Chris Hall: The slippery slope of revoking citizenship

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney talked this week about stripping dual citizens of their Canadian status if they are convicted of a terror act abroad. Good politics, but is it good policy to have two classes of citizens, Chris Hall asks.
Should new Canadians have fewer rights than those who were born here? (Canadian press)

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was accused this week of making policy on the fly when he told reporters the government would look into stripping dual citizens of their Canadian status if convicted of terrorist acts in other countries.

He wasn't.

The comments were a calculated political response from the minister, timed to coincide with the news out of Bulgaria that an unnamed Lebanese-Canadian is a suspect in the tour bus bombing that killed six people, including five Israeli tourists, last summer.

For the Conservatives, good politics is often synonymous with good policy.

And the politics of this is hard to ignore.

Kenney successfully blended the Conservatives law and order agenda with a defence of what the government likes to call the values conferred with Canadian citizenship.

His comments dovetailed perfectly with two Conservative measures: Wednesday's vote in the Commons approving Bill C-43, legislation Kenney sponsored to make it easier for Canada to kick out foreign criminals; and a private member's bill brought by Conservative MP Devinder Shory that would, if passed, allow Canada to remove the citizenship of dual nationals if they commit acts of war against Canadian troops.

Kenney is open to expanding Shory's bill to include acts of terrorism against a foreign country, a move the government believes will meet the approval of most Canadians.

The basis of citizenship

"Citizenship is based on a sense of loyalty to Canada,'' Kenney told CBC TV's Power and Politics on Wednesday. ''If you violently express your disloyalty, maybe we should take a hint and regard that as a de facto renunciation of your citizenship.''

Kenney says many other countries have laws that identify acts of warfare, or treason against an individual's home country, as grounds to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney: Citizenship has its privileges. (Canadian Press)

Britain gave itself wide-ranging authority to revoke the British citizenship of dual nationals in the wake of the 2005 subway bombings in London, if it is felt to be for the public good.

Canada doesn't have that power. (Nor does the U.S., unless citizenship was acquired by fraud.) And opponents say there are important policy reasons for that.

One is that the Shory bill, should it pass, would create two tiers of citizenship and so provide greater protection to people born in this country than those who choose to come here and become citizens.

Another is that the proposed changes would recognize only the privileges of becoming a naturalized citizen (like travelling on a Canadian passport, and having the opportunity to vote), and would not be a right that no government could take away.

As well, opponents argue that the two-tier approach violates Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees that every Canadian is entitled to equal treatment under the law.

Loosely defined

Peter Showler, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, also makes the point that terrorism is one of the most loosely defined terms in international law, subject to different interpretations all over the world.

Just as important, he maintains, citizenship conveys the same rights and obligations on everyone in a nation.

"Canadian citizenship is precious. If a person is a naturalized Canadian, it means they can count on being Canadian,'' he says.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae called Kenney's plans knee jerk.

"If the government says we want a complete review of dual citizenship, let's have that review. But let's not do policy on the fly.''

But it's not policy on the fly.

Conservative insiders say every bill put forward by Conservative backbenchers are all vetted by ministerial offices, and do not proceed without a sign off.

That process was followed in the case of Shory's private member's bill. Kenney's office was fully aware, and involved.

Kenny indicated as much, when he said the government supports Shory's bill, and wants to amend it to include acts of terror.

In fact, the idea of stripping dual citizens of their Canadian status is a natural progression of the recent rules to prevent the fraudulent use of Canadian passports, and so-called citizenship of convenience.

That was the term coined by the Conservatives after the government paid to evacuate thousands of Canadian citizens from war-torn Lebanon in 2006, many of whom had not lived in this country for years.

Kenney has introduced measures to crack down on immigration fraud and marriages of convenience, as well as ones, in 2009, that eliminated automatic Canadian citizenship for children born abroad to naturalized Canadian parents.

Concerns were raised then, too, about the constitutionality of the move.

Now, as then, the government is showing a willingness to proceed despite those concerns, arguing that these measures enjoy the broad support of Canadians.

And that's the challenge ahead for political opponents of Shory's bill, and for those who object to the idea that certain types of citizens can be stripped of their status.

They'll have to convince Canadians that good policy outweighs good politics.

And that the Conservatives' political self-interest, in extending their law-and-order agenda to citizenship, is inconsistent with what's in the best interests of Canada.