New Canadians know too little about indigenous peoples: Reis Pagtakhan

As federal Liberals shift Canada's immigration policy to admit more refugees and reunite families, it's also time for the system to adopt recommendations from Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes Reis Pagtakhan.

Canada needs to adopt Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations for immigration system

John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship announced Tuesday Canada will seek to admit a record number of immigrants as the Liberal government shifts its focus onto family reunification and the settlement of refugees. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The recent announcement by Immigration Minister John McCallum that the federal government will be changing Canada's citizenship laws fulfills a number of the Liberal government's campaign promises. However, these proposals fail to deliver on one of Prime Minister Trudeau's main promises—to adopt all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that arose from their investigation into Canada's residential schools.

What does Canada's history of residential schools have to do with Canadian citizenship laws? I confess, I did not know of the connection until I read the newsletter of immigration lawyer Ronalee Carey earlier this month.

In her newsletter, Carey points out that the last two recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission call for the federal government to change the Citizenship Oath and to revise the study guide and citizenship test for soon-to-be new Canadians.

The recommended changes call for the inclusion of more information about Canada's treaties with indigenous peoples and the history of residential schools. 

On the Citizenship Oath, the Commission specifically recommends that a new line be added in which new citizens would agree to "faithfully observe the laws of Canada including treaties with indigenous people."

The parts of the Citizenship Oath in which new Canadians swear allegiance to the Queen and agree to fulfil their duties as Canadians would still remain.

If the government is serious about adopting the Commission's recommendations, why has the government not made these changes at this time? I do not see the reason to delay this.

In any event, whatever the government's reason for not making these changes now, the bigger question is: Why are these changes necessary at all?

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I learned very little in school about the treaties made with First Nations. Outside of being taught the British and French defeated the "Indians," the only other thing I learned about our indigenous peoples is that reserves were created.

I certainly did not learn that the treaties with First Nations carried with them ongoing obligations. The Commission's report discusses the "urgent need for more dialogue between Aboriginal peoples and new Canadians."

Now, while there is need for greater understanding among all Canadians, what does this have to do with the Citizenship Oath?

To get down to the reason behind the proposed change to the oath, one only has to look at the study guide soon-to-be citizens receive for their citizenship test. ‎

Unfortunately, many of the questions and answers in the study guide do not truly convey the rights and obligations of Canadians. Questions like—How are members of Parliament chosen? What does the term "Inuit" mean? What is the significance of the discovery of insulin by Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best? What provinces are referred to as the Atlantic provinces?—hardly convey information that is beyond that of trivia.

The fact that these questions are asked in multiple choice format do not add to any sense that Canadian citizenship is serious business. Becoming a citizen of this country should be serious business. Canadian citizenship conveys not only rights and freedoms but obligations to be good citizens.

Instead of requiring soon-to-be Canadians to write a test that is nothing more than an elongated game of Trivial Pursuit (a game invented by Canadians by the way), a better solution would be to use the time spent sitting in the test room discussing the importance of being a Canadian.

Instead of testing people on how members of Parliament are chosen, let's use that time to discuss with them the importance of parliamentary democracy.

Instead of defining the term "Inuit," let's talk about the Inuit's past and present contributions to Canada.

Instead of telling people that the discovery of insulin treats diabetes, let's talk about the importance of Canadian scientific discoveries and how the Canada of today can foster innovation.

Instead of simply indicating that treaties with indigenous Canadians "were not always respected" as is the case in the current study guide—let's talk about why these treaties were not respected, the issues created by not respecting them, the challenges these issues pose to our society, and the opportunities we have together in the future.

The purpose of our immigration system is to attract the best and brightest from around the world to be our citizens. We should give the best and brightest the ability to make critical decisions about Canada, not drown them in reams of trivia.

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