world that has realized its national potential through the hard work of immigrants. Indeed, immigrants are the flesh, the muscle and the sinew on the Canadian bone. As Richard Gwyn so intelligently pointed out, without a longstanding commitment to immigration, Canada would be quite different from what it is now: smaller, poorer, much more parochial, less powerful, less optimistic.
Today, I still believe in the value of community service. All men and women in this country must fully embrace the unyielding fact that the benefits that come from being Canadian must be a direct result of our willingness to invest ourselves fully in this country. Canadian citizenship has never been, and must never become, a flag of convenience for the so-called citizen of the world. Our country may have become a majority of minorities, but it must never be defined by its constituent parts alone.
I remind all honourable senators that we too have responsibility to those who choose the Canadian experience. As I said, we must work equally hard to fully integrate new arrivals and encourage them to take on the responsibilities of citizenship that all Canadians must assume to earn the benefits of citizenship. Citizenship is a dual commitment to respecting the gift while giving back to the country that bestowed it. It's more than just holding a passport or casting a ballot on election day. While these are both fundamental expressions of citizenship, there's much more to it than that. It's about sharing in civic life in the fullest sense.
Allow me to quote Minister Alexander as he shared in the other place his passionate view of what full expression of citizenship entails:
Citizenship is participation in the fullest sense, participation in the needs of our neighbours, participation in voluntary organizations, participation in the economy and the economic excellence that a country like Canada has managed to achieve. These are the gains of freedom to which citizenship has opened the door over centuries, indeed millennia, and which have been achieved on a level in this country that we think is without parallel in the history of humanity.
Minister Alexander shared as well about the struggles that a true commitment to citizenship requires:
. . . we fought in this country to have not only assemblies and honest government, free of corruption; we also fought to have accountable, responsible government. It was citizens across this country, in cities, towns, rural areas, and urban centres who paved the pathway to Confederation. They underpinned that national policy. They brought us, strong and free, into the 20th century, when the story of a larger Canada, and a Canada that eventually adopted a Citizenship Act in 1947, begins.
Colleagues, the comments by Minister Alexander speak to the critical importance of the maintenance and enhancement of the integrity of Canadian citizenship. We are a country of choice and a place of permanent residence desired by people around the world. As such, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to tackle immigration fraud head on. While thankfully the number of such instances in this country are few, we must nevertheless be attendant to deterring and preventing such behaviours altogether.
The reality is that we live in a world far different from the one in which the Citizenship Act was introduced as law in 1977. That is why we are addressing these needs with the updating of this act to better deal with today's challenges and to enhance our efficiency in serving the needs of those who choose to become Canadian citizens.
Honourable colleagues, critics of this bill assert that its provisions make it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens. Let me assure this chamber that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as Minister Alexander emphasized when he appeared before committee, we are making it easier to become citizens of this country by accelerating the processing of applications, by clarifying the associated rules and processes, and by enforcing the terms and conditions required for citizenship.
In respect of achieving greater efficiency, allow me share with you the new decision-making model for citizenship applications. It's a reality that currently our processing times for qualified applicants are too long, especially when compared to other first- world countries. The current backlog is upward of 350,000 applications, a clearly unacceptable level and one that is being moved quickly through the balance of this year.
Obtaining citizenship is currently a three-step process involving duplication of work. Citizenship officers review the files and prepare them for a citizenship judge. The judge approves or rejects the application and returns it to the officer, who then grants citizenship on behalf of the minister or recommends an appeal of the judge's decision.
Under the provisions of Bill C-24, the citizenship officers would be able to make decisions on applications, leaving the judges responsible for their important roles as promoters of Canadian citizenship and for administering the oath of citizenship, the final step in a much accelerated process, with less cost to Canadian taxpayers.
A key component to these proposed changes deals with residency requirements for granting citizenship — simply put, the period of time during which those aspiring to citizenship must be present in this country before applying for it.
We are proposing that the residency requirement change from three out of four years to four out of six. What's more, the bill also clarifies that residency means a physical presence in Canada. We're asking upfront and explicitly that those who seek to become citizens be physically present in Canada for four out of six years. Requiring this of newcomers allows for better integration into Canadian society, as understanding our nation's social and cultural norms first-hand, our customs, our landscapes, our communities and the institutions that help build them is an irreplaceable experience.
This notion of intention to reside is one that I wish to be very clear about. It relates only to the requirement to be resident in Canada for four out of six years to fully meet the prescribed requirements for citizenship. It does not create a new second class of Canadian. It does not inhibit mobility once citizenship has been granted.
Canadian citizenship entitles one to such freedom of movement, and we are asking applicants to demonstrate their sincere intention to reside in this country during the prescribed four- out-of-six-year period and to make this declaration at the front end of the process.
The choices are clear: If an applicant changes their intention at any stage during that period — that is the four out of six years — they will not become a citizen. Minster Alexander was succinct on this matter. Once a citizen, we all have the same rights, including freedom of mobility.
These new rules would apply only after passage of this legislation and its coming into force. Those with active applications or who apply before the bill's passage would do so under the auspices of the current rules. Make no mistake; we are by no means moving the goalposts for applications currently in process.
