Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to be here to rise to speak in support of Bill C-24, which really does demonstrate our government's commitment to strengthening the value of Canadian citizenship.
Canadian citizenship, as every one of us in the House knows, is among the most valued citizenships in the world and the bill would ensure that it remains that way.
First, let me be clear. We want newcomers to come to Canada. We need them to grow this country, as Canada has throughout its great history. They are the nation builders of today and the nation builders of tomorrow. The question is how we get there.
We have accepted 1.4 million new citizens to Canada since the Conservatives were elected in 2006. That is an unprecedented number that puts Canada among the top countries among our peers. That is a lot of people, and we welcome them.
We also believe we should help to prepare those people, those newcomers, in the very best way we can, so they can succeed here. Enter Bill C-24. It is in all of our best interests to do that.
What does this really mean on the ground? There are three things it means.
First of all, it means we want newcomers to bond with their new home. We want them to feel they are part of Canada. We believe they should have a strong attachment to this country by having a significant Canadian experience before they become citizens. Hence, that means adding one year, going from three years to four years' residency, or actually 1,460 days now, before they can become a citizen.
Second, we require that they, yes, actually be present here in Canada while they are building that understanding of Canadian values and way of life.
Third, to help our newcomers integrate, we believe they should know one of our official languages. It seems reasonable to most people. This will help our newcomers to succeed and it will help Canada to succeed by opening its doors to them.
Gillian Smith of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship works extensively with Canada's newcomers, and she said she has found overwhelming support among them for these kinds of changes. Our newest citizens report that the measures that actually help them to foster their connections and attachment with Canada have had the most positive effect on their integration.
Their sense of belonging comes in large measure from actually experiencing Canada first-hand, its people, nature, culture, heritage, and yes, its cold winters, its hockey, its Tim Hortons, and all of that which goes along with being a Canadian. This is where our connections with each other really develop.
An understanding of one of our official languages and a deeper knowledge of these kinds of values and traditions help newcomers become active members of Canadian society a lot sooner. This will assist them on their path to seize the opportunities that are the reason they are coming to Canada, and that is what we want.
Our government's proposed changes would also expand the ages for citizenship applicants who are required to demonstrate this kind of language proficiency, as well as take the knowledge test. Currently, it is from ages 18 to 54. It would go from ages 14 to 64.
There are critics who will say that these moves to strengthen the residency and language requirements would make it harder to become a Canadian citizen. We believe that people who really wish to hold the coveted Canadian passport, to call Canada their home, will achieve these requirements. Something valued is something that really is worth working for.
In the past, it has not always been that way. I point to immigration lawyer Raj Sharma, who told my friend Doug Dirks, the host of CBC Calgary's The Homestretch, that “basically, an eight-year-old with a crayon could have passed the previous knowledge test to become a Canadian citizen...”. That is actually what he said. This is one very busy immigration lawyer.
This is something we do not take lightly. By strengthening the residency and knowledge requirements, we are making sure new citizens are both more committed and fully prepared to actually take up life here in Canada. This is balancing rights and responsibilities.
The Aga Khan was here in this House today, and he spoke about this very thing. He talked about a healthy civil society, and he said that Canada accepted a major wave of Ismailis in the 1970s during the brutal Idi Amin era. The Aga Khan placed Canada first among all in creating a pluralistic society. However, in building a healthy civil society, the Aga Khan said what that takes is balancing rights and responsibilities. That is exactly what the act would do for new citizens.
Author Nick Noorani expressed a similar sentiment on CBC Radio a while back when he said it is not becoming more difficult, it is putting in place checks and balances.
He also said he is a very proud Canadian and believes that anyone who wants to become a Canadian should follow certain rules and regulations. For instance, he said, for people who have misused the system, the government is now putting a premium on Canadian citizenship, as well it should be.
To come back to the residency requirement, it would only include time that the person spends in Canada as a permanent resident, which has not always been the case. In the past, the rules were a little fuzzy and often taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. We are making them crystal clear. Newcomers who are coming to build Canada expect and want to be contributors, and this would give them more time to establish themselves here.
My own son-in-law would be affected by these proposed changes. He would have to spend an extra year in Canada to get citizenship, and that is okay. Canadian citizenship is something worth working for.
This is what Canadians rightly expect. They welcome newcomers as citizens and full members of our Canadian family, but not people who want to hold a citizenship of convenience as a backup plan while they live and work somewhere else.
However, there will be exceptions. Applicants who are outside of Canada because they are accompanying either their Canadian spouse or parent who is employed in the Canadian Armed Forces, or as a servant of the Crown, could still qualify for citizenship. This is to prevent residents from being penalized for their family's service abroad for Canada. We are honouring those who serve Canada, and showing our gratitude for those who put their lives on hold in service to our country.
Canadian citizenship is an honour and a privilege. It comes not only with rights, but with responsibilities. Immigrants understand that. They are very proud to fulfill these responsibilities. In fact, over 85% of permanent residents who have gone on to become citizens support these initiatives.
In 2012, more than 110,000 people became proud Canadian citizens. This year alone, we held 1,722 citizenship ceremonies from coast to coast to coast.
One of my favourite things to do as a member Parliament is to preside over citizenship ceremonies. They are heartwarming and even tear-jerking. As a Canadian, I feel honoured that these people have chosen Canada and are taking a pledge to become part of the Canadian family. They have often undergone great hardship to come to Canada, but it has been worth it because of the value of Canadian citizenship that this act underscores.
These people want to come and contribute to our economy. Many have come to Canada for security for their home and family under the rule of law. They are overwhelmingly pleased with these changes because, again, they value Canadian citizenship. They believe that it should only be granted to people like them who live and play by the rules.
We have to continue to ensure that this is the Canada we are protecting and preserving for all of us into the future. The strengthening Canadian citizenship act would enhance the value and integrity of our Canadian citizenship and would ensure that it is going to be valued just as much by future generations.
We are accepting unprecedented numbers of immigrants, and earlier I mentioned it has been 1.4 million people since 2006. We are ranked as the top among our peer countries in this.
The strengthening Canadian citizenship act that we are very proud to be putting forward today is a necessary measure. It is supported by newcomers to Canada. It will ensure that we can continue to keep the doors to Canada open, create this pluralistic society that the Aga Khan talked about and that all of us are proud of, and ensure that newcomers are in the very best position to succeed when they come to Canada.