Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in the debate on Bill C-24 and the major changes it makes to the Citizenship Act.
I am pleased to take part in the debate on this bill, which makes significant changes to our Citizenship Act. I am proud to be with the hon. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, who introduced this bill. As the former minister of citizenship and immigration, I worked hard with the public servants at Citizenship and Immigration Canada and with new Canadians to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship, which is one of the most important things we possess as parliamentarians and citizens. Citizenship unites us and defines us. It is the basis of our values and our shared identity as members of the Canadian family.
When I became the minister of citizenship and immigration in 2008, I quickly learned from new Canadians of all backgrounds because I listened to them. Those new Canadians, from more than 180 countries around the world, came to Canada to start a new life and become Canadians. They were chasing the Canadian dream, freedom and opportunity. As economic immigrants from the four corners of the world, they wanted to benefit from freedom and the rule of law, traditions enshrined in our constitutional and parliamentary system.
The vast majority of those new Canadians shared a sense of Canadian identity and a sense of duty towards this country. They wanted to strengthen that identity. They did not want to pursue diversity for the sake of diversity. They appreciated our country's diversity, yes, but they appreciated the unity of that diversity even more. That is what I learned and heard from new Canadians of all backgrounds.
I also learned that new Canadians are clearly the strongest defenders of the importance of the integrity and value of Canadian citizenship. New Canadians were the ones who brought to my attention some of the terrible situations and fraud networks that seek to abuse our immigration and citizenship system. New Canadians were the ones who informed me of unscrupulous consultants who manufactured evidence of residency in Canada for obtaining citizenship.
New Canadians were the ones who complained to me about new citizens who cannot speak one of our official languages and therefore cannot really be active members of our society. New Canadians were the ones who told me, with regard to our shared citizenship, that not enough value is placed on the knowledge of our country, its history, its identity and its values.
When I became Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in 2008, by listening with some humility, I hope, to new Canadians from all origins, I learned that their view was that successive Canadians governments had not invested enough importance in protecting the integrity of our shared citizenship.
I learned from these new Canadians about fraud networks organizing fake proof of residency to obtain citizenship and people becoming citizens who did not speak either of our common languages, even at a basic level. They also knew little or nothing about our country's identity, history, and values.
That is why, in 2009, we launched the citizenship action plan to re-establish the value of Canadian citizenship and restore integrity to the process of its acquisition. It was to say that Canada is an open and generous country, but that it will not tolerate those who seek to abuse its generosity. We went systematically through all of the different aspects of the program. We began with combatting citizenship fraud.
I insisted that our officials at CIC focus not just on the quantity of applications processed, but also take seriously the quality of those applications, meaning that they ensure that people actually meet the real legislative requirements contemplated by this Parliament in its adoption of the 1977 Citizenship Act. Specifically, applicants for citizenship first have to demonstrate that they are resident in Canada for at least three out of four years. Second, except for those with severe learning disabilities or those who are older or very young, they have to demonstrate that they can communicate in one of the two official languages. Third, applicants have to demonstrate a basic knowledge of Canada.
What did we find? First of all, in terms of residency, we found that there were consultants out there brazenly selling, as a service to foreign nationals, the fabrication of false evidence of their residency. If members do not believe me, they can go and google it and see online that there are consultants in certain parts of the world who brazenly advertise the value of Canadian citizenship.
To give one regional example, in the Gulf states, a foreign national from a developing country who gets a Canadian passport finds that their salary suddenly increases. There is a commercial value attached to the acquisition of a Canadian passport, but some people do not want to come here and actually live here in order to obtain it. They would rather stay in a tax haven, making a good living while a consultant fabricates fake receipts for rent, financial transactions, and the like. These consultants are handsomely paid.
I would like to thank and commend members of the Canadian Lebanese community for having brought this issue to my attention. When I learned about it, I insisted that our officials, the Border Services Agency, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigate these allegations of fraud, which they did. As a result, to date more than 10,000 cases have been identified of individuals either obtaining citizenship fraudulently or being in the process of doing so. We know that there are many thousands more.
To put this into perspective, it is a relatively small fraction of the overall number of people who obtain citizenship. However, to protect the value of the passport for bona fide citizens, we have to clearly demonstrate serious sanctions and rigour for mala fide applicants of citizenship. They would be the applicants who do not actually live here or who have no connection to Canada.
Similarly, I was disturbed in my early tenure at immigration to encounter a significant number of people who had obtained Canadian citizenship in their adult years, whether they were middle-aged or in young adulthood, but who could not communicate in either English or French. The notion that citizens should be able to speak one of our two languages is not an invention of the government. It is not unique to Canada. It has always been a feature of our citizenship law, ever since the first one was adopted in 1947 by the government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
Why? It is because citizenship represents full membership in our political community. It implies participation in our shared civic life. It grants the right of self-government through voting to select one's own government or, indeed, of participating in it by running for public office. One cannot do those things fully if one does not have the ability to communicate with one's fellow citizens.
This is not to denigrate or make a pejorative judgment about those among us in Canada who have limited or no English or French language proficiency, many of whom are wonderful, hard-working people and well intentioned. We honour them and we hope that they will become full members of our civic community. We invest hundreds of millions of dollars to this end. This government has tripled the public spending on settlement services, including free language classes to assist those people in becoming proficient.
By the way, the opposition members always say we should have evidence-based policy. I agree, and that is what this bill is based on. The evidence tells us that language proficiency in English or French is the single most important factor in the economic and social success of newcomers to Canada, bar none. That is not an opinion; that is the cumulative result of virtually every study done in this respect in Canada and around the world.
Language proficiency in English or French in this country is the key that unlocks opportunity. It is the bridge into our full participation in our political and civic community. We do no favours to tell new Canadians that we will ignore it if they do not have even basic competency in English or French. That is analogous to telling high school students that even though they do not pass the grades, even though they are not numerate or literate, we will give them social passes through to grade 12. We all know that does not do them any favour when they get out into the real world; similarly, it does not do newcomers any favour to tell them that they can become members of a community with which they cannot yet communicate.
It is no coincidence that these words come from the same root. Citizenship is entrance and participation, full membership, in a community, which is obviously implicitly predicated on the ability to communicate. That is why, as part of the citizenship action plan, we defined clear, objective benchmarks for proficiency in English or French for the first time and began testing people. In the past they just had to come in and do a two-minute interview with CIC officials. They would frequently be coached by their immigration consultants on the standard questions. That is how people with no language proficiency in English or French ended up fraudulently, I would say, obtaining our citizenship. It was wrong and it no longer happens.
Then we went about revising our program on knowledge of Canada. That is the third requirement. In the 1977 act and the 1947 act, it is required that people must have a basic knowledge of Canada's values, history, laws, and political system. It is what is called civic literacy.
Again, this is not a reflection of this government or of me alone, but of people across the political spectrum, including many social democrats, many small-l liberals, and many academics and intellectuals. They include people like Jack Granatstein, a prominent Liberal and Canadian historian; people like Andrew Cohen, a prominent small-l liberal professor at Carleton University and author of a book on this subject; people like Rudyard Griffiths, who wrote another book on Canadian identity. All of them, and others, have identified a real challenge in this country with respect to civic literacy, including understanding our political institutions and how they took shape and what our obligations are—not just what our rights are, but also what our responsibilities are as citizens. These things are essential, especially in a country of such diversity, especially in a country that is maintaining one of the highest levels of immigration in the developed world, especially in a country that welcomes a quarter of a million permanent residents every year.
We must be intentional about ensuring that those newcomers who become members of our community through the citizenship process know the country they are joining and understand its laws and its customs. This is why, for example, we were very blunt in the new citizenship guide, Discover Canada, which leads to the new and admittedly more rigorous test, in saying that Canada's tolerance and generosity do not extend to certain barbaric cultural practices, including so-called honour crimes, female genital mutilation, spousal violence, et cetera, and that such crimes are condemned and severely punished in Canada”.
In Canada, we are generous, we are pluralist, but we believe in certain objective values, such as the equality of men and women, values that are rooted in our history and our identity. That is why we brought in the new test and why we brought in the new study guide. In the old test, which was 20 multiple choice questions, one standard set of questions, unethical ghost immigration consultants got the answer key and actually sold it to applicants for citizenship. Consequently, 98% of those who wrote the citizenship knowledge test were passing, because they just memorized the answer key and because, frankly, the information was so insipid.
Under the citizenship guide called “A Look at Canada”, published by the previous government, there were nearly two pages of information on recycling, but there was not one sentence on Canadian military history. This building was reconstructed in the 1920s partly as a monument to our war dead from the Great War. The Peace Tower houses the names of over 114,000 Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice for our democratic rights. Our citizenship is predicated on those rights, yet new citizens could write the test and become Canadians without ever having heard or read a word about our war dead, about the greatest Canadians.
This government took the position that it was more important for new Canadians to know the meaning of the red poppy than the blue box, more important to know about our military history than such prosaic mundane matters as recycling.