There is another area of the bill's provisions that has elicited much debate and yet is so fundamental to the protection and enhancement of Canadian citizenship, and that is the measure that permits the revocation of Canadian citizenship from dual citizens — I repeat, dual citizens — who were members of an armed force or an organized armed group engaged in armed conflict against Canada, and that would deny citizenship to permanent residents involved in the same actions.
The notion is a simple one. Those who choose to betray our country or take up arms against our military will forfeit their right to hold Canadian citizenship. Citizenship is based on allegiance. Those granted citizenship pledge allegiance to our monarch, the Queen of Canada, and to our system of government and its laws. Betrayal of this allegiance comes with a price.
Yet, even with the measures that clearly seek to deter such actions, we remain fair. We will not revoke the citizenship of anyone who has only Canadian citizenship. We do not create or cause conditions that would render an individual stateless.
There are only two models for revocation. Under the administrative model, the minister is the decision maker for revocation on the grounds of citizenship obtained by fraud related to residence, identity or criminality; and a new ground based on convictions for terrorism, high treason, treason or spying offences.
The decision can be appealed by means of an application for judicial review if leave is granted by the Federal Court. The person has 30 days to apply for leave after being notified or otherwise becoming aware of revocation. An appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal can be made if the judge certifies a serious question of general importance.
The Appeal Court's decision may be appealed, with leave, to the Supreme Court of Canada. Under the judicial model, the Federal Court is the decision maker in cases where citizenship fraud occurred through concealing serious inadmissibilities under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, such as organized crime or security and human and international rights violations, while adding a new ground for membership in an armed force or organized armed group engaged in conflict with Canada.
The minister commences an action in the Federal Court. Its decision can be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal if the judge certifies a serious question of general importance. The Appeal Court's decision may also be appealed, with leave, to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Honourable senators, these are the only instances through which citizenship is revocable and they apply only to dual citizens.
Moving forward, colleagues, another element to the new rules would be that applicants would no longer be able to use time spent in Canada as non-permanent residents in meeting citizenship residency requirements. We're asking applicants to demonstrate a commitment to Canada through permanent residence.
Under the new legislation, citizenship fees, which have not gone up in over 20 years, would increase to reflect a better balance between the costs of providing the service with the fees paid by applicants. The current fee structure covered only 20 per cent of the cost of processing. The new system will see this figure rise to 50 per cent of the cost being recovered. It's important to note that the fee for minors remained unchanged. By comparison, the new rate of $300 — compared to the previous rate of $100 — is much less than the $680 required of applicants in the United States for American citizenship requests.
The new provisions proposed in this bill seek stronger authority to define what constitutes a complete application and the types of evidence applicants must provide in support of them. Certainty that requirements are fully met at the front end of the process eliminates time wasted processing and returning incomplete applications.
Another benefit to the efficiency of the program will be achieved through amending the means of providing discretionary grants. Under the current act, the Governor-in-Council may direct the minister to grant citizenship to alleviate special and unusual hardship or to reward service of an exceptional value to Canada.
With the proposed changes to the act, the decision-making power would migrate to the minister, eliminating another extra step, while bringing our process in this regard into line with that of nations similar to ours, such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.
We are also proposing changes to the parameters around judicial review and the appeal process that would provide access to higher courts for all applicants. Currently, an appeal of a citizenship judge's decision can be heard by the Federal Court but no higher. Decisions by citizenship officers, who have authority to decide certain cases under the act, can be judicially reviewed and challenged in a higher court.
To eliminate this anomaly, the proposed amendments would introduce a uniform system for all decisions under the Citizenship Act. Judicial review would be subject to leave of the Federal Court, whose decision could be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal, where it can certify a serious question of general importance, thus preventing needless and spurious litigation. Further appeals would also be available to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Another efficiency that would be enacted under passage of Bill C-24 includes ways to verify citizenship in various ways, such as by electronic means rather than through the current requirement that calls for issuance of a citizenship certificate, which must be given to each successful applicant and anyone requesting proof of citizenship.
Enhancing processing efficiency and its modernization also means enacting measures where the act has been silent until now. An example of this is the lack of explicit authority to declare an application abandoned. This occurs when an applicant fails to appear for the citizenship test or an appointment with an officer.
A proposed amendment will provide clear authority to declare applications abandoned in such cases, at any stage of the process, based on failure to comply with a request for information or to attend an interview. This process is, however, far from arbitrary and seeks to accommodate the needs and situations of applicants. Those who fail to show for interviews are given written 30-day notice and opportunity to prevent abandonment.
Through these amendments, we're seeking to ensure that applicants can speak one of our two official languages when they apply and have sufficient knowledge of our country. We want a new Canadian immigrant, regardless of age, to be able to be fully engaged, to the best extent possible, in the community around them. Whether it be a man or woman in the workplace, a stay-at-home spouse in the neighbourhood or a child on the playground, there is a need and a direct benefit to have the tools to facilitate such fundamental elements of community life such as language. This is especially true for immigrant women, who are often alone and vulnerable in a new and different society.
