Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
The NDP agrees that changes to the Citizenship Act are badly needed. This act has not been revised since 1977, and some elements of our Citizenship Act create injustices. The NDP has fought a long time to correct some of these injustices. I enthusiastically welcomed the news that the government was preparing a bill to amend the Citizenship Act.
There are a number of good elements in this bill that the NDP is happy to see. We would be happy to support some of these changes that have been needed for a long time. However, true to form, the Conservatives have introduced a bill that is over 50 pages long and that amends all kinds of things and affects several aspects of citizenship.
There are so many things in this bill. Some are very positive, while others are worrisome. Civil society organizations, legal experts and other Canadian experts have already expressed some legal and human rights concerns. The public is very upset about some aspects of this bill, and I hope to explain why certain parts of this bill are worrisome and very problematic.
First, I will talk about what I am happy to see in Bill C-24. The NDP certainly supports the fact that this bill resolves the issue of people whose citizenship has been dispossessed, the so-called lost Canadians. I would like to give a practical example to show why it is so important to address this injustice.
John is two years old. He lives in the Eastern Townships in Quebec. His father is Canadian and his father's father is Canadian. Is John Canadian? No, he is not. Little John is here in Canada and lives with his Canadian father, but has only a temporary visa that will expire in May. The family's situation is rather unstable. Why does John not have citizenship? It is because his father, who is a Canadian and was born to a Canadian father, was born outside the country while his father was serving in the Canadian Forces. Instead of being proud to have a grandfather who served in the Canadian Forces, John is being penalized because his grandfather was serving outside the country when his wife gave birth to their child.
This deprives little John of medicare and day care, which is an enormous burden for the family. Little John is not the only one in this unfair situation. In fact, there are approximately 80 lost Canadians. These people are often in a tragic situation that also adversely affects many people who are close to them. The NDP fought for a long time for the government to resolve these unfair situations. From critic to critic, MP to MP, from motions to news releases, the NDP fought this battle, and we are pleased to see that, today, justice will be served for these people who should already be Canadian.
The other positive aspect of this bill is the expedited access to citizenship for permanent residents who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. In fact, this aspect, which the NDP already supported, is found in Bill C-425 from the last session. I would like to raise one issue, however. This bill will not affect hundreds or even dozens of people. It will affect only a few, perhaps five or 10. It is very rare for permanent residents to be accepted into the Canadian Forces. Usually, a person must already be Canadian to be accepted. Only in very exceptional cases are permanent residents allowed to serve in the Canadian Forces.
That being said, these people serve our country in an exemplary way. They meet important needs that only they can meet within our armed forces. In our opinion, it is therefore completely reasonable, acceptable and desirable to reward these individuals by expediting their access to Canadian citizenship, if they so desire.
The NDP also fought hard for the implementation of measures to train immigration consultants and to fight more effectively against fraudulent consultants. The hon. member for Trinity—Spadina spoke out loud and clear, as she called on the government to take action in this regard. In a news release made public in 2010, she called for the creation of a regulatory body to enforce the rules and protect the public. It was not until today that practical measures were proposed to better train immigration consultants. That is positive aspect of the bill, because many people are victims of immigration consultants who betray their trust—although most consultants are honest individuals. These are the good things I wanted to say about Bill C-24.
I would like to point out some parts of the bill that should be the subject of consultations with experts and the public because they are worrisome in some way or because people have differing opinions on them. The first is the longer term of Canadian residency required to obtain citizenship. The longer term is not necessarily a bad thing, and I understand the goal of it. It is a good idea to make sure that people with citizenship have lived in Canada for a certain period of time. This is good, but I also want to point out that this particular measure adds clarification that was not in the act before, making it very clear to people how many days they must reside in Canada before being eligible for Canadian citizenship. This measure makes sense.
However, we should talk about the ridiculously long processing time for citizenship applications. If the government is asking people to reside in Canada for a longer period of time, then it really must ensure that their applications are processed quickly and efficiently, which is what they might expect.
Increasing application fees is also a contentious issue. I will explain why. People certainly understand that the fees need to change. Fees for citizenship applications have not changed in several years. Now the processing fees will be higher than the fees people have to pay to submit their application.
However, why are these fees jumping from $200 to $400? What justifies that amount? So far, nobody has provided us with all of the information justifying that specific amount. Why not $50 more or $50 less? Does this amount really just cover the costs, or is it merely a way to get money from people who want citizenship? I would like a lot more information about that. If the government charges more, people are naturally going to expect better service.
This brings me back to the processing times, which are unacceptable. They have more than doubled under the Conservatives. Asking someone to pay more for a service is one thing, but providing a service that gets worse and worse is another. The government needs to make sure that higher fees go hand in hand with better service.
Furthermore, changing the age at which people must take the test in one of the official languages has upset many communities across the country. In the past, people aged 18 to 54 had to take the test in one of Canada's official languages. From now on, people aged 14 to 64 will have to do so.
I understand the importance of learning one of Canada's official languages. However, many people are worried. For instance, people aged 54 to 64 might have a harder time learning one of the official languages, studying for an exam or managing the related stress this could bring. Many people live within a community and could very easily get by in Canada without necessarily mastering a certain level of language. Such a change could cause a lot of stress, especially regarding the lower age limit at which people will have to take the test. Indeed, children as young as 14 will now have to take the test, and this could determine whether they get to become citizens or not.
