IN A country composed almost entirely of immigrants or their descendants, defining what it means to be Canadian is often the subject of heated debate. Tempers have flared over whether Sikh Mounties (national police) may wear turbans, whether Jews in Quebec may build huts on their balconies to celebrate the festival of Sukkot and whether religious groups, including Catholics, Mennonites, Jews and Muslims, may arbitrate disputes involving family law in Ontario. (The answers are yes, yes and no.)
A new and ugly chapter in this argument began in July after Israel's war against Hizbullah in Lebanon forced an evacuation of foreigners. Were all the 13,000 holders of Canadian passports ferried to safety at taxpayers' expense real Canadians? Or were some, as Garth Turner, a member of Parliament from the government's backbenches, insisted on his website, "Canadians of convenience", who had returned to live in Lebanon after meeting Canada's three-year residence requirement for citizenship and who "should hardly expect taxpayers here to gladly fly [sic] them across the world"?
Mr Turner's outburst echoed across newspapers, television and the internet. "Does Canadian citizenship mean anything?" asked Jack Lawrence Granatstein, a prominent historian. Perhaps it is too easy to obtain it, suggested Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist. Stephen Harper, the prime minister, has tried to calm the furore by promising to review dual citizenship.
That Canada, which prides itself on its multicultural make-up, is having this debate may seem strange. About 1m Canadians are of aboriginal stock; the other 31m either came from somewhere else or are descendants of someone who did. One reason for the fuss lies in changing immigration patterns. Until the early 1960s immigration law explicitly preferred Europeans to "black and Asiatic races". With racist provisions now removed, most immigrants are from Asia and the Middle East. But ending legally sanctioned racism has not pulled up all its roots.
Not all the suspicions are racist, though. A growing number of immigrants choose to keep their former citizenship. Of the 5.5m Canadians born abroad, 560,000 declared in the most recent census that they hold passports from another country. This feeds the belief that some are using Canada as a safety-net. In the approach to the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, were granted citizenship and then went back. Today some 200,000 people in Hong Kong hold Canadian citizenship. The discovery in June that 17 members of immigrant communities were plotting terrorist attacks had already sparked doubts about some newcomers' commitment to their adopted country.
Unless he handles his review carefully, Mr Harper risks alienating actual and potential immigrants. Those already in Canada are concentrated in big cities, where his Conservatives fared poorly in January's general election. Mr Harper wants their votes to turn his minority government into a majority one. Potential immigrants are being wooed to ease growing labour shortages, particularly in the west. That is one reason why Canada admits around 240,000 immigrants a year, most of whom eventually become citizens. Would the highly skilled come if it meant severing their connections to home?
Canada is far from the only country to grapple with the complexities of dual citizenship.
Around 90 countries, including the United States, allow it. Unlike Canada, though, the United States requires its citizens to pay American taxes no matter where they live. If Canadians did the same, they might grumble less about the cost of rescuing their embattled brethren from Lebanon.
I'm a lumberjack, and you're not
Who is a real Canadian? The evacuation from Lebanon prompts a debate