Canadian citizenship rules face broad reform in 2014

The federal government will introduce sweeping changes to Canada's citizenship rules during the upcoming session of Parliament, but will hold off on tackling the issue of "birth tourism" or "passport babies," at least until a solution is clear, says Citizenship and immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

Chris Alexander says problem of 'birth tourism' will not be addressed in Citizenship Act reform

Chris Alexander was sworn in as the minister of citizenship and immigration in July 2013. Alexander is poised to introduce changes to the Citizenship Act during this upcoming session of Parliament. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government will introduce several changes to Canada's citizenship rules after members of Parliament return to Ottawa next Monday following a six-week hiatus, says Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, Alexander said the government will table a bill in the next session of Parliament that will see "the first comprehensive reform to the Citizenship Act in more than a generation​."

While the rule changes will be significant, Alexander said the government won't touch the issue of whether Canada ought to continue granting citizenship just because a person is born here — at least not right away.

Alexander said the government is considering changes to target the problem of so-called "birth tourism" or "passport babies," but hasn't quite figured out the best way to go about it.

"It's too soon to tell what vehicle we will choose for doing that. It involves the provinces because births take place in provincial medical systems and we want to get the solution right with our provincial partners," Alexander said.

"I would expect action on that front this year but not necessarily as soon as the Citizenship Act."

Giving and revoking citizenship

Alexander said the reform will aim to give Canadian citizenship to "Lost Canadians" who had seen it denied from them for one reason or another over the years.

"We want to make sure that those loopholes that have done great injustice to a few people for all of those decades are closed, and that Canadian citizenship embraces all of those it should have embraced from the beginning."

"Some are children of war brides, some have other complicated circumstances which should never have barred them from citizenship, and we have to fix the legislation," the minister said.

Alexander said the new rules will also give the Canadian government the ability to strip a person of citizenship in exceptional circumstances, such as in cases of "treason" or "acts of terrorism."

The issue came to light almost one year ago after it was confirmed that a Lebanese-Canadian was involved in the 2012 bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.

"We need to be able to take citizenship away from dual nationals in extreme cases, where they've crossed a line that I think all Canadians will agree are grounds for that kind of move."

Alexander said he is working closely with Conservative backbench MP Devinder Shory, who has already introduced a private member's bill to​ amend the Citizenship Act, in order to avoid overlap.

"We are working together to move the provisions in his bill sooner rather than later."

Shorter wait times, longer to qualify

Under the proposed changes to the Citizenship Act, immigrants may have to wait longer before they qualify for Canadian citizenship, but once they apply the government hopes their applications will be processed more quickly.

Alexander said the upcoming legislation will target the current backlog of citizenship applications.

The current processing time — for 80 per cent of citizenship applications processed between Oct.1, 2011, and Sept. 30, 2012 — is two to three years.

"We want to give ourselves the tools to deal with the backlog we have.… We are victims of our own success. More people apply for citizenship than we ever expected," Alexander said.

To be eligible for Canadian citizenship, permanent residents must have lived in the country for three out of the four years preceding their application.

Alexander said the conditions for eligibility will also change.

"That means making sure that people who are becoming citizens have really lived here, and have lived here for enough time to really understand what citizenship is about, what the country is about."

The reform will also set out to crack down on so-called "citizens of convenience."

"There will be a few measures in the Citizenship Act to make sure that we're not open to abuse.… I think all Canadians would agree, there's no room for cheating in this process."

Open to changes, but wary of reform

The opposition critics reached by CBC News on Thursday were unaware of the details being proposed by the Conservatives in their upcoming overhaul of Canadian citizenship rules.

NDP citizenship and immigration critic Lysanne Blanchette-Lamothe said she welcomed the idea of modernizing the Citizenship Act, but was wary of the government's ability to revamp the legislation given the Conservatives' track record with other immigration programs. 

"Yes, we need a lot of changes to improve our system but … with the mess they created with the temporary foreign worker program or the obstacles they put with the family reunification for parents and grandparents program, we have no trust that those changes will really address the concern of people who use the system," Blanchette-Lamothe said.

Liberal MP John McCallum, who is the party's immigration and citizenship critic, said it was difficult to comment on a bill he had yet to see.

Although reducing the wait times for citizenship applications is a desirable goal, McCallum said, it is possible the Conservatives will go about it the wrong way, just as they did in 2012 when they stopped accepting applications for the federal skilled worker program.

"They solved that with the stroke of a pen by cancelling thousands of applications. That's one way to get rid of the backlog, you just cancel the people who are in it."

"If that's what they're doing for citizens, I would not agree. But if they have some administrative method to speed things up, I would agree.… I would like to see citizenship applications proceed faster," McCallum said.

The government vowed to reform the Citizenship Act during its speech from the throne last October.

A federal budget could come as early as February.


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