As a 'matter of principle,' convicted terrorists are fellow citizens

Liberal minister John McCallum knew he had a tough sell when he moved to repeal the Conservative law stripping citizenship from convicted terrorists, Chris Hall writes. But "a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian."

Repealing Conservative law rekindles debate over whether citizenship is right or privilege

Immigration Minister John McCallum says "a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian." Of course, not everyone agrees: the usual divide is whether citizenship is a right or a privilege. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Immigration Minister John McCallum knew he had a tough sell Thursday when he introduced legislation to repeal the Conservative law that stripped Canadian citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism-related offences.

A tough sell because, while the Liberals promised to do exactly this in the 2015 election campaign — to strong approval from lawyers, civil rights activists and, let's face it, voters — the change will restore the citizenship of only one person.

Zakaria Amara is the Islamic extremist and ringleader of the Toronto 18 plotters who were charged in 2006 with planning to detonate a truck bomb in downtown Toronto, storm Parliament Hill and behead the prime minister.

Convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison, he's eligible for parole this year, although his release, given the crimes, is unlikely.

Amara is quite possibly the least attractive poster boy for what McCallum described as a "matter of principle" in eliminating the ability of government to strip a person of being a Canadian because they are convicted of a heinous offence and just happen to hold the citizenship of another country.

"A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian," McCallum told reporters after tabling Bill C-6 in the Commons.

That memorable line was no spur-of-the-moment creation. It's what the media and politicians call a sound bite first used, in this case, by Justin Trudeau to great effect against Stephen Harper during the leaders' debate on foreign policy in the last election campaign.

McCallum used the line more than once when quizzed about the optics of giving citizenship back to someone like Amara.

"It is our profound belief that there should be one class of Canadian, not two classes of Canadian," he said.

'Forfeited his own citizenship'

But McCallum didn't just stand on principle in torpedoing legislation the Conservatives called the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act.

He employed some ordinary, everyday rhetoric to skewer the previous government's actions.

He called revoking citizenship for committing a crime "egregious." And he described another section of the act brought in by the Conservatives — removing a residency time credit for international students who want to remain in Canada after their studies — as "stupid."

But principle, alone, doesn't necessarily make for good politics.

When Amara's citizenship was revoked — in mid-campaign last year — Jason Kenney, the former Conservative immigration minister, tweeted: "This man hated Canada so much, he planned on murdering hundreds of Canadians. He forfeited his own citizenship."

On Thursday, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel picked up the thread, noting the first piece of legislation McCallum has introduced would make Amara a citizen again.

Rempel says legislation was to protect Canadians

6 years ago
Duration 3:29
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel says she's disappointed the governments plans to undo her party's changes to the Citizenship Act.

"Make no mistake. This bill is a win for Zakaria Amara and not many Canadians." Rempel said. "A lot of Canadians will question the government's judgment with the decision made today." 

Political football

McCallum is conceding nothing, though he admitted in an interview with CBC's Power and Politics that the optics might be less than ideal

"My life might be a little simpler if there wasn't this one person out there. But the fact is, there is. So I am comfortable adhering to the point of principle that this applies across the board," he said.

McCallum insists the courts and correctional system are the appropriate way to deal with any Canadian convicted of a criminal offence. Though his proposed legislation still allows the government to strip the citizenship of anyone who became a Canadian using fraudulent means.

There is no quibble there from the Conservatives. Their focus remains squarely on Amara, and his good fortune at getting to regain his citizenship despite scheming about mass murder.

What Rempel didn't mention, of course, is that the Conservatives used Amara for their own political purposes in the last campaign, announcing the decision to revoke his citizenship in the days leading up to that leaders' debate on foreign policy in Toronto.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair responded at the time by accusing Conservatives and party leader Stephen Harper of "strutting his stuff for his right-wing base."

And there's some truth to that. With the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, the Conservatives successfully blended their law and order agenda with protecting what they called the values conferred with Canadian citizenship.

Still, other governments are taking similar paths to what Canada's Conservatives did.

Following the Paris attacks last November, France's political elite is currently enmeshed in a heated debate over whether to revoke the French citizenship of convicted terrorists with dual nationality, while the U.K. has stripped almost 40 people of British citizenship in the last half-dozen years, including some born in the country.

Christiane Taubira, France's former justice minister, resigned in January in opposition to the government's proposed legislation to revoke the citizenship of convicted terrorists with dual nationality. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

Rempel sought Thursday to reinforce that mix of public safety and values.

"Let's talk principles. There are many things that unite us as Canadians. One of those is a deep respect and a deep value for Canadian citizenship," she said.

"And I think the minister would be very challenged to say that the end result of this policy is a safer Canada."

Of course, the end result is far from clear. For now, and the foreseeable future, Amara remains in jail. Bill C-6 remains a long way from becoming law.

But the debate over the rights and privileges of Canadian citizenship is officially under way.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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