Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to partake in the debate, particularly when a number of important dates come together. The important dates I am referring to are the 60th anniversary of the 1947 Citizenship Act, the 30th anniversary of the 1977 Citizenship Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms being 25 years old, and I am also celebrating the fact that 50 years ago my family and I came to Canada as refugees.
As a matter of fact, right about this time we were preparing to flee Hungary, which was undergoing a police crackdown. It was a police state where people who had anything to do with the revolution or who criticized the government of the day would be systematically eliminated. It was the end of this month in February that my family crossed through mine fields to get to Austria where we received a great deal of help and hospitality from the Austrian people. I would be remiss if I did not express my personal thanks and the thanks of all the Hungarian refugees at that time who ended up in Austria, and 90% of them did.
It was around the middle of June that our family, having spent time in different refugee camps, ended up in Canada. Our experience upon landing was to be placed with a host family, the Hay family. They had three kids, just as I had two siblings in my family. It was an amazing experience for us. Our family spoke Hungarian and we were living with a family that spoke English. My father spoke a number of other languages so it was kind of fun making communication work.
What struck me at the time was Canada's policy to bring in 38,000 refugees from Hungary, which was the biggest per capita of any other country in the world. The United States, with a population 10 times that of Canada, took in 47,000. So 38,000 was a huge number for Canada to bring in. What struck me was the reception we received from the Canadian people. It was the people of Canada who drove that change and wanted Canada to be at the forefront in their assistance to the refugees.
I mention that because part of the issue related to citizenship and immigration is private sponsorship and how important it is that we engage Canadians and the community in making that happen. Too often we do not meet our targets in terms of private sponsorship, which is an opportunity lost. It is an opportunity lost for new Canadians coming into this country and it is an opportunity lost for the government to ensure the people are settled and become contributing members of Canadian society as quickly as possible.
These experiences played a strong motivational role for me when we dealt with the anti-terrorism bill, which has become an issue. We had numerous debates in the last Parliament when we dealt with this. It was after the horrible events of 9/11 that I initially thought we could make legislation to make the country safer and that we should undertake a campaign against terror to accomplish that.
At the end of the debate, in my last speech to the House on that issue, I said, remembering what I remember, having had the experiences that I had, that I could not support the legislation because on balance we had a very good criminal justice system and one that was on the top tier in the world and that we also had a very good security system.
One of the things I have learned is that when a person experiences the unfortunate situation of having lived in a police state where police powers are not checked, it creates a kind of society that is alien to democracy. It creates a society where they are set up against us.
One of the strengths that Canada has is that no one group is a majority and everybody is a collection of minorities. It is important to understand that because we must never get into a situation where we stigmatize any part of our population. We all need to come together to ensure we have a secure country.
We saw the experience in the United States of America with the O.J. Simpson case where the jury refused to convict. It refused to convict because of the years and years of racism and how the whole thing played out. I mention that because if we are to have an immigration policy and a new Citizenship Act, we must be mindful that all Canadians, no matter what their backgrounds, are equal.
The suffering that has taken place in this country in terms of various minority groups coming together is incredibly well-documented in the book entitled, “Whence they came:...” by Barbara Roberts. It is a book that everybody who sits on the citizenship and immigration committee, the justice committee and whoever sits in Parliament should read because it chronicles some of the worst abuses in our history when it came to dealing with minorities.
It is exactly because of those abuses that we ended up in 1982 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an atonement, so to speak, and a recognition that what we did in the past was wrong and that those mistakes must never be repeated. As we work together now and in the future we must ensure that we protect human rights and civil liberties.
One of the problems in terms of fighting terrorism is that we hear talk all the time about it being constitutional. The reason it is constitutional is because it is exempted from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A section in the Constitution allows that the guaranteed rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can be put aside. It does not meet the test of the charter but just because something is constitutional does not make it charter compliant. However, any legislation we introduce should be charter compliant because then we create the kind of society that is so very important.
My colleague from Burnaby—Douglas proposed a number of amendments to the motion before us today. It would have been nice to have had them adopted because I think we could have worked collectively toward a revised Citizenship Act and Immigration Act that would meet the needs of Canadians. I despair at times about the kind of political rhetoric we get into when we are dealing with the whole issue of citizenship and immigration.
I wish we could tone down the partisan politics and put them aside to the extent of being able to say that it does not matter which political party is in power, that we need an act that works for all Canadians and how do we come together to make this happen.
In the last Parliament, I had the pleasure of serving as the chair of the parliamentary committee on citizenship and immigration. I put a challenge out to the members. I said that we were all parliamentarians who wanted to do our best for the country so we should try to leave our partisan differences outside the door and work together to come to a consensus and see if we can drive the consensus to actually change legislation.
I believe my colleagues will say that when the previous minister of citizenship and immigration was in front of the committee that I was probably his harshest critic. I wanted to make the process work and wanted us, in a non-partisan fashion, to contribute to legislation that would be a very important part of Canada's assets, which are the people, as well as immigrants coming to this country, because immigration has always been and will continue to be the lifeblood of this country.