That's why, under the new measures proposed, applicants aged 14 to 64 will have to meet language requirements and pass a knowledge test in either English or French. The language test for listening and speaking is at a very basic level. The age requirements are currently from 18 to 54. It's worth noting that the language and knowledge requirements put in place thus far have proven to be both successful and popular.
Equally important as an expedited and streamlined process around application is the need to reinforce the value of citizenship and to strengthen the system's integrity.
Let us be clear. Our government wants no citizens of convenience nor those who seek to become citizens for fraudulent means, regardless of reason. Crooked citizenship consultants have facilitated hundreds of individuals to do just that, and we are taking measures in this bill to put an end to it. These include provisions for a new authority to develop regulations to designate a regulatory body whose members would be authorized to act as consultants and who would monitor and collect information concerning citizenship consultants. This is similar to the measures put in place for immigration consultants.
The new regulations would require that the names of representatives or consultants be identified in citizenship applications. Failure to do so could result in the return of their application.
With regard to deterrents to fraud, the penalties for citizenship- related offences, such as misrepresentation, much like the fees for application, haven't changed since 1977. Currently, an individual who commits citizenship fraud faces a fine of up to $1,000 or up to a year in prison. Under the new provisions proposed in Bill C- 24, these measures would increase. An indictable fraud offence would yield a fine of up to $100,000 and/or five years in prison, and the penalty for a summary offence would include a fine of up to $50,000 and/or two years in prison.
Steps are also being taken to refuse citizenship to those who have made representation or withheld material facts, such as whether they meet the eligibility requirements. Applicants refused under these provisions would be barred from reapplying for five years. Moreover, the proposed amendments would also make it an offence to counsel, aid, induce or abet anyone to indirectly or directly misrepresent or withhold facts relating to a case, punishable by a $100,000 fine and/or five years in prison and, for a summary conviction, a maximum fine of $50,000 or two years in prison.
Another key step in strengthening our regimen relates to permanent residents with unfulfilled conditions attached to their permanent resident status. Under the proposed changes, they would not be eligible for citizenship. Colleagues, in certain cases, permanent resident status comes with conditions that must be met in order for it to be maintained. Failure to do so can lead to removal from Canada. Currently, the act is silent regarding any provisions that prevent permanent residents from applying for and obtaining citizenship, despite the conditions attached to their residency. These amendments would remedy this.
Another gap being bridged deals with information sharing between Citizenship and Immigration Canada and its partners. Unlike the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Citizenship Act does not include explicit legislative authority to create regulations to support information collection and disclosure to the department's partners, such as the Canada Border Services Agency.
Such information will assist decision makers in determining whether applicants meet the requirements. It will also help the department conduct investigations into cases of fraud and misrepresentation.
A key step in strengthening the integrity of our citizenship process deals with those who engage in criminal activity and seek to live here. Under the current rules, those who have been charged with or convicted of an indictable offence in Canada are barred from applying for citizenship. This also applies to anyone serving a sentence in Canada. Bill C-24 would expand the provisions to bar applicants for equivalent foreign conditions. Yet, we understand that there are instances where foreign convictions can be bogus. That is why we have made provisions by which persons who have been falsely charged and convicted abroad by repressive, autocratic or abusive regimes could still seek to become Canadian citizens on the basis of an administrative and, if required, judicial review here in this country.
Honourable senators, full engagement in citizenship calls for service to one's country, so it is indeed fitting that another set of provisions in Bill C-24 pays tribute to those who serve our great nation. Citizenship would be granted to children of persons born or adopted abroad whose parents are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces or working overseas for the Canadian government. Another new provision would grant citizenship sooner for permanent residents serving in our military.
Colleagues, there is one group who it would be remiss not to better serve through the reforms of Bill C-24. These are the so- called "Lost Canadians," those born before January 1, 1947, when the first Citizenship Act came into force, or, in the case of Newfoundland, before 1949.
Those individuals have so far not been entitled to the benefits, privileges and responsibilities of Canadian citizens, such as first-generation children born abroad to war brides and servicemen. We're taking the final steps to ensure that these "Lost Canadians," the children of those who fought in the Second World War, the progeny of those most committed to serving and defending their country, enjoy the full benefit of Canadian citizenship, not just in the first generation but in succeeding generations.
As I close, I'm reminded of the words of Canada's renowned artist and writer Emily Carr, who once said:
It is wonderful to feel the grandness of Canada in the raw, not because she is Canada but because she's something sublime that you are born into, some great, rugged power that you are a part of.
One need not be born here to lay claim to playing a role in Canada's grandness. Our immigrants, those who continue to choose to make our country home, as they have for centuries now, add to our great, rugged power and make our Canada even more sublime. These improvements to our citizenship provisions are a testament to the treasured gift of being called Canadian.
Honourable senators, our government is reforming the Citizenship Act through Bill C-24, with a clear conviction that Canadian citizenship is uniquely valuable around the world, that its acquisition must come with certain obligations and responsibilities attached to it, and that its great value must always be protected and continually strengthened.
I ask all of you to support it, and I thank you.