Mr. Speaker, I am both pleased and proud to rise in the House tonight to once again speak in support of Bill C-24, the strengthening Canadian citizenship act.
The Citizenship Act in its current form has not been updated or reviewed since 1977. It is now almost a generation later, and while changes have been made to many other pieces of legislation, the Citizenship Act has yet to be addressed. We must ensure that it is relevant and will meet the needs and challenges our citizens and prospective citizens in today's Canada have.
One of the current requirements that I am sure all of us can agree should be enforced is that citizenship should promote attachment to Canada and Canadian values. It should also promote and mandate a responsibility to participate in the life of our communities and our institutions. However, under the current and outdated act, lengthy processing times mean qualified applicants are waiting too long for their citizenship, and the citizenship fees associated do not reflect the full costs.
As I have been saying since this legislation was introduced earlier this year, the measures in the bill represent the first comprehensive reforms to the Citizenship Act in more than a generation. They would ensure that the process reflects the great importance Canadians place on their citizenship, improve the efficiency of the process by which newcomers become Canadian citizens, and deter citizens of convenience.
If implemented, these measures would fulfill a commitment made by our government in the most recent Speech from the Throne and would protect and strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship in four specific ways: by improving processing efficiency in the citizenship program, by reinforcing the value of Canadian citizenship, by strengthening integrity and combatting fraud, and by protecting and promoting Canada's interests and values.
I would like to go into some specifics in each of these areas. As I do so, I will address and try to bring clarity to a number of misconceptions about the bill that have arisen since it was introduced in February.
The measures in Bill C-24 would improve the efficiency of the citizenship program and are the foundation of the initiative we have called the blueprint for citizenship improvements.
Before I go on, I want to quote one of the many witnesses we heard at the citizenship and immigration committee, Ms. Salma Siddiqui, from the Coalition of Progressive Canadian Muslims. This is what Ms. Siddiqui said:
I have heard concerns that Bill C-24 represents a knee-jerk reaction or that it serves a—quote—political process. I disagree. Bill C-24 represents an assertion of the pride we hold in our values of an open, liberal democracy, where our freedoms are applied to all. Ladies and gentlemen, we must be reasonable.
She said this at the meeting on May 14 of this year.
Since 2006, Canada has welcomed an average of more than 250,000 newcomers a year, the highest sustained level of immigration in our country's history. As a result, the demand for citