Conflicted over citizenship

We must understand the rights and obligations of being Canadian, says historian J. L. GRANATSTEIN

Géopolitique du Proche-Orient

Par J. L. Granatstein

The crisis in Lebanon and the evacuation of almost 12,000 Canadians from that ravaged country have brought problems to light that suggest strongly Canada's urgent need for a serious review of its 1977 citizenship act. The last examination of citizenship by a parliamentary committee, in 1993, produced no action. Now the need for a new act is apparent, and the government should establish a royal commission on the rights and obligations of Canadian citizenship as a precursor to new legislation.
Such an examination must look at Canada's practice of permitting dual or triple or quadruple citizenship or more - there is effectively no limit on the number of different passports a Canadian can hold. Before 1977, Canadians who acquired another nation's citizenship, except by marriage, lost their Canadian status. Until 1973, Canada required those who wanted its citizenship to renounce their former allegiance. The 1993 committee questioned the meaning of loyalty where people held dual citizenship, and suggested that this devalued the meaning of Canadian citizenship. The committee, in fact, recommended that a Canadian who voluntarily acquired another citizenship should cease to be a Canadian.
Was the committee correct? There are obvious advantages to Canada in dual citizenship in a globalized economy where millions of people travel each year, live and work abroad, or carry on business in different parts of the world on a daily basis. We benefit from having Canadians who can understand the customs of another nation and move smoothly through foreign bureaucracies. But is there still a downside to this practice, as the committee suggested? A royal commission must consider if Canadians should be permitted - or perhaps encouraged - to hold two or more passports.
But there still may be problems of dual citizenship. Should Italian-Canadians, for example, be allowed as Canadian citizens to vote for and elect representatives in the Italian parliament, as occurred in 2006? There are also onerous obligations that can fall on dual citizens abroad. China and Iran, for example, flatly reject the idea of dual citizenship and consider those born in their countries as theirs. Their citizens can be conscripted for military service, for example, if they return "home." What is Canada's position on this? Do we expect our embassies and consulates to make representations on behalf of dual citizens who get into legal difficulties in the country of their birth? For its part, is Ottawa willing to listen to Iranian or Chinese representations if a dual citizen broke Canadian law?
In a world of choices, should people be made to decide on their nationality? The Chrétien government forced Conrad Black to choose between his Canadian citizenship and a seat in the House of Lords. Lord Black chose the Lords. If an Italian-Canadian can vote in an Italian election, why can a British-Canadian not sit in the House of Lords and still be Canadian? Such matters need to be studied.
And what are the obligations of citizenship? Should these not be described and accepted by those to whom we grant citizenship? At the moment, the only requirements are that an applicant for Canadian citizenship be reasonably fluent in English or French and be able to answer a few simple questions about history, geography and Canada's political system. Is this sufficient? We expect Canadians to be willing to serve in the military in wartime to defend our territory and our freedoms, for example. Is this still a reasonable expectation?
Should Canadian citizens be able to serve in foreign militaries? Many Canadians of Israeli origin return to Israel to do military service there. Others volunteer for the U.S. forces. Should their Canadian citizenship permit this, or might it forbid participation in combat? And what do we do when someone returns "home," as some of Serb and Croat origin did during the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s, and takes the field against Canadian soldiers trying to restore peace? If one of those militiamen killed a Canadian soldier, would this be murder or simply an accident of war? Do Canadians turn a blind eye to such behaviour? In an age of increasing ethnic violence and terrorism, such questions need examination.
Then, what are the obligations of government to citizens abroad? The Israeli-Hezbollah conflict made more than 40,000 Canadians eligible for evacuation by Canada. Many of these putative citizens had lived in Lebanon for decades, their only link to this country being their passport. Consider Rasha Solti, who wrote in The Globe and Mail (July 22): "I hold a Canadian passport, I was born in Toronto when my parents were students there. I have never gone back. I left at age 2." Ms. Solti's passport was clearly her bolthole to let her come to Canada if she ever needed to do so. Did Canada owe her anything?
Obviously, the government has some responsibility to assist Canadians caught up in a conflict. But those holding this country's passport for convenience's sake, who renew every five years without visiting, let alone living, in Canada? This needs careful study, and the Harper government has indicated that this question concerns it. The royal commission should examine this too.
No Canadian wants to create categories of citizenship, but perhaps there is another way to limit the use of our passports as a public convenience. In the United States, all Americans, no matter where they live or how many passports they carry, must file an income tax return as a fundamental continuing obligation of citizenship. Essentially, the U.S says that those who want to be part of it must help to pay. Canada imposes no such requirement. A royal commission might want to examine this approach because all who pay income taxes are unlikely to forget their Canadian citizenship, wherever they live. Moreover, should the filing of annual tax returns not be a requirement for adults at home or abroad seeking renewal of a Canadian passport?
Such questions are not simply technical matters. Instead, they go to the heart of national identity. Does Canadian citizenship mean something? Or is Canada just a hotel into which people can check when it suits them, as novelist Yann Martel famously put it, and check out when their own interests so require? Citizenship matters. It is in Canada's national interest that its people understand and accept that there are rights and obligations that come from being Canadian.
J. L. Granatstein writes on behalf of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century ( ).

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