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Opinion: New Citizenship Act weakens Canada

August 24, 2015

By Efrat Arbel, Vancouver Sun

Another aspect of the Harper government’s law reform agenda is now on trial. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have filed a legal challenge to the new Citizenship Act, which the groups say is not only unconstitutional, but also anti-immigrant, anti-democratic, and anti-Canadian.

The new law introduces sweeping reforms. It has already garnered enormous criticism. When the law was introduced last year, rights groups from across the country spoke out in opposition, and presented arguments to the House of Commons and to the Senate in their attempt to change or stop the legislation. Newspaper outlets published articles and editorials labelling the law as wrong-headed and un-Canadian. Over 110,000 people signed a Change.org petition to repeal the law. But the government ignored criticism and pressed on. Now the only remaining forum in which the law can be challenged is the court.

What makes this new law so controversial? Simply put, the new law undermines the very foundations of Canadian citizenship. It not only makes Canadian citizenship more difficult to get, but also easier to lose. Most significantly, the new law empowers the federal government to strip Canadians of citizenship with minimal legal safeguards.

But here is the catch: the citizenship stripping provisions will apply only to Canadians who either hold, or may potentially hold, another citizenship. This means dual nationals, as well as second or third generation Canadians who may be eligible for another citizenship through their parents or grandparents — even if they have not availed themselves of it or are even aware of their eligibility to do so. The citizenship stripping provisions will not apply to Canadians who hold only one citizenship status.

The government insists that these citizenship-stripping provisions will apply in extreme cases where a Canadian engages in terrorism or espionage. However, we have already seen other legislation where key words such as “terrorism” lack precise definition, and the ambit of the legislation becomes ambiguous with secondary notions of aiding, abetting, or membership in a group. Suddenly far more innocuous conduct by journalists, political activists, bloggers or financial supporters can be potentially caught within the legislation.

Moreover, the government has failed to explain why citizenship stripping is necessary in such cases. We already have a strong criminal justice system in Canada that is well equipped to punish those convicted of very serious offences. It is the job of this criminal justice system — not of elected officials — to mete out punishments when a citizen breaks the law. At the same time, the criminal law allows the accused a full right of defence before such harsh punishment can be handed out. Under this law, there is a very limited right of defence. Is the Harper government just overreaching? Or is it simply asking us to accept that dual nationals and second and third generation Canadians do not deserve to be treated like other Canadians?

Canadians must understand that by granting government officials the power to extinguish citizenship for some of us, the new law devalues Canadian citizenship for all of us. The permanence of Canadian citizenship is a cornerstone of Canadian values — once a citizen, always a citizen. With this new law, the Harper government has turned this idea on its head, turning millions of us into second-class citizens and establishing a hierarchy of belonging that deems some of us as less worthy of rights protection than others. The new law also blatantly disregards the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: it allows the government to discriminate against Canadians in flagrant disregard for the equality rights the Charter guarantees. What’s more, as this legal challenge unfolds, the government will be spending our taxpayer dollars to defend its right to discriminate against Canadians.

Despite the government’s assertions, this new law does nothing to strengthen Canadian citizenship. Quite the contrary, it undermines our most basic rights and freedoms, and weakens not just Canadian citizenship, but Canada itself.

Efrat Arbel is a law professor at the University of British Columbia Allard School of Law, and an Executive Member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

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