Government muzzles expert witnesses on major citizenship bill

“Do they think citizenship legislation is a joke?” said Melynda Jarratt, who was flown in to speak about Bill C-24, only to be shut out at the last minute. “I’ve always felt this was a transparent process of democracy in being invited to speak as an expert. Now, I feel insulted and it’s brought out the worst of how people perceive politicians in Ottawa."

Citizenship advocate Don Chapman sits in an empty committee room. ©2014 Jean Chartrand

Citizenship advocates Don Chapman and Melynda Jarratt are fuming after seeing what they call a flagrant violation of the democratic process in Parliament unfold before their eyes. 

Just moments before they were set to testify before the Citizen and Immigration committee on Monday, Conservative caucus member Ted Opitz  motioned to close the meeting to the public, preventing them from speaking on bill C-24, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act. 

"I've never seen anything like it," said Chapman, stunned by the move. "This is an important bill that will determine who's a Canadian, and yet they don't want to hear from stakeholders about it?" 

'Do they think citizenship legislation is a joke?' 

Jarratt, a historian, was invited by the government at the taxpayer’s expense to provide expert testimony on the history affecting this legislation, along with other concerns. Chapman and Jarrett arrived in Ottawa from Vancouver and New Brunswick respectively, but didn't get any chance to say a word before the committee.

“Do they think citizenship legislation is a joke?” said Jarratt, angered by the last-minute changes.

The pair were ushered to leave the committee along with various members of the public, media and parliamentary staff in unusual afternoon drama after Conservative MP Ted Opitz motioned to move the meeting to in camera, which was carried by a majority vote.

Photo of Don Chapman. ©2014 Jean Chartrand 

The Conservative-dominated committee – of which five members are Canadian immigrants from countries including Sri Lanka and Taiwan – is currently reviewing the bill, which has already been lambasted as a “Trojan horse”, giving the Harper government unprecedented power to strip Canadians of their citizenship.

Liberal MP John McCallum left the meeting in frustration shortly after the decision was made to muzzle the witnesses. “I can’t talk about what happened in-camera, but as you can see by my actions, I’m not happy,” he said. 

The bill, which Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander called the most comprehensive overhaul of citizenship legislation in over a generation, specifically includes a section on "Lost Canadians" --  legitimate Canadians who lost their citizenship due to racial discrimination, sexism and the federal government’s insistence that Canadian citizenship began after 1947 despite Supreme Court precedents that clearly state otherwise.

Even though the government made national headlines by saying it was finally going to fix legislation flaws that caused Canadians to lose citizenship, its exclusion of witnesses suggests that the law won't be open to any input from people directly affected by the legislation. 

Muzzling witnesses and scrapping democratic process  

Both Chapman and Jarratt have extensive knowledge and personal experience with the issue of Lost Canadians, and were shocked to have been denied their say. 

“I’ve always felt this was a transparent process of democracy in being invited to speak as an expert. Now, I feel insulted and it’s brought out the worst of how people perceive politicians in Ottawa," Jarratt said. "The look on their faces today with their sense of entitlement --- how they can treat members of the public, and taxpayers money, with such contempt?”

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