Just before Canada Day, the federal government substantially amended the requirements for both attaining and maintaining Canadian citizenship. Bill C-24 passed third reading in Parliament and received Royal Assent on June 19, 2014. Some of these changes, such as the attempt to restore citizenship to “Lost Canadians” who had been unfairly denied citizenship because they were born to a Canadian in a foreign country, have been roundly supported.
But other amendments have not been as warmly received. The Citizenship Act (Act) now has a narrower definition of “residence” so its meaning is restricted to physical residence alone. In addition, the Act increases residency requirements for residents wishing to become citizens. Previously, residents could apply for Canadian citizenship after spending three of the past four years in Canada, with no strict requirement of physical presence for a set number of days necessary to establish residency.
With the new requirements, residents must wait until they have resided in Canada for four of the past six years and must be physically present in Canada for more than half of each of the past four years. Citizenship applicants must also file tax returns in Canada for at least four of the previous six years. These new requirements are relaxed for applicants who enlist with the Canadian Forces—from four years of residency to three years.
Language and knowledge requirements have also become more stringent. In the past, language requirements only affected applicants aged 18-54 and knowledge requirements could be met with the aid of an interpreter. Now the assistance of interpreters on knowledge exams is not permitted and language requirements apply more broadly to any applicant aged 14-64.
The application process itself has been streamlined from three steps to just one. Consequently, the federal government hopes to cut average wait times between applying for and receiving citizenship from the current two or three years to one year. However, the shorter process will not cost less—application fees are quadrupling to $400.
Most controversial of all, though, are the changes concerning the revocation of citizenship. The new citizenship application form includes a question which asks applicants to declare an “intent to reside” in Canada. A number of commentators, including the National Immigration Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), argue that this provision is probably unconstitutional since it creates two tiers of citizenship: natural-born Canadians who can leave the country as and when they please (although they may lose provincial health care benefits if they are absent for too long over the course of one year) and naturalized Canadians who risk losing their citizenship if they spend too much time abroad.
While officials in the Department of Immigration have indicated that they will not be checking the residency status of naturalized Canadians after they have successfully gained citizenship, the Citizenship Act now grants the Minister of Immigration the power to revoke citizenship without a court hearing where applications are found to contain “false representation or fraud [or by] knowingly concealing material circumstances.”
Furthermore, the federal government now has the authority to revoke citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism, treason and espionage offences abroad. The CBA and others contend that this power creates a form of double punishment for dual citizens and furthers a problematic tiered model of citizenship.
These controversial amendments to the Citizenship Act have already provoked legal challenges. Whether or not they pass constitutional muster will remain uncertain until the courts have had their say. But, given the widespread criticism and the federal government’s recent record at the Supreme Court of Canada, the law of citizenship may well be changing again soon.
For more information on the new amendments to the Citizenship Act and on immigration law in general, please contact Melanie
Kyle Thompson, summer student, assisted with the research and writing of this article.