So you think you're Canadian, eh?

It's the dirty little secret of our approach to citizenship: Some of us are more Canadian than others.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Conservative attack ads directed at the leader of the Liberal Party during this election campaign have exposed one of Canada’s ugly little secrets: our exclusionary models of citizenship.

Some Canadians embrace a two-tiered model of citizenship, which includes one tier for the "real" Canadians -- those they happen to like -- and another for the rest, who are dismissed as "Canadians of convenience".

I have identified two of these "exclusionary" models of citizenship, each with its own characteristics and political constituency. The first model, which I call the nativist model, includes only people who were born in Canada, have European names and have never lived outside Canada.

It excludes all naturalized Canadians and those born abroad to Canadian parents.

It also excludes some prominent Canadians, among them two former governors-general (both non-Caucasian immigrants but resident in Canada since childhood), renowned humanitarian Jean Vanier (born in Switzerland to Canadian parents and resident in France since 1964), Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews (born in Paraguay to Canadian Mennonite parents) and, of course, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a former expatriate with two children born abroad (and who never took U.K. or U.S. citizenship during his years abroad).

It certainly excludes Maher Arar (a Canadian citizen born in Syria and exonerated after gruelling incarceration as a terror suspect), Omar Khadr (born in Canada and serving time in Guantanamo for crimes he was accused of committing as a child soldier) and Abousfian Abdelrazik (a Canadian-born in Sudan and refused help by the Canadian government when imprisoned there).

Wayne Gretzky, hockey's Great One, now both a resident and citizen of the U.S -- recently promoted from Officer to Companion of the Order of Canada -- gets a free pass.

This model of citizenship is supported by a network of crude, vicious, gutter-dwelling bloggers (including some on the CBC news website). Hiding behind such pseudonyms as "TrueCanadian" or "ChucktheCanuck", they spew their venom against anyone who doesn't fit their model of a 'real' Canadian.

The second model, which I call the post-colonialist model, is a mirror-image of the first, but more subtle. It includes only aboriginal peoples and those who have arrived in Canada since 1970, and their descendants. The rest of us, who are mainly of European descent, are excluded because we belong to the "old" Canada.

Acknowledging these two exclusionary models of citizenship can help us to understand the citizenship policies -- and politics -- of our political parties, and the unexamined and inconsistent attitudes of some Canadians towards their fellow citizens, including expatriate Canadians and those stranded, detained or in danger abroad.

But there is more.

Some Canadians, because of the date or circumstances of their birth, are actually excluded from citizenship – and from voting –
by the continued application of obscure, unfair rules that were repealed 34 years ago and that no politician today would defend.

They are psychologically stateless even if not legally so. Among these "Lost Canadians", as they have become known, are some of the children of war brides, born out of wedlock during the Second World War, some Mennonites born abroad who are excluded because their parents’ (or in some cases their grandparents’) religious marriage outside Canada was not recognized by the local civil law, and some people born abroad before 1947 whose claim to citizenship is through the female line.

Bill C-37, in force since April 17, 2009, limits citizenship by descent (with some exceptions) to only the first generation born abroad -- that is, those with at least one parent born, naturalized or adopted in Canada.

At first glance this may seem reasonable, but already it has had unintended consequences. As the government was warned when the bill was before Parliament, we now have a small but growing number of stateless children born abroad to Canadian parents who were also born outside Canada. These stateless children, and those yet unborn, are innocent hostages to the government’s apparent obsession with "Canadians of convenience".

Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship and immigration, and his officials are well aware of this absurd injustice. He still has time before the election (between visits to carefully targeted "ethnic" constituencies) to rectify it or explain what he is defending and what policy objective is served by continuing to exclude Jackie Scott and others from the Canadian family solely because they were born out of wedlock over 65 years ago.

Or has the government made a political calculation that because now that some of the Lost Canadians are now in their sixties or older, they can safely be ignored and left in citizenship limbo for the rest of their lives?

This post-modern dominion (as journalist Robert Fulford once called it) badly needs an informed debate on the meaning and value of Canadian citizenship. Sadly, we are unlikely to get it during this election. Whatever the outcome, the Lost Canadians will keep knocking on the minister’s door until it opens.

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