Opinion

Language requirement for citizenship unnecessary, Reis Pagtakhan writes

Should new immigrants to Canada have to speak English or French?

Immigrants must pass a language test to become Canadian citizens years after they arrive

People take the oath of citizenship at a citizenship ceremony in Vancouver. Language tests should not be imposed on those who want to become Canadian, Reis Pagtakhan says. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Should new immigrants to Canada have to speak English or French? With some exceptions, such as refugees and family immigrants, the government's answer to this question  is yes. However, since our government exempts certain immigrants from being able to speak English or French before they immigrate here, why should we make these immigrants pass a language test years later to become Canadian citizens?

Immigrating to Canada and getting Canadian citizenship are two different things. For immigrants, the main requirement for Canadian citizenship is that the immigrant prove that he or she has lived in Canada for four of the last six years.

Currently, a bill is going before Parliament to decrease the time a person has to be in Canada to become a citizen to three years. This bill will also decrease the age range of immigrants who must pass an English or French language test to qualify for citizenship. Right now, immigrants age 14 to 64 must pass a language test. Should the law change, the age range will shrink to 18 to 54.

The three main arguments for requiring new immigrants to pass a language test before becoming citizens are to ensure that they are employable in Canada, are able to integrate into Canadian society, and are able to settle and live here safely and comfortably.

Laudable goals unmet

While these are laudable goals, testing immigrants for language at the point they apply for citizenship misses one big thing — these immigrants have already been living here for years. As a result, testing for language at this stage will not help in achieving these goals.

Once people immigrate to Canada, they are legally entitled to work, study and live in Canada for the rest of their lives. At no point do they have to be retested for language to maintain their right to live in Canada. Many immigrants come to Canada and never apply for citizenship. If these immigrants are not required to take a language test before immigrating, they can live here without proving any language proficiency.

If knowledge of English or French is so important for employment, integration and settlement, why do we allow some immigrants into Canada without testing them for English or French? Furthermore, why do we let them to stay here without periodically testing them for language?

While periodically testing immigrants for language would probably infringe on their charter rights, there is another practical reason why we should not testing them for language after arrival in Canada — these immigrants will likely improve their English or French in Canada out of their own self-interest to be successful.

Reasons not to test all immigrants

As to why we do not test all immigrants for English or French before allowing them to move here, the reasons are specific.

For refugees, our main goal is to ensure that a person fleeing persecution is protected. Refugees are persons fleeing from a country that cannot or does not want to protect them. Determining whether they can conjugate the verb "to be" is not relevant.

If refugees cannot then become citizens years later because of language tests, we are essentially saying to them that they will have to remain a citizen of the country that refused to protect them or persecuted them. If refugees are chosen to live, study and work in Canada without regard to their language abilities, they should be good enough to become citizens without writing a language test.

Another group of immigrants we let into this country without language tests are family members — spouses, parents and grandparents of Canadians. The reason that we do not require language tests for these individuals is that it is not relevant. If a Canadian falls in love with someone from another country, we should allow them to bring their spouse or partner to Canada. The language they speak is irrelevant.

For parents and grandparents, many of these immigrants will not have to take language tests when applying for citizenship anyway because of the age exemption. When the age range for language testing is reduced, even more will be exempt.

The fact is that most people who live in Canada, whether they are immigrants or individuals born here, will learn English or French. English or French is the language used in virtually all schools and workplaces in Canada. The motivation to speak English or French will not come from a citizenship test requirement, it will come from a person's need to be successful here. The money spent by new Canadians who pay for these tests and the money spent paying government officers to review these test results can be better spent elsewhere.

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