Citizenship and Immigration Minister Christopher Alexander tread a fine line between sympathy and sticking to government script when speaking about the overhaul to citizenship law proposed by the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act.
Speaking at the Sutton Hotel ballroom on Tuesday at an event hosted by the Canadian Club of Vancouver, Alexander spoke about the injustice suffered by Lost Canadians:
legitimate Canadians whose citizenship was removed due to archaic and often blatantly discriminatory provisions of past laws. While the majority of Lost Canadian cases were resolved in 2009, it continued to exclude people born before 1947, as well as creating a whole new category of stateless children born abroad.
A provision of the new bill would finally restore citizenship to Lost Canadians
born before 1947 as well as their first-generation born abroad, but the government has steadfastly maintained that Canadian citizenship itself never existed prior to that year.
Don Chapman, a citizenship advocate who has become a driving force for fixing citizenship laws, states that the government is wrong on the issue.
"The government doesn't know its own history and laws," he said. "Was there some kind of citizenship supernova in Canada in 1947? Of course not."
Alexander said there was no Citizenship Act prior to 1947, hence there was "no legal concept of citizenship", even if the term itself was mentioned (in Supreme Court cases involving the deportation of Japanese Canadians, for example) going back to the first quarter of the 20th century.
When the Vancouver Observer pressed the Minister to clarify whether citizens existed before then, regardless of whether the Act was in place, he acknowledged:
"Yes, it did, but citizenship was not globally recognized for all Canadians, and 1947 was the first time was the first time we tried to make all those people formally Canadian citizens."
As for why the federal government continued to deny that soldiers who fought in the First and Second World War were citizens, Alexander said government at the time had tried to grant them citizenship, but that there were certain gaps in the law which successive governments have tried to fix. Chapman and other advocates have pushed for recognition of Canada's war dead, especially because in the case of Chinese Canadian soldiers, it would mean they had died not as citizens but as 'registered aliens'.
Questions around new language rules and cancelation of investor immigrant program
Thronged by supportive guests during much of the event, Alexander fielded some difficult questions on the proposed changes to the Citizenship Act once he finished his lengthy speech praising Vancouver's diversity and outlining the proposed changes in the new citizenship bill. Transitioning between French and English, Alexander insisted that the tougher restrictions on citizenship would benefit new Canadians in the long run, and drilled home the Conservative Party's mantra that Canada has the strongest economy in the G7 countries, which he said never would have happened had a different government been in power.
Despite Alexander's arguments in favour of the new bill, some people in the room openly voiced their discontent with the new hurdles put in place for immigration. In particular, people criticized the new proposed language rules that required applicants aged 14-64 to meet requirements in basic English or French.
"The government is trying to control too much," said Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian news commentator Victor Ho, who also edits the Sing Tao Daily. "To make everyone from age 14 to 64 learn English up to a mandatory level, I think the government is trying to interfere too strongly. If a teenager is living here, then he (or she) is already learning the language in schools, and will pick it up. And as for seniors, you can encourage them, but that should really be more of the family's decision."
Another hot topic was the end of the immigrant investor program, which offered visas to people with a net worth of at least $1.6 million who were willing to lend $800,000 to the Canadian government for investment across Canada for a term of five years. The change, which would leave 45,000 Chinese millionaires in limbo, was proposed in the new 2014 budget. The decision has angered some in the Chinese Canadian business community, with some people speaking out at a press conference in Chinatown.
Asked by a reporter for comment about angry Chinese investors condemning the cancellation, Alexander responded:
"The majority of people who have made their views known to us from the Chinese community and elsewhere have said 'Bravo, thank you for ending a program that was not meeting its objectives."
When another reporter pressed him on whether the program was losing Canada money, he shook his head and said 'no.'
"Has Canada lost money in this deal? No, I don't think so. In general, I think it yielded some results, but it wasn't as advantageous or as positive as some of our other economic programs, so that's why we're ending this program and replacing it with something better."