In 63 years, 6.5 million have become Canadian citizens


Canada’s first official citizen, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, did not become “Canadian” until 1947 when he was 72 years old. Between 1867 and 1946, there was no such thing as Canadian citizenship. By law, Canadians were British subjects who lived in Canada. 

It was only after the Second World War, an event that made Canadians more conscious than ever of their country’s independent identity in the world, that Mackenzie King initiated, and saw through, the implementation of the Canadian Citizenship Act.

The Citizenship Act has undergone two notable revisions since then. In 1977, amendments to the act eliminated any reference to Canadians as British subjects. The language of the new legislation was also meant to change popular understandings of what citizenship meant. The authors of the original act viewed Canadian citizenship as a privilege, available to a select group of men and women. Thirty years later, citizenship became the right of anyone who was considered qualified. The federal government’s decision that Canada should be among the first countries to formally recognize the legitimacy of dual citizenship – the idea that a person could be a citizen of Canada and another nation at the same time – was a product of this new understanding.

In 2009, the Citizenship Act was revised again. The most noteworthy change this time was a decision to limit the transferability of citizenship to foreign-born grandchildren of foreign-born Canadians. In other words, the government implied that becoming a Canadian was more than just a right that could be taken for granted. Also in 2009, Citizenship and Immigration Canada introduced dramatic changes to the citizenship guide – the booklet that new Canadians study in advance of their citizenship test – further emphasizing the idea that citizenship in Canada involved both rights and responsibilities.

Mackenzie King, who took his oath of citizenship on January 3, 1947, is now one of the 6.5 million people who have become citizens over the last 63 years. All of them have repeated the words that King first said:

I swear (or affirm)

That I will be faithful

And bear true allegiance

To her majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second

Queen of Canada

Her heirs and successors

And that I will faithfully observe

The laws of Canada

And fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen

In spite of the gradual decrease in ties between Canada and the monarchy, as the oath makes clear, the impact of Canada’s British roots remains in contemporary discussions of citizenship.

The most recent controversy began in 1999. When the prominent Canadian, Conrad Black, was named to Britain’s House of Lords, Canada’s prime minister, Jean Chrétien, who was no friend of Black’s, invoked an obscure House of Commons resolution which called on foreign governments not to grant Canadian citizens titles of honour.

Black, a dual citizen of Canada and Great Britain, was told that he had a choice: forego the title or renounce his Canadian citizenship. Lord Black chose to no longer be Canadian.

Issues of dual citizenship re-entered the public eye in 2005 when Prime Minister Paul Martin selected Michaëlle Jean to be governor general. Jean had become a dual citizen – Canadian and French – after she married the French-born Jean-Pierre Lafond.

Although France did not object to her new role, many Canadians expressed concern that it was wrong to allow the governor general – the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces – to declare allegiance to another country. Jean’s decision to renounce her French citizenship was taken as an affirmation of her loyalty to this country.

It is worth noting that there were no objections to John Turner’s dual citizenship (Canadian and British) when he was briefly prime minister in 1984, although former Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion felt pressure to renounce his French citizenship 20 years later.

By far the most controversial debate over dual citizenship took place in the summer of 2006 when, in the midst of a violent conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, the Canadian government evacuated approximately 15,000 Lebanese-Canadians. Many had lived in Lebanon for years and close to half returned there when the conflict ended. 

The cost of the evacuation, believed to have been between $50 million and $100 million, created a backlash among Canadians who were astounded to discover that individuals who lived (and paid taxes) elsewhere could demand that Ottawa treat them as well as it would any other citizen.

Whether Canadians will ever lose their right to dual citizenship is unclear. For now, however, Canadian citizenship remains a mark of pride and privilege. In 2006, 85 per cent of eligible immigrants became citizens of Canada, and there is no sign that this pattern of commitment will end any time soon.

Further Reading: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Discover Canada: The Rights

and Responsibilities of Citizenship.

Next Instalment: Bureaucratic Nightmares: The Public Service and the Future of Canada

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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