By TOM GODFREY
Frustrated community groups are concerned about sweeping changes being proposed to the Citizenship Act by the Conservative government that will make it much harder for immigrants to become Canadians.
Proposed changes to the Act were introduced in Parliament last week that will require permanent residents to physically live in Canada for four out of six years, rather than three out of four as now required.
Applicants will also have to undergo tough language tests to be eligible and dual citizens can have their Canadian citizenship revoked at any time for certain crimes.
The legislation was tabled by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander before Parliament last Thursday and has to be approved by the House of Commons before the changes can take effect, and that can take more than a year.
Under the proposal, applicants aged 18 to 64, will have to undergo and pass English or French language tests at certified schools before they can apply. The tests include the ability to speak, read and write in either of the official languages.
Many immigrants have complained about the tough language requirements that may see many of them return to classrooms to upgrade their English or French skills in preparation for the test.
The changes will make it easier to revoke the citizenship of those who have committed or are convicted of terrorism, treason, spying or crimes against humanity. They will also will ban those who have a criminal record from applying for citizenship and fast-track members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The legislation, Bill C-24, “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,” will become a one-stop, rather than a three-stop, process to obtain citizenship, with officers making the decisions rather than Citizenship Court Judges, who will be retained, but in a limited role.
“Canadians understand that citizenship should not be simply a passport of convenience,” Alexander said in a release. “Citizenship is a pledge of mutual responsibility and a shared commitment to values rooted in our history.”
If the proposal is approved, it will be the first time the Act has been changed since the 1970s. The Conservatives have long complained, and want to curb, the thousands of immigrants who obtain citizenship and return to their homelands without living – or paying taxes – in Canada.
But Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the proposals are not welcoming to immigrants who have to wait longer and overcome more hurdles to become citizens.
Rico said the legislation can be used to punish those most deserving and strip status of dual citizens in certain situations.
“Citizenship is a fundamental status not something that is deserved,” she said in a statement. “It is wrong to use citizenship rules to punish people for wrongdoing – that’s the role of the criminal system.”
Her group opposes any plan to make permanent residents wait longer to apply for citizenship since a lengthy waiting time undermines efforts to integrate newcomers.
“Treating dual citizens differently is discriminatory and violates the fundamental principle that all citizens are equal,” Rico said. “This adds new barriers that are of particular concern for refugees, including an increase in fees.”
Application fees have risen from $300 to $400 each and the age of applicants seeking language testing and other requirements has been raised to 64, from the previous 54.
“Recently there have been increasing barriers to citizenship,” Rico said. “Many changes have an impact on refugees who have suffered persecution and long years of deprivation.”
The Council said another barrier facing applicants is a “very onerous” Residence Questionnaire they are required to fill.
Lorne Waldman, president of The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said his members also have concerns about the pending legislation.
Some 16,000 people were granted Canadian citizenship last month alone, according to government figures, more than doubling the number that took the Oath in January 2013.
Canada has accepted an average of 257,000 newcomers annually since 2006 and Census data shows 86 per cent of eligible permanent residents become citizens.