What happens to a child who does not pass the test for some reason or another, while the rest of his or her family passes? Will that child be the only non-citizen in the family? Could this cause problems when the family wants to travel, for instance? Why impose a test with such serious consequences on children as young as 14, when we know that young people living here in Canada have to go to school in one of Canada's official languages and learn the language day in and day out? Why put that kind of pressure on a 14-year-old child? This is highly questionable. As I said, we had many discussions with a number of groups and individuals who all questioned this.
Another aspect worth debating that is upsetting people is the elimination of the use of the length of stay in Canada as a non-permanent resident. This measure is really troubling for many foreign students and temporary workers who have been in Canada for a few months, or even a few years, and who were planning on applying for citizenship in the near future. They now see that they might have to wait for many more years. This really changes their plans.
I have gotten a number of emails from my constituents and from people across Quebec and Canada. I think it is worth sharing some of them. For example, Abdoul Haseeb Awan said:
I chose and moved to Canada three years ago after being offered admission in world leading universities. I have won various prizes, grants and awards during the last three years. After graduating as Master in Engineering, I chose entrepreneurship. I was promised a PR status within 12 months, which took 19 months. [Yes, the delays are very long. I will have to wait] 2 more years for citizenship.
That person contributed, studied here, worked here, created jobs here, and does not understand why we would deny him consideration for the time he has lived and contributed in Canada.
Another example is an email from Andras Korinek. I will quote a few sentences from his email. He said:
The second issue I see with this bill is the new method of counting residence days. I personally came into Canada through a work permit and it took me 2 years to finally become a permanent resident. I think the intention of the bill to make sure applicants are supporting Canadian society and sharing Canadian values are honourable, however, the metrics used to measure this are flawed. I am contributing to Canada by working here and paying taxes. I have a Canadian spouse, Canadian friends, I joined a local sports team. I would like to be officially welcomed into Canadian society as a proud citizen.
One last example, though I have a lot of them, is from Sultan Ali Ahmed, a McGill University student, who arrived in August 2007. He says:
...there should be recognition given to students graduating from canadian universities, who were initially on study permits, started working after graduation and then applied for their PRs.
As members can see, many people are worried about seeing their plans change and are urging us to review this measure. This subject is worthy of an honest debate.
I would now like to talk about the elements that I do not even think are worthy of debate. I think they are extremely worrisome for several reasons. First, Bill C-24 increases the minister's discretionary power. Under this bill, the minister will now have the right to grant or revoke citizenship in special cases.
We have seen a lot of this from the Conservatives: using bills to grant themselves more discretionary powers. The NDP disagrees with this measure. This kind of discretionary power opens the door to turning our citizenship system into a political tool. The minister has said that he was not necessarily prepared to say to whom he would grant citizenship.
That a member of a political party could do such things behind closed doors is unacceptable. These are great powers. The citizenship process must be part of a system that people can trust because of its impartiality and transparency. I am very worried that by granting such powers to a minister we are moving in the opposite direction.
The bill raises another concern. According to the provisions of this bill, the minister can revoke citizenship—in the case of a dual citizen—when there is a suspicion of fraud. The key word here is “suspicion”. In fact, the minister has the power to revoke citizenship or to authorize a person to revoke it in his name if he is “satisfied on a balance of probabilities” that the person obtained citizenship fraudulently.
The problem is that the person will no longer be able to appear before an independent tribunal that would determine whether or not the allegations are true. That is important. A person with Canadian citizenship is a Canadian and should have access to a fair and just process under our justice system. It is worrisome in this case, and also in the case of someone who is accused of terrorism abroad and who must spend a few years in jail. Because of this charge, a person's citizenship can be revoked.
In a question to the minister, I mentioned earlier that the main concern in this case is that people can be accused of terrorism without having the right to a fair and just process in a country where the justice system is not immune to political pressure, for example.
We have already seen a number of such cases, even in Canada. People have been charged, spent several years in prison and then may have become heroes because they were imprisoned for political and partisan reasons. Someone behind me whispered the name of Nelson Mandela and, indeed, that could be one example. These are serious concerns.
In closing, this bill does not tackle the main problems with our citizenship system at present—the wait times and the backlog. The wait times are horrible. They have more than doubled under the Conservatives, who waited all these years before pretending to take an interest in the problem.
The government says that this bill will resolve the situation, but I am not so sure. Nothing in this bill can prove to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will be significant changes. On one hand, we are adjusting certain administrative measures to help the process run more smoothly or more quickly than before, but on the other, we are increasing the use of the residency questionnaire, which is extremely long to compile and analyze. Other criteria, such as a declaration of intent to live in Canada, are being added.
What is the point in making the system more efficient if we are asking the people who have to review the files to do extra work? How will that really help? People are fed up with being told to wait when they apply for citizenship and are entitled to it. They should get a response quickly and efficiently.
For a number of the reasons that I mentioned, I move, seconded by the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word "That" and substituting the following:
this House decline to give second reading to Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, because it:
(a) does not provide an adequate solution for reducing citizenship application processing times, which have been steadily increasing;
(b) puts new significant powers in the hands of the Minister that will allow this government to politicize the granting of Canadian citizenship;
(c) gives the Minister the power to revoke citizenship, which will deny some Canadians access to a fair trial in Canada and will raise serious questions since Canadian law already includes mechanisms to punish those who engage in unlawful acts; and
(d) includes a declaration of intent to reside provision, which in fact gives officials the power to speculate on the intent of a citizenship applicant and then potentially deny citizenship based on this conjecture.