Citizenship applicants call on Ottawa to resume knowledge tests halted due to COVID-19

Applicants for Canadian citizenship say they are trapped in "limbo" as the federal government has indicated no plans to resume the citizenship knowledge tests required of prospective citizens.

Citizenship tests and in-person ceremonies have been on hold since March 14

From left to right, Shahd Alshamaly, Sedra Alshamaly, Nour Albaaor and Ahmad Alshamaly. Permanent residents since 2016, they say the federal government has not updated their citizenship application for more than a year. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

After spending the prime years of her childhood fleeing conflict and living as a refugee in Turkey, Sedra Alshamaly describes her arrival in Canada four years ago with warmth and gratitude.

"It's the first place we felt welcomed," said Sedra, now 12. "We felt like we belonged here."

Sedra and her family arrived in Canada in 2016 after a circuitous journey sparked by the Syrian civil war. Today, she describes herself as a more-or-less ordinary Canadian Grade 7 student and a budding artist.

But she also lives with a nagging worry about her family's status in their adopted home.

"It's been very stressful because we're just lost," she told CBC Toronto. "We just want to wake up from a long dream realizing that we're finally Canadian citizens."

Like many Syrian refugees who recently arrived in Canada, Sedra and her family are permanent residents on a path to becoming full citizens. That process has been indefinitely delayed since March 14, when the Canadian government cancelled all citizenship tests due to the emerging novel coronavirus pandemic.

Citizenship applicants say the federal government should move knowledge tests online until the pandemic ends. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

The 20-question test covers Canadian culture and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. It is a requirement for all prospective citizens aged 18 to 54.

Sedra's parents applied for citizenship more than a year ago and are eagerly awaiting an appointment to take the test. But so far, they have no indication of when that might happen.

"What is going on, what is the next step?" asked an exasperated Ahmad Alshamaly, Sedra's father.

'Our lives are in limbo'

The Alshamaly family was among about a dozen people who took part in a Sunday rally at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto demanding the tests be reinstated. Some held signs asking Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, "did you forget about us?"

Other permanent residents tell similar stories of long wait times with little to no information about the status of their applications.

"It's been 16 months and I'm still waiting for any kind of reply," said Rajesh Kalwa, a software developer who came to Canada from India in 2012 and has been a permanent resident since 2017.

Kalwa and his wife have an 11-month-old daughter and had been hoping to travel to India to see his parents. He says that trip is on hold since he fears that being out of the country when tests resume could further delay his application.

"Right now, our lives are in limbo," he said.

In-person citizenship ceremonies have also been suspended since March, though the federal government is offering virtual ceremonies. (Stephen Lubig/CBC)

Ottawa will consider online tests, but doesn't say when they could begin

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has promised to provide citizenship applicants with information about future test dates "as soon as possible," though the government has said it cannot provide accurate processing times, since it is still prioritizing helping Canadians trying to return to the country from overseas.

Ottawa says it can process urgent citizenship applications in what it calls "special cases," though the criteria for that process are not clearly defined.

Other in-person citizenship events, including ceremonies, have also been indefinitely postponed since March.

A spokesperson for the IRCC told CBC News in September that it was "considering options for resumption of services, which could include online citizenship tests." Others immigration experts have raised concerns about the integrity of online tests.

But with no immediate end to the pandemic in sight, people waiting for their applications to be processed say the government should resume testing in some form, whether by adopting physical distancing measures or by moving the tests online.

Australia resumed in-person citizenship tests in June "in accordance with health guidelines" after suspending them earlier this year.

Kalwa said the global pivot toward online and remote communication at schools and workplaces during the pandemic shows that online tests should be possible.

"If a university or a college can move from a classroom culture to an online culture, and they can entirely adapt … why can't the government conduct a citizenship examination online?" 

With files from Kelda Yuen