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Citizenship Reform Bill Needs 'Sober Second Thought': BCCLA

Delivered today in Vancouver, 26,000-signature petition opposes Bill C-24.

By David P. Ball 3 Jun 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @davidpball, or email him here.

Federal reforms that would redefine citizenship risk creating "two classes" of Canadians, argued civil liberties lawyers as they unsuccessfully attempted to deliver a 26,000-signature petition to immigration officials in Vancouver this morning. (The weighty tome was eventually accepted later in the morning).

On Friday, the so-called Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act passed its second reading in the House of Commons. Once the bill clears a final hurdle this week, it's headed to the Senate for approval.

Bill C-24 has galvanized opposition from constitutional lawyers, but the Conservatives say it fulfills their longstanding electoral pledge to tighten up immigration rules and crack down on fraud -- and ultimately "underline and reinforce the value of Canadian citizenship, which all Canadians consider incredibly important," said Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in Parliament on May 29.

Alexander said that since the last wave of reforms under the Liberals in 1977, "there has been abuse" by immigrants seeking to become citizens.

"It would also honour those who served Canada and circumscribe those cases in which citizenship can be revoked for gross acts of disloyalty," he added. "These are all measures that are very popular in this country, that are very much needed… It would help us to prevent the kind of fraud that, unfortunately, has prevailed in the system to a significant degree for decades, thanks to Liberal neglect."

The reform bill requires would-be Canadians to reside in the country for four of the previous six years, and more than half the days of those years. It also triples the cost of applying to $300, and extends by a decade the ages in which would-be Canadian must prove their English or French "competence."

The citizenship bill would enable the immigration minister, without a trial, to strip dual citizens convicted of terrorism, spying or treason. It also increases the penalties for citizenship fraud.

A Parliamentary summary of the bill states that the amendments to existing laws would also include "limiting the role of citizenship judges in the decision-making process" as well as "transferring to the Minister the discretionary power to grant citizenship in special cases."

Tories, New Democrats trade 'despotism' charges

New Democrat employment critic Jinny Sims criticized the government for "putting more and more power into the hands of ministers, allowing them to become despotic and taking us away from parliamentary democracy," she said in the House on May 29, after Conservatives used procedural manoeuvres to close debate.

That comment provoked Alexander to immediately return fire.

"I will tell the House what despotism is," he told legislators. "It is any government, any parliament that refuses to take action when laws and rules are broken.

"That way lies anarchy. That way lies poor service. That way lies an undermining of the rule of law."

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association's executive director questioned how widespread current levels of citizenship fraud actually are, and warned the bill would create dangerous inequalities between citizens born here and those with two or more nationalities.

He said he could not see how redefining citizenship could serve to strengthen it.

"Canadians deeply care about their citizenship," Josh Paterson said. "That's why over 26,000 people have demanded that the citizenship minister scrap this bill.

"Everyone in Canada has got human rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, whether they're citizens or not. But what makes citizenship different is that it is the right to have all those other rights permanently here in Canada. It means you're a permanent member of this society, forever."

Next stop: Senate

Paterson argued the bill would make it harder for many people to obtain citizenship rights and only increase the current immigration backlog, despite government assurances it will have the opposite effect and cut down waiting times.

"It would destroy the rule that we've always had: that all Canadians have all citizenship rights equally," Paterson warned. "Instead, there are going to be two classes of citizen, something he called "very problematic."

"Even if the circumstances of taking away the citizenship are things that are very serious, like committing serious crimes, we think it's wrong as a matter of principle to be dividing Canadians up and giving them different rights based on where they or their families are from."

As the bill now moves to the Conservative-controlled Senate, Paterson called on the upper chamber to exercise its "sober second thought" and oppose the law.  [Tyee]

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