Virtual citizenship ceremonies coming for new Canadians whose dreams were crushed by COVID-19
Citizenship events, tests were put on hold due to global pandemic and physical distancing rules
Citizenship tests and ceremonies have been cancelled for more than two months because of the global pandemic — but newcomers could soon be taking their oaths online through virtual citizenship events.
On March 14, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it would cancel the ceremonies "until further notice."
Dhiti Nanavati has been working hard for years to reach her "life goal" of becoming a Canadian citizen. The Toronto-based software company marketing manager said she was deeply disappointed when her scheduled March 27 ceremony was called off.
"I was really looking forward to becoming a Canadian citizen and not knowing when the oath ceremony will take place is naturally very distressing," she said.
"A lot of personal sacrifices have gone into making this a reality and the uncertainty about the ceremony is unsettling. It's like you're almost at the finish line of a race, only to be told you have stop because the race is cancelled."
She said she would welcome an online option. She may soon get one.
In a statement to CBC, the department said the citizenship ceremony represents "the culmination of years of hard work for new Canadians and their families." It said it will begin scheduling virtual ceremonies, starting with those who already had ceremonies scheduled and have a pressing need for Canadian citizenship.
"IRCC will then work to implement virtual citizenship ceremonies for other cases as quickly as possible," it said.
Since the pandemic hit, IRCC has considered granting citizenship only in exceptional cases, to people who need it for employment or essential travel.
Last month, University of Manitoba researcher Adolf Ng, who is working on a study related to supply chain management issues during the pandemic, became the first person to be awarded Canadian citizenship through a virtual ceremony.
The government says it's working out a way to administer the ceremonies that protects the integrity of the legal process and also reflects the significance of the occasion. No firm timeframe has been established.
Andrew Griffith — author, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former senior immigration official — said that in a pandemic climate, virtual ceremonies are probably the most efficient and practical way to avoid a growing backlog of citizenship cases. No one who has paid the fees and passed the tests should be forced to wait, he said.
But Griffith said something will be lost in the translation from an in-person ceremony to an online one.
"I think there's something particularly special about when the group of 30 or 40, or however many there are, actually sit down together, look around the room and see the diversity of the people who are applying for Canadian citizenship and take the oath as a group," he said.
Typically, a person takes the solemn oath before a citizenship judge or official, usually in a group setting. Taking the oath of citizenship is the final legal requirement that applicants older than 14 years old must meet to become Canadian citizens.
A sense of security
"It gives you that security," Griffith said, adding that a sense of security "is pretty valuable, given the state of the world right now."
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Zool Suleman said those who have "gone through all the hoops" to become a Canadian should be granted citizenship, even during a pandemic.
Despite global travel restrictions, some people may still need to obtain passports quickly for essential work or other types of travel, he said. Others, he said, might have other reasons for not wanting to wait to obtain their citizenship — tax reasons, for example, or a wish to relinquish citizenship in another country.
"There could be financial reasons, or purely political or social reasons," he said.
Suleman agrees that the communal experience of becoming a Canadian is precious, but he predicts people will find their own ways to mark the special day.
"Legally, it will all be the same," he said.
Once people get to the point of taking the oath at a citizenship ceremony, they've already checked off a number of other requirements regarding residency and language. They've also passed a test on Canadian history and values and paid fees of $630 each.
Stuck in limbo
Citizenship comes with the right to vote and apply for a Canadian passport. Some jobs, including employment with the Canadian Armed Forces, require citizenship.
Last year, nearly 250,000 people became Canadian citizens.
Yasir Naqvi, chief executive officer of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, said that final step of taking the oath provides a profound sense of belonging. It's also a way for people to express affection for their adopted home, he said.
"They understand why the process is halted at the moment, but at the moment the delay is a source of anxiety because they want to become Canadian citizens and move on with the next chapter of their life as a Canadian," Naqvi said.
Soran Kareem of Hamilton, Ont. arrived as a refugee from the Kurdistan region of Iraq five years ago.
He said 2020 was shaping up to be a joyous year: his college studies were wrapping up, his son was learning to walk and he and his wife were on their way to becoming Canadian citizens.
They filed their applications in October 2019 but are now in limbo due to delays caused by the pandemic.
"We have been living in stress and uncertainty because we do not know when we can do the test and the ceremony," he said.
"My wife and I have a lot of stress and worry about this situation because we have many plans (for) when we get the citizenship, especially for studying and moving to another city. We cannot do anything because we do not want to change our address. That could make the citizenship process longer."
Kareem said allowing people to go through the citizenship process online could put to rest many of those concerns.
Parvinder Singh of Toronto took his test on March 10 and hasn't heard anything since. He said he understands the unprecedented situation officials are dealing with but hopes the government will act fast to help those waiting for citizenship.
"It's a long process and just coming on to the last point and finding yourself stuck is frustrating," he said.