Canadian citizenship should have 2 tiers, Reis Pagtakhan says

There is nothing wrong with having one tier of Canadian citizenship for those convicted of terrorism, spying and treason, and one tier for every other citizen, Reis Pagtakhan says.

Nothing wrong with taking citizenship away from those convicted of treason, espionage, terrorism, lawyer says

Mohammed Fahmy appears in a defendant's cage during a trial on terror charges in Cairo, Egypt, in May 2014. His case highlights the flaws in current legislation, Reis Pagtakhan says. (Hamada Elrasam/The Associated Press)

A bill that erases many of the changes the previous government made to Canadian citizenship laws is being considered in the House of Commons this month. While some of the changes tabled by Immigration Minister John McCallum are good, the change that has received the biggest headlines — the proposal to eliminate the government's ability to revoke the Canadian citizenship of those convicted of treason, spying or terrorism — should be amended as opposed to totally eliminated.

Under the current law, dual citizens convicted of treason, espionage and terrorism can have their citizenship taken away in select circumstances. While this creates two tiers of citizens, there is nothing wrong with having one tier for those convicted of terrorism, spying and treason and one tier for every other citizen.

Individuals convicted of treason, espionage and terrorism are not committing petty crimes. These are crimes against innocent Canadians and Canada's interests at home and abroad, designed to undercut our society and overthrow our government. There is nothing wrong with taking Canadian citizenship away from these criminals.

Now, while revoking the citizenship of these criminals is reasonable, Mr. McCallum is correct to point out that the real focus of the law should be to put these people behind bars. Citizenship revocation should not be used if the end result is that a convicted terrorist would be allowed to go free and continue terrorizing innocent civilians in other parts of the world.

While Canada should retain its ability to revoke citizenship of criminals convicted of these offences, the law, as it currently stands, has multiple problems that need changing.

Under the law, Canadian citizenship can be revoked from Canadians convicted of terrorism outside of Canada. The problem that this creates first arose when Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was convicted of terrorism in Egypt.

Only for Canadian convictions

When Fahmy was first convicted on these charges, the Canadian government criticized the Egyptian court process as unfair and quickly assured Canadians and Fahmy that his citizenship would not be taken away. However, by quickly assuring Fahmy that he would not lose his citizenship, the government exposed one fatal flaw in its legislation — exactly what sort of foreign conviction would result in Canadian citizenship being revoked and how would the Canadian government decide who gets to retain citizenship?

Because it is impossible to ensure that Canadians tried abroad are provided with all the protections of Canadian law, including our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, citizenship revocation for terrorism should occur only if a citizen is convicted in Canada.

The other problem with the current law is that the minimum sentence that could lead to citizenship revocation is too short. Currently, a person sentenced to five years in jail for terrorism can have citizenship revoked. While five years in jail is not inconsequential, if a judge gives a convicted terrorist five years in jail as opposed to life in prison, this is because there is an assessment that the offence is less serious.

While the government should retain the ability to revoke citizenship in very select cases, revocation of citizenship should not occur automatically. Canadians should be given the ability to prove that they have changed their ways in order to retain their citizenship. One of the best examples of a person who became a statesman after being initially branded as a terrorist was former Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Now, while most terrorists will not follow in the footsteps of Mandela, the opportunity to do so should be provided. Should terrorists not choose this path, revocation of citizenship should quickly follow.

Some of McCallum's other proposed changes to citizenship laws are welcome — such as the proposal to eliminate the requirement that new citizens sign an intention to reside in Canada. While there is nothing wrong with wanting Canadians to live in Canada, many Canadians contribute to Canada on the world stage. As well, asking Canadians to reside in Canada when the government continues to work on free trade agreements that give preferential treatment to Canadian citizens who work abroad is hypocritical. We cannot negotiate free trade agreements that allow Canadian citizens to work abroad while telling these same citizens they must live here.

Finally, the proposal to allow temporary residents to count days they live in Canada before becoming permanent residents toward citizenship is good. Foreign nationals who study here and work here should get some credit for their contributions to society as foreign workers and foreign students. However, this time credit should not extend to tourists. While it is important to promote tourism, foreigners here merely for a vacation should not get credit toward Canadian citizenship.

Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer with Aikins Law in Winnipeg.