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The Gates of Fear?

9/11 and the rules of Canadian citizenship.

Jane Jenson, Pablo Policzer and Marie-Joëlle Zahar 11 Sep
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Immigration: key to Canada's success.

One of the more disturbing consequences of the September 11 attacks has been the transformation of previously open societies into increasingly closed fortresses. The pervasive restrictions and surveillances imposed on the United States by the Department of Homeland Security are by now legendary. The Netherlands and Great Britain -- countries that were previously models of toleration, diversity and openness -- are debating serious restrictions on who is allowed in and who really counts as a citizen. Canada has long prided itself as an open society, but here too the calls to shut the gates and build a fortress around our borders are growing louder.

For example, writing on behalf of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century, in The Globe and Mail of July 31, J.L. Granatstein called for a royal commission to review Canada's 1977 Citizenship Act. What might prompt us to resort to an instrument traditionally used to engage Canadians in discussions of major national issues? Are we facing injustices and national disgrace such as led to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples? Is the future of the nation at risk, as it was when the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was set up?

Do we need to reset the path for our economic future, the task assigned to the Macdonald Royal Commission in the 1980s? The answer, of course, is no.

The Lebanon moment

Yet for Dr. Granatstein and some others, the events of the war in Lebanon this past summer made it imperative to rethink the rights and obligations of Canadian citizenship.

What were these events? When war broke out, a number of Canadians living in Lebanon availed themselves of the right to seek help from their embassy in Beirut, and eventually to be evacuated from the war zone. The right to diplomatic protection, and by extension the right to evacuation in times of war, has a long pedigree in international law. Of the nearly 40,000 people living in Lebanon who hold a Canadian passport, only 13,000 claimed this right to assistance. Of these, the Red Cross estimates that approximately 2,500 needed support upon arrival in Canada, because they had not maintained meaningful ties in this country.

Such numbers do not suggest a major threat to our rules for managing citizenship. Nonetheless, some commentators and politicians suggested that only "real" Canadians should have been rescued; and that priority should have been given to those with a strong connection to Canada over those who may hold Canadian citizenship as a matter of "convenience." Indeed, Dr. Granatstein suggests there is a deeper issue at stake: the need to rethink the current practice of holding dual or multiple citizenships.

Why have these calls appeared now? Is Canadian citizenship in crisis? Should we be planning to change the locks if not close the gates altogether?

Short changed?

One reason for concern is purely financial: Dr. Granatstein and others, such as MP Garth Turner, have hinted at how much the evacuation cost taxpayers. Why, they ask, do Canadians have to pay for those who are not contributing to the system but want to benefit from it? Dr. Granatstein suggested that requiring Canadians living abroad to file a tax return would solve the problem. The United States does this: it requires citizens (and holders of a valid green card -- the equivalent of being a landed immigrant) to file annual tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service.

But there is no necessary relationship between filing a return and actually paying taxes. Credit is given for taxes paid to other governments and, therefore, it is only Americans living in countries with very low tax rates who send anything to the U.S. IRS. Most pay much more somewhere else. Requiring non-resident citizens to file annual tax returns might remind them of Canada, but it would do little to actually cover the costs of any evacuation. Moreover, paying taxes has never been a condition of citizenship, and many non-citizens pay all sorts of taxes -- from income taxes and deductions for employment insurance to GST and PST.

Beyond this narrow reasoning about costs, there is another much more important theme, which goes to the heart of the notions of equity in what we think of as "Canadianness." Canadians often go to great lengths to point out that some people who have succeeded in their careers as entertainers, business people or whatever, are still "really Canadian," despite their very weak ties to this country.

John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, spent most of his life in the United States, as a professor, diplomat and advisor to several American administrations. Indeed, he renounced his citizenship to become an American in 1937. Yet many Canadians continued to proudly celebrate him as a native son. Is Galbraith any more "Canadian" than a child born in Canada while her parents were studying here, or someone who lived in Canada for many years and decided to retire to the "old country," whether Italy, Lebanon, Britain or wherever? Perhaps it is not surprising that in the aftermath of 9/11 the calls to shut the gates of citizenship follow frightening events in the Middle East. But there is more than a whiff of a double standard here.

Fretful gatekeepers

The calls for reviewing our rules of citizenship may strike a chord with those who have become frightened of outsiders and who would like to close the gates. But we would all do well to remember that Canada has always been a nation of immigrants. Indeed "Canadian citizenship" was only invented in 1947. Until then, we were all British subjects. After that, anyone born in the country automatically acquired Canadian citizenship, no matter what the parents' nationality. Nationalization was also possible for immigrants who met the qualifications. In 1977 the legislation was updated, shortening the qualifying period of residence from five years to three, and allowing all Canadians to hold dual or multiple nationalities. (After 1947 some people could be both British subjects and Canadian citizens, but the rest could only be Canadian.)

This did not mean that the floodgates of citizenship were thrown wide open. Canada exercises control over which immigrants become citizens both by setting conditions and tests for acquiring citizenship, as well as by the strict process of selecting immigrants. According to a recent study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Canada selects more highly skilled immigrants than the United States or most Western European countries. Immigration has been and continues to be an engine of economic growth, and increasingly of population growth, so crucial as birth rates decline. Population exchanges between Canada and the rest of the world accounted for nearly three-quarters of the estimated growth of 78,200 people during the first three months of 2006. Our capacity to select and control these exchanges make us the envy of many other countries, as has our relative lack of ethnic, religious or other conflicts derived from immigration.

Attachment issues

Instead of shutting them out, Canada has decided to welcome people with deep interests in other parts of the globe. And over the past five years it has kept on welcoming them even while other countries have turned them away. True, some of these people may have weak attachments to Canada. But so too do many Canadians here for generations, some of whom dream of an independent Quebec, while others would draw us fully into the American orbit, even at the cost of lost sovereignty. We do not judge them to lack "Canadian" credentials. Nor should we do so for Canadians who for whatever reason choose to live parts of their lives abroad, or continue to participate in politics and culture of their country of origin, whether from here or from there.

The events of five years ago caused widespread fear. But fear should not blind us to this fact: the results of the Canadian experiment in modernizing the rules for acquiring citizenship over the past three decades have been an overwhelming success. There is no crisis, and therefore no reason to return to notions of citizenship appropriate to a less globalized world. Our rules for managing citizenship should continue to defend, not discourage, Canadians' increasingly broad horizons.

Jane Jenson holds the Canada Research Chair in citizenship and governance at the Université de Montréal; Pablo Policzer, a native of Chile, holds the Canada Research Chair in Latin American politics at the University of Calgary; and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, a native of Lebanon, is associate professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.  [Tyee]

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