One of the areas we worked very hard on was the Citizenship Act. We made it our number one priority. It often gets mentioned that the Liberals did not pass the Citizenship Act, and that is correct. In the 35th Parliament there was talk about the Citizenship Act. In the 36th Parliament, two citizenship acts were tabled; one was Bill C-63, which was followed by Bill C-16, which went through the House in the spring of 2000. It was properly held up in the Senate and never came back to the House, so the bill died. That bill needed great improvement. Bill C-18 was the next bill to come through and it had some very major flaws that we worked on. We made improvements to it, but it did not come to fruition.
In the last Parliament there were two ministers of citizenship and immigration. It is unfortunate that we had two. I think we would have been better served if we only had one, but the unfortunate circumstances around one of the ministers meant we had to substitute another one.
In that Parliament the citizenship and immigration committee came up with three reports dealing specifically with the Citizenship Act. We on that committee made it our number one priority. We undertook cross-Canada tours in 2003 and 2005. We had a great deal of input from the public as to what it wanted to see happen with the Citizenship Act and we came up with some very good reports. The reports were given to the minister to serve as guides for legislation that could have been quickly passed.
One of those reports was “Citizenship Revocation: A Question of Due Process and Respecting Charter Rights”. That report was unanimously adopted without debate in this chamber. All Progressive Conservative members on the committee voted unanimously in favour of it. We also came up with another report “Updating Canada's Citizenship Laws: It's Time”. I am pleased to say that the report received unanimous support from the committee. All Conservative members voted in favour of it.
That committee operated in a fairly non-partisan fashion. Once in a while we had flare-ups, but that was expected. We usually reserved those for the House.
The need for a new Citizenship Act has been highlighted by what has been happening with the issue of lost Canadians and the debate that has gone on. Every member of the committee knew we had a problem in this area. It should have come as no surprise that with the new passport requirements people suddenly found out they were not citizens. We heard extensively from various lost Canadians.
We heard extensively from people like Mr. Joe Taylor, the son of a Canadian veteran who fought for this country in the second world war to protect our democracy. The birthright of that veteran's child was denied because of discriminatory clauses in the 1946 Citizenship Act, which unfortunately were not corrected in the 1977 Citizenship Act. Mr. Taylor's case is really tragic because he is the son of a Canadian veteran and his birthright was being denied. Wrongfully, the department denied him citizenship, so Mr. Taylor took the department to court.
On September 1, Mr. Taylor won his case. A judge ruled that discriminating against people because they were born out of wedlock is not permitted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The judge also ruled that withdrawing citizenship because of an obscure notice in the Citizenship Act that the person would not be aware of offends section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
During that month the government got rid of the court challenges program. That led to people or groups who needed to fight for their rights under the charter could only do it if they could raise the money.
I am going to get very partisan about this. Access to justice should not depend on the size of one's pocketbook and whether or not one can afford a lawyer. Access to protecting one's charter rights should be available to every Canadian. It is a basic human right as far as I am concerned. Getting rid of the court challenges program means that those who want justice and need to go to the Supreme Court had better have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to get there.
Mr. Taylor's situation was so unnecessary. We owe a great deal of gratitude to Mr. Joe Taylor's father for fighting for this country and fighting for democracy in the second world war. That was just one of the cases.
There are Canadians who have lived in Canada all their lives but who were born in the U.S. because their parents happened to live close to the American border and their parents did not have access to a Canadian hospital. There are thousands of people in that situation.
There is a situation that I am aware of, and the committee will be aware of when it holds its hearings, where three siblings are getting citizenship under section 5(4) and the government is trying to deport the fourth sibling. Why? Because the individual has a criminal record.
Members know how hard I fought in this House against citizenship revocation because it does not comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as it is wrong for a minister and politicians to revoke somebody's citizenship, which is an incredible abuse of process, an incredible abuse of the charter, it is also wrong for a minister to be able to grant citizenship. Citizenship should be prescribed by law. It is in legislation. A person who meets the requirements should get it. The thought of a minister handing out tens of thousands of citizenship certificates boggles the mind.
We are not dealing with difficult legislation. Other countries have gone through it. Australia is going through it. Trinidad went through it. Trinidad made a simple amendment and, lo and behold, the sky did not fall. They were not sued for billions of dollars. They essentially said that if someone's citizenship was revoked by an essentially ridiculous, discriminatory piece of legislation, then it would be restored and it would be restored to the time that the person lost it.
We have a piece of legislation that discriminates against religious marriages. I find this passing strange coming from the Conservatives, but essentially that is what it is. There are Mennonites who married in religious ceremonies in Mexico or Paraguay and failed to have a civil wedding to go along with it. This involves thousands of people, and we will hear evidence on that. Their offspring are considered to be born out of wedlock. Do people find it shocking? I do. That has to be changed. Here we are, discriminating against religious marriages. Religious marriages are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I am hoping that the government will come together with the rest of the committee and the opposition parties. In a very non-partisan fashion we can produce a citizenship act that will also celebrate the 25th anniversary of the charter, the 30th anniversary of the 1977 act and the 60th anniversary of the 1947 act.