Change is in the air: Statelessness and citizenship in Canada

Jocelyn Kane Director of the Canadian Centre on Statelessness
/ 6 mins read

As if the stars were aligning, the very same day as the first summit on Statelessness in Canada was held, the Government announced that it was moving to repeal controversial amendments to the Citizenship Act implemented in 2015, removing a provision that could create statelessness.


First Summit on Statelessness in Canada

In February, the Canadian Centre on Statelessness (CCS) was delighted to co-host the First Summit on Statelessness in Canada, which brought together academics, students, legal practitioners, policy makers, and stateless persons in Canada’s first formal and public discussion on statelessness. With UNHCR Canada, University of Ottawa, Ontario Public Interest Research Group - Ottawa, and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, the Canadian Centre on Statelessness hosted over twenty speakers, four panels and one hundred participants in a day filled with enthusiasm and collaboration.

Panels covered a broad range of topics, but also showcased the minutia of statelessness in Canada. They highlighted issues relating to international and Canadian human rights and citizenship legislation, and identified gaps in law that leave stateless people in Canada unprotected and without rights. Speakers outlined several studies underway that look into data collection on statelessness in Canada, discourse surrounding legislative change that allows revocation of citizenship, the history of Canadian and British nationality legislation, and a study that aims to map the quality of life of stateless persons in Canada.

Another panel shared views from community members who are working to challenge issues related to citizenship and statelessness. Particularly enlightening was an outline of an indigenous perspective that pointed out the concept of statelessness is “unthinkable”. Perhaps the most telling portion of the day belonged to the panel of stateless persons and their counsel who shared their experiences of being stateless in Canada, shedding light on day to day struggles in a country where statelessness is misunderstood.

Our participants were diverse, indeed. We hosted representatives from the immigration and border agencies of the Government of Canada, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Norwegian Embassy, Children’s Bridge Foundation, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, the National Associations Active in Criminal Justice, the Global Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption, the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, and dozens of law firms, universities, immigration and settlement organisations, international and freelance human rights consultants, and students.

The summit was collaborative and enthusiastic. Participants engaged in critical discussions, and ground level perspectives provided a holistic complement to the legal and academic lens through which statelessness is so often seen. The summit provided a forum to officially launch the Canadian Centre on Statelessness and communicate all of our activities during our first year of operations. For details on our research, advocacy, and network building since 2014, see our Year in Review blog here.  

For organisers and participants alike, the summit highlighted what can be achieved when partners are committed to raising awareness about such an issue. Our passion allowed us to overcome challenges in mandate and style, and proves that if there is solidarity and commitment, such an event can be executed effectively and with punch. Our organising team worked collaboratively and succeeded in harnessing our networks to facilitate connections between ground level advocates, practitioners, students, academia, and policy makers.  

Citizenship Act Repeal

On the very same day as the summit the Government of Canada announced that it was moving to repeal controversial amendments to the Citizenship Act implemented in 2015, removing a provision that could create statelessness.

In June 2015 Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, was implemented containing several controversial provisions that dramatically altered the very nature of Canadian citizenship. The Bill expanded the measures by which Canadian citizenship could be revoked, and for the first time in Canadian history created two tiers of citizenship. Prior to the changes to the Act, revocation of citizenship was limited to naturalized Canadians who acquired their citizenship fraudulently. Canadian citizenship can now be revoked if a person has been convicted of crimes including terrorist activities, collaborating with the enemy, and sentenced to at least five years of imprisonment. The grounds for revocation can be expanded further to include other criminal activity and now include both domestic and foreign convictions. These activities are not defined and remain unclear.

An alarming aspect of Bill C-24 is the elimination of the right to a Federal Court hearing for those subject to revocation of citizenship. Except in limited circumstances the Federal court has been removed from the appeal process, and there is no longer any recourse to the Governor in Council, who, before these changes, had the ability to take into account considerations of equality and fairness. Instead, the right to appeal is restricted to the decision of a single politically appointed officer, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration - who, by nature of their position, is neither independent nor impartial. The Canadian criminal code and judiciary have always been considered adequate and appropriate mechanisms to address criminal behaviour, but in this case, have been deemed insufficient.

This is important because changes to the Citizenship Act create two classes of citizens. Canadians with ties to countries that do not recognize dual nationality are not subject to the new provisions, however, Canadians whose ancestors came from countries that pass citizenship to generations born abroad do face the prospect of revocation. This means entire ethnic and national communities are targeted. This differential treatment based on ethnicity or national origin is in contravention of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Government of Canada has moved to repeal specific aspects of the recent legislation with Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act. Among other proposed changes to immigration entry and residency requirements, the government has moved to repeal the measures by which Canadian citizenship can be revoked, thereby removing tiered citizenship and the possibility of creating a new cohort of stateless persons in Canada.

This is a welcome move but the government falls short of repealing many of the controversial changes. Citizenship revocation remains under the discretion of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and the appeal process will continue to be within the purview of the immigration bureaucracy instead of the Federal Court. Bill C-6 also does not address Canada’ s second-generation born abroad clause where Canadian citizenship is limited to the first generation children born abroad. This provision, implemented in 2009 under Bill C-37, is highly criticised as short-sighted as it risks creating statelessness in a generation of youngsters born abroad.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian

This move comes from Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise to restore citizenship. His catchy assertion that “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” is a signal of a change in direction from our conservative, draconian government of the past decade. Should Bill C-6 be implemented it will be a symbol of renewed government commitment to the fundamental notions of belonging and rights in Canada. The speed with which this Bill was introduced to Parliament is indicative of the importance of the matter and, perhaps most importantly, the change in values from one government to the next – something that is being observed elsewhere.

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Canada’s proposed reversal comes at a time when similar revocation amendments are being proposed elsewhere. The attempt to amend the constitution in France to expand the categories of persons eligible to have their citizenship revoked in the aftermath of Paris attacks, and Britain’s robust revocation measures have sounded the alarm to a looming trend.

However the recent political stalemate in France that resulted in the abandonment of its proposal, and the recent change of government in Canada, offer some hope. It will be known in the coming months whether Canada’s two tiered citizenship has been repealed, but regardless of the outcome it can be reasoned that Canada has succeeded in redefining what it means to be a Canadian.   

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