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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.

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"Forced expatriation and banishment have no place in the legal system of any democratic state," wrote Robbert Addington, a retired public servant, in a letter to the Vancouver Observer. "Citizenship, once lawfully and legitimately acquired (I exclude cases of fraud), is a right, not a 'privilege' to be revoked at the pleasure of the Minister. Mixing citizenship law and criminal law is in my view bad law and bad policy."

For Chapman, however, the government's style of pushing through bills without adequate democratic debate is also seen not only in the citizenship bill, but other decisions as well. 

"It's a pattern," he said. "The government doesn't coordinate between committees, or the stakeholders. The Ministers don't make themselves accessible at all. And where's Thomas Mulcair on this, where's Justin Trudeau? The only party that has done anything on this is the Green Party and (Green Party leader) Elizabeth May."

Neither Opposition party leaders made comments on the bill, and did not respond to the Vancouver Observer's questions. 

Chapman was alarmed that Canada was now on its seventh bill to fix the citizenship legislation, and noted that the problem was because citizenship wasn't enshrined into constitutional law.

"Citizenship right now is just statutory law, which means it can be changed at any point by any government," Chapman said. In an extreme scenario, he said, citizenship law could be changed to allow only card-carrying members of a given political party to be citizens. 

Even though the bill was criticized in the mainstream news as a "Trojan horse", the Senate passed the bill with no amendments last week. Chapman said the quick passage of the bill highlighted the extent to which the Senate had lost its role as the chamber of "sober second thought". 

Why have 308 MPs? 

Andrew Telegdi, a former Liberal MP who was parliamentary secretary to the citizenship minister, said he found it "totally incredible" that Canadian government was willing to give itself the right to cancel out citizenship, rather than allowing an independent judge to make that call. 

"It shows total hypocrisy of Harper — it shows disrespect for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Telegdi said. 

Reflecting back on how some Conservative MPs disagreed with stripping citizenship back when the Liberal government was in power several years ago, he is stunned by the fact that all Tory MPs voted in favour of Bill C-24. Back in February 2005, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy had said during a Citizenship and Immigration Committee meeting:

"The principle is that when you are born in Canada you're a Canadian  unless you choose to give up your citizenship.  That means we (the politicians and bureaucrats) don't get to pick and choose." 

Yet Ablonczy followed the party last week by voting for the bill that would change this principle.   

"Obviously, the Conservative party has too much control of its MPs," Addington said.

Chapman agreed. 

"Why even have 308 MPs if they all have to vote a certain way?" he asked. 

Telegdi said it was a good thing the Supreme Court would be reviewing a case against the legislation, which he believes will find the legislation unconstitutional. 

No celebration yet

The federal government's passage of Bill C-24 does mean that many Canadians who were previously excluded due to their birth date (before 1947) who have fighting for citizenship recognition for years will finally gain status. Many have already lived in Canada for decades, and only recently found out they were non-citizens.

But Chapman says there is no cause for celebration yet, as bills can often take years to have any effect. Bill C-37, the 2009 Act to Amend a Citizenship Act, continued to exclude older Lost Canadians from obtaining citizenship, while suddenly rendering second generation born abroad Canadians stateless.

"A citizenship bill could have unintended consequences of gargantuan proportions," Chapman said. "There are a quarter of a million Canadians right now who are citizens and can't prove it." 

The loss of citizenship, he says, is not an abstract concept. For many, it means the loss of old age pension, the inability to stay with family in Canada, and restricted access to health benefits. People who have Canadian passports, Canadian citizen parents, and have voted in Canada for decades can suddenly discover themselves non-citizens and end up fighting years in court to gain recognition as citizens. 

He said many of the problems stem from the fact that lawmakers themselves often have a poor understanding of the history and context of Canadian citizenship, noting that former Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney told a war veteran's daughter that her Ontario-born, Canadian father was not technically a citizen before 1947. It was the basis for which her citizenship application was denied over the past eight years, and which she had to take the federal government to court to regain.

"People should be appalled — it’s a complete dysfunction of democracy."

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