McCallum promises ‘radical changes’ to Citizenship Act
Liberal MPs say the government should eliminate the language requirement for new immigrants to apply for Canadian citizenship.
Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government will be “producing radical changes” to the Citizenship Act in the next few weeks. Liberals have been telling him that the government should eliminate the language test for new immigrants to apply for Canadian citizenship, which was brought in by the Conservatives in 2014 as part of the controversial Bill C-24.
Mr. McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) told The Hill Times that he’s aware of the concerns and will make an announcement in a few weeks. “We’re going to be producing radical changes to the citizenship bill,” Mr. McCallum said. “We’re going to be announcing the details of those changes in just a few weeks.”
Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that although they want new immigrants to acquire proficiency in both or at least one of the two official languages of Canada, it’s also a question of fairness, saying the language requirements disenfranchise new immigrants from their right to take part in the political process.
“It’s a big problem the way the system has been set up under the previous government for language requirements,” said rookie Liberal MP Shaun Chen (Scarborough North, Ont.) whose riding has the highest visible minority population of 90.1 per cent, in the country.
But in some cases MPs said new immigrants fail to achieve the required proficiency for a variety of reasons. For example, some immigrants come to Canada under the family sponsorship program, as parents or grandparents and may not have any knowledge or a limited understanding of English or French. At that age, MPs said, it becomes an uphill battle, for some, to learn a new language. Also, when new immigrants move to Canada, the first priority for them is to provide for their family and take care of the expenses and a significant number take up any odd job to earn a living which can mean they don’t have the time to learn a new language, MPs said.
“Often times, families are sponsoring elders and grandparents at a very elderly age. It’s very challenging and difficult for them to be at such a high proficiency of English or French. To me, it makes sense for us to [adopt a system] that’s more inclusive,” said Mr. Chen. “It’s helpful to families that need to sponsor, for example, grandparents. Those new Canadians play an important role to look after children to be there and to support the family and, absolutely, it’s something that we will need to revisit and look at.”
Canadian citizens have a significant number of advantages over permanent residents, including the ability to be considered for jobs open to only to citizens, participating in the political process by voting and running for political office, having a passport that makes it easy to travel internationally, and having the right to get consular support overseas.
Currently, there are 33 federal ridings in the country with a visible minority population of 50 per cent and more, according to author, commentator and blogger Andrew Griffith, who recently wrote a book Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote.
Of the 33, 23 are in Ontario, eight in British Columbia, one in Quebec, and one in Alberta. Mr. McCallum represents the riding of Markham-Thornhill, Ont., which has the third highest number (82 per cent) of visible minorities in the country. The second highest visible minority population (87.6 per cent) is in the riding of Brampton East, Ont., currently represented by rookie Liberal MP Raj Grewal.
In the last federal election, Liberals won all but three of the 33 ridings including Markham Unionville, Ont., currently represented by Conservative MP Bob Saroya, Vancouver Kingsway, B.C., represented by NDP MP Don Davies and Richmond Centre, B.C., represented by Conservative MP Alice Wong.
Liberal MPs said they want to return to the citizenship application process that was in place before the Stephen Harper (Calgary Heritage, Alta.) Conservatives came to power in 2006. At that time, the language test was not required. New immigrants applying for citizenship between the ages of 18-54 had to write a multiple choice knowledge test about Canada, in English or French, and no language test was required. New immigrants over the age of 54 did not have to write any test.
For those required to write the test about Canada, the Citizenship Department would provide them with a booklet called A Look at Canada. It contained information about such things as the symbols of Canada, aboriginal peoples, geographical regions of the country, the system of government, federal elections, the lawmaking process, and citizenship rights and responsibilities.
When the Conservatives came to power, they undertook a variety of measures to reform the immigration and citizenship system. As part of the new process, the government steadily tightened up the citizenship law and in 2014, added the language test as a prerequisite to apply for citizenship, under the wide-ranging and controversial Bill C-24, the Strengthening of Canadian Citizenship Act, which also allowed the government to revoke citizenship from dual citizens convicted of crimes related to terrorism.
Under the new law, applicants between the ages of 14 and 64, now have to demonstrate an adequate knowledge of English or French either by taking a third-party test, or by providing evidence of language training by government funded language-training programs. The government, currently, provides free language training programs for new immigrants. Also, the new immigrants have to write a multiple choice knowledge test about Canada and answer questions chosen from the booklet prepared by the department. The Conservatives also revised the booklet, now entitled Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.
Bill C-24 was a key issue in the last election, along with the niqab issue and the Conservatives’ so-called barbaric cultural practices hotline. In the Oct. 19 election, the Liberal Party promised to repeal controversial sections of bill C-24. As of last week, it was not clear when the government will repeal controversial sections of C-24 and whether language requirements for citizenship tests is one of those sections that will be repealed.
Liberal MP Sean Casey (Charlottetown, P.E.I.), parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, was unavailable last week for an interview on C-24.
Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary-Forest Lawn, Alta.), who opposed bill C-24, said that he supports the language requirement in citizenship applications. He argued that it’s in the best interest of new immigrants to learn one or both official languages to achieve their true potential professionally and in their everyday personal lives.
“I feel, personally, a person who doesn’t understand [one of the two or both] languages is highly, highly disadvantaged and, to put it bluntly, will end up marginalized [in society],” said Mr. Obhrai. “Those who are opposing the language requirement [for citizenship applications] are doing a tremendous, tremendous disservice to these people [new Canadians].”
But Liberal and NDP MPs said that up until 2014, no new immigrant had to write a language proficiency test and that it’s unfair to make language assessment a requirement now.
“I know many people who came in the ‘60s or late-’50s, they don’t speak the language, even now. But they’re very good, contributing members of our country. We need to make sure that we find that balance, certainly for those who may not be able to [pass the test], we should have outlets for them to obtain citizenship,” said Liberal MP Gary Anandasangaree (Scarborough-Rouge Park, Ont.) whose riding has a 70.2 per cent visible minority population.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.), her party’s immigration critic, told The Hill Times last week that her parents moved to Canada as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid-1970s and they did not have to write any language proficiency test to obtain their citizenship. Now citizens, if they were asked to write the exam, she said they may or may not pass. But this does not mean they’re not productive citizens or that they did not make any contribution to the economy this country, she said. Her mother worked at a farm and her father worked at a factory.
“Likely, even now, if they were made to write the test, probably, they won’t pass. But does that mean to say that they did not contribute to our society, or economy, and our communities? Absolutely not,” said Ms. Kwan whose riding has a 44.7 per cent visible minority population. “Does that mean to say that those individuals who do not pass the test are not contributing? They’re contributing in our communities in a whole variety of ways.”
Ms. Kwan said that denying new immigrants citizenship on the basis of the language requirement is unfair and deprives them of their right to participate in the political process.
“Ultimately, citizenship is the enfranchisement of an individual’s participation in the community in our democracy. If you put up roadblocks in disallowing people to access that full participation in our society, then I think that poses a problem,” said Ms. Kwan. “When you put up these barriers, you are excluding a large group of citizens or people in our community from that full participation.”
Mr. Anandasangaree said that even Canadian-born citizens might not pass the language proficiency test.
“You also have to put it into context. Many [born] Canadians may not be able to pass that test either. We want to encourage certain things, but we don’t want to impose restrictions that will limit people’s citizenship,” said Mr. Anandasangaree.
Liberal MPs Darshan Kang (Calgary Skyview, Alta.) and Sukh Dhaliwal (Surrey-Newton, B.C.) also told The Hill Times that they are in favour of eliminating the language proficiency test as a requirement to apply for Canadian citizenship.
“Why don’t we let those individuals who are part and parcel of this economy, that are part and parcel of building Canada, the Canada we all aspire, why should they be denied a right to participate in our democratic process which is the fundamental difference that Canadians have over many other countries that we have come from,” said Mr. Dhaliwal, who came to Canada as an immigrant from India and whose riding has a 70.2 per cent of visible minority population. Mr. Kang’s riding has a 59.6 per cent of visible minority population.
Mr. Griffith, however, said that language proficiency is a critical element of a new immigrant’s integration and success in a new country. He said that he’s in favour of requiring new immigrants to learn English or French but also said that if new immigrants over the age of 54 are not able to learn either of the languages, this requirement should be waived.
“If you don’t learn English or French, depending on where you are, you’re basically hurting yourself. It means you’re not going to be able to integrate properly, you’re not going to be able to help your kids with school work, and everything like that. If you start to waive the language completely, you’re basically not helping people succeed in the society,” said Mr. Griffith.
The Hill Times