Citizenship bill reveals flaws in Canada's democratic process: critic

"If this is indicative of how the Harper government makes decisions, it means Northern Gateway, and everything that came down the pipe now is suspect," a prominent citizenship advocate said of the stifled democratic debate around a new piece of legislation that will change the rules around Canadian citizenship.

Photo of Don Chapman sitting in empty meeting room by John Charest

"If this is indicative of how the Harper government makes decisions, it means Northern Gateway, and everything that came down the pipe now is suspect," said Don Chapman, a citizenship advocate, on the recent passage of the controversial citizenship legislation. "The whole legislative process has gone awry." 

Last week, the federal government passed Bill C-24, Strengthening Citizenship Act, the most comprehensive overhaul of citizenship legislation since 1947. Chapman said he was appalled by stifling of democratic debate in Parliament prior to the bill's passage, which included witness-muzzling and time limits for questioning.

A bill with major ramifications 

Bill C-24 broadly makes citizenship harder to obtain and easier to lose. In addition to imposing higher residency requirements and language standards for new Canadian citizens -- measures that Chapman and other critics actually support -- the bill would also give the federal government unprecedented power to cancel the citizenship of anyone who commits treason, terrorism, or is found guilty of certain offences under the National Defense Act, provided they not be rendered stateless. According to Minister Alexander, there are 130 Canadians working in extremist groups abroad, who would almost certainly be targets in having citizenship revoked. 

Nearly 7 million Canadians are born abroad, and many Canadian-born citizens are eligible for dual citizenship in another country. If such people commit certain offences against Canadian security and interests, they could be subject to removal of citizenship.

The bill also addresses the issue of Lost Canadians, an ongoing problem of legitimate Canadians being stripped of citizenship due to obscure, often blatantly discriminatory provisions of old laws that denied citizenship based on race, gender, age and marital status. Thousands of Lost Canadians -- some of them World War II veterans and their children -- remained excluded from citizenship until recently.

Numerous amendments to the Citizenship Act since 1977 have failed to fix the problem completely, and although the latest Bill C-24 was expected to finally bring closure to the issue, Chapman says the bill remains deeply flawed. Watching the passage of Bill C-24, he says, was a window into how controversial policies can be approved in Canada without adequate debate.

A stifled debate: muzzled witnesses and time limits

"This bill didn't have the input of a single Lost Canadian," Chapman said. "I'm on the record for coming up with a solution to this mess four years ago, and they didn't listen." 

Last month, the federal government  invited expert witnesses to speak about C-24, only to shut them out of the room and hold the meeting behind closed doors on the day of the meeting. It was almost a deja-vu of a similar incident last year, in which the government invited legal experts and witnesses from Asian countries to speak at a meeting, before kicking them out of the room and finishing the meeting, again behind closed doors. 

Then the government imposed a "time limit" to cut short the debate on the bill, prompting one Opposition MP to ask why the government didn't simply "duct tape" the mouth of other MPs to prevent meaningful discussion of the legislation. Despite wide criticism in the media, the bill passed the Senate without a single amendment last week. 

The Conservative government, at the time, denied it was limiting democratic debate, and blamed the Opposition for slowing things down unnecessarily. 

"It is not...used to limit debate, but to create certainty,"  Citizenship Minister Christopher Alexander said through a spokesperson. 

"Canadians expect their government to make decisions, to take action on our commitments, and that is what our government has done in the House of Commons. We encourage the Opposition to end their partisan attempts to delay the passage of Bill C-24."

"Our reasonable reforms will ensure that Canadian citizenship remains a high-value privilege only for those individuals who deserve it," wrote Conservative MP Costas Menegakis to the Vancouver Observer. " Canadian citizenship is uniquely valuable in the world, with our balanced set of reforms the government is taking steps to ensure that it stays that way."

But already, the federal government has come under some fire for trying to revoke the citizenship of Deepan Buldakoti, an Ottawa-born and raised Indo-Canadian who has never actually set foot in India before. He sold a hunting rifle to an undercover police officer in 2010, and since then, the federal government revoked his Canadian passport and has been trying to deport him to India.

"Deepan's a criminal, sure -- but he's not a terrorist," Chapman stressed. 

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