Bill C-24 and the politics of citizenship

Exploiting identity politics is a mainstay in Conservative political gamesmanship, but of all the posturing and promises, it's the aforementioned Bill C-24 that affects Canadians' fundamental rights in the most tangible way, writes Steven Zhou.

Revoking citizenship affects Canadians' fundamental rights in most tangible way, writes Steven Zhou

Zakaria Amara was sentenced to life in prison for his role in a bomb plot against the Toronto Stock Exchange and other high-profile targets. His citizenship has already been revoked. (Associated Press/Reuters)

It's clear by now that each major Canadian political party's efforts to galvanize its base is inversely proportional to the number of days left in the election. The Liberals and New Democrats each have their own way of ratcheting up the rhetoric, but it's the Conservative Party that has taken this tendency to the extreme.

While attaining a narrow lead in several national polls, Harper's Conservatives have successfully exploited the wedge issue of the niqab, promised to establish a tip line for reporting "barbaric cultural practices" to the RCMP, and has revoked the citizenship of convicted terrorist Zakaria Amara as per Bill C-24, which came into effect this past summer.

Exploiting identity politics is a mainstay in Tory political gamesmanship, but of all the posturing and promises, it's the aforementioned Bill C-24 that affects Canadians' fundamental rights in the most tangible way.

Provisions within the bill, otherwise known as the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, expand grounds for stripping the citizenship of Canadians who possesses dual citizenship and have been convicted of committing acts of terrorism.

This is of course a first for Canada, which, until Stephen Harper, has refrained from practices along with most other Western democracies. France has a similar process of stripping the citizenship of convicted terrorists, but the measure has only been used eight times since 1973. Even the U.S., which leads the post-9/11 world in the continuing "war on terror," hasn't gone as far as Canada in this area.

2 tiers of citizenship

Critics who claim that the bill creates two tiers of citizenship refer to Bill C-24's highly controversial distinction between "born" Canadians and those with dual nationality.

The bill targets only those who have dual citizenship because it cannot strip anyone who would otherwise become stateless. Still, this separation of one group within the citizenry from another creates an inequality among the population with respect to the law. If one set of laws is good enough for single citizens who commit criminal acts, it should also be good enough for dual citizens as well.

Instead, the government has repeatedly referred to citizenship as a "privilege" that can be taken away. The very idea that a political party can unilaterally decide what kind of "bad behaviour" is bad enough to strip a Canadian's citizenship is problematic in and of itself.

A reasonable debate can be had when it comes to deciding whether to strip, say, a civil servant divulging state secrets or someone who joins an opposing country's military in times of war, but the addition of "acts of terrorism" to the list of offences by the Conservatives is a highly politicized one.

Targeting the Muslim community

It's evidence that the Tories are aiming this new measure at a specific segment of the Canadian citizenry, a segment that has been portrayed to the Canadian public as being particularly prone to radicalization and terrorism.

This is, of course, the Muslim community, which has become a post-9/11 bogeyman thanks to Stephen Harper's rhetoric.

Bill C-24 refers to "terrorism," a highly ill-defined word, as one of the factors that can lead to revocation. It doesn't use the terms murder, or organized crime, or anything else. So when defenders of the bill come out and say that C-24 reminds Canadians to stick to Canadian values, are they excluding serial murders and violent gangsters from the group of guilty people who need to be reminded that their citizenship represents a certain set of values which they should all embody?

Zakaria Amara was convicted for participating in an unsuccessful bomb plot. He had his citizenship revoked. So what about someone like Karla Homolka, a serial killer who helped Paul Bernardo drug, rape, and murder her own sister? Do her actions not infringe upon what it means to be Canadian? Shouldn't she also have her citizenship revoked?

The fact is that citizenship is the means by which a state can provide its people with rights that every human being deserves.

Statehood and citizenship should protect people from having their inalienable rights infringed upon. Those without a country are without a means to this protection, and even a criminal can't necessarily have all his/her rights stripped. Nor are all citizenships equal, since some countries have terrible track records when it comes to protecting people's rights.

Stripping someone of Canadian citizenship is essentially the stripping away of that person's rights as enshrined in Canada's founding documents. With Bill C-24, Canada has loosened itself from such a responsibility, acting less like a liberal democracy and more like a pale imitation of the Soviet Union.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist and writer.