Most Canadians feel immigrants are just as likely to be good citizens as people who were born here, a recent Environics Institute survey suggests.

Canadians also don't appear to have problems with dual citizenship or with Canadian citizens living abroad, according to the telephone survey, which the Environics Institute says is the first poll to directly ask Canadians their views on citizenship.

A group made up of five national organizations – CBC, the Environics Institute, Maytree, The Institute for Canadian Citizenship and the RBC Foundation – commissioned the public opinion poll, which asked over 2,000 Canadians what they think are the characteristics of a good citizen and other questions about citizenship.

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Armenian-Canadian Sara Jhangiryan became a citizen last year and says giving back to the country that let her in is an important part of her idea of citizenship. (Roma Andrusiak/CBC)

"To be a good citizen, it means to contribute to the society, to obey the laws of the country, to help other citizens, to volunteer, and it's a rewarding feeling when you do all those things," said Sara Jhangiryan, an Armenian-born resident of Toronto who became a Canadian citizen last year.

"It's not only to take what the country offers but to give back, as well."

Although she did not take part in the survey, Jhangiryan echoes the views of many of those who responded to the poll.

When asked what makes a good citizen, the top five responses were: obeying laws, actively participating in the community, helping other people, being tolerant of others and sharing or adopting Canadian values.

But when asked to list what they did to be good citizens, respondents cited volunteer work, being kind/generous to others, paying taxes, obeying laws and voting.

The survey suggests Canadians have a broad, inclusive view of citizenship and see immigrants as their equals: nearly 9 out of every 10 respondents agreed that a person born outside Canada is just as likely to be a good citizen as someone born here.

"There's no real evidence of people feeling threatened or a sense that, 'Well, people can come live here from other countries, but they're not quite the same,'" said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute.

Policies, profits help integration

When it comes to immigration and citizenship, the views of the majority of Canadians born in the country and the 20 per cent born outside it are largely aligned. Canadian-born and foreign-born respondents were equally likely to feel fully like citizens (78 per cent versus 75 per cent).

Usha George, dean of Ryerson University's Faculty of Community Services, says the survey's findings confirm a lot of what those working with new Canadians know already.

The willingness of Canadians to not view a person's foreign background as an impediment to citizenship is a product of the country's multicultural policies and the visible effect of immigrants on the economy, George said.

Integration of immigrants has worked in Canada because the government has funded programs that teach immigrants about Canadian values and society has adapted its institutions to accommodate diversity.

"The mutual recognition that we should be respectful to each other and celebrate diversity in a genuine way, those values permeate the whole society," said George, whose faculty trains many of those who provide social and other services to new immigrants.

Gender equality, obeying laws important to citizenship

Whatever Canada is doing, it seems to be positively influencing immigrants' views of the country, the survey suggests: 88 per cent of respondents who were born outside Canada said they were very proud to be Canadian, compared with 81 per cent of those born here.

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Vikram Kewalramani immigrated to Canada from India in 2006 and is now a Canadian citizen living in Toronto. (Roma Andrusiak/CBC)

"Canadians who were not born in Canada are more proud than naturally born Canadians simply because we had the choice of being Canadian," said Vikram Kewalramani, who immigrated to Canada in 2006 from India. "It wasn't something that, literally, was a birthright. We consider it a privilege."

For Amal Ibrahim, a Palestinian who became a citizen last year along with her two children, Canadian citizenship is primarily about respecting differences.

"It's a great diverse culture where people learn how to live in harmony with each other while they have different ideas, different religions and different backgrounds," she said.

Tolerance of others who are different was among the top five behaviours survey respondents considered a "very important" part of being a good citizen. Others were:

  • Treating men and women equally (95 per cent ranked this "very important").
  • Following Canada's laws (89 per cent).
  • Voting in elections (82 per cent – the same as tolerance of others).
  • Protecting the environment (80 per cent).

Immigrants' views of what makes a good citizen were strikingly similar to those of native-born Canadians, said Neuman. In the majority of cases, the responses of the two groups varied at most by only a few percentage points.

"People might think … that newcomers are coming [into]

this country … with their own sense of what it means to be a citizen, and they don't really buy into the same perspective that native-born Canadians have," he said.

"And this research pretty clearly suggests that they're largely the same perspective, and the more somebody is in this country, the more immigrants buy into the native-born view."

Canadians are generally satisfied with the rules for obtaining citizenship, the survey suggests. Only 26 per cent of respondents said the rules were not strict enough. Six per cent felt the rules were too strict, though that number tripled for permanent residents.

Regional differences

The survey revealed some regional differences in which behaviours Canadians consider "very important" to good citizenship. Read how Canada compares East to West.

Canada's willingness to allow multiple citizenships also got broad approval in the survey: 71 per cent of those surveyed felt Canadians should be allowed to hold dual citizenship.

That sentiment was even higher among 18- to 44-year-olds, with 80 per cent supporting dual citizenship, but lower for those 60 and over, at 58 per cent.

"I am equally proud of both citizenships," said Natasha Nikolovska-Angelova, 32, who became a Canadian citizen last April. "Macedonia is more like my mother … the country where I was raised, and Canada is the country I chose to live in. It's like the spouse you choose.… It's the country of my future."

Nikolovska-Angelova is part of the roughly 2.8 per cent of Canadians who hold at least one other citizenship.

Most of those surveyed also didn't have a problem with Canadians living abroad. Sixty-six per cent of respondents who were born in Canada said it was generally a good thing to allow Canadian citizens to live abroad, compared to 55 per cent of respondents born outside of Canada.

The survey of 2,376 adults was conducted between Nov.18 and Dec. 17 and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points 19 times out of 20 (+/- 4.3 percentage points for the foreign-born subsample group). Only households with landlines were surveyed.  

With files from Roma Andrusiak, Sujata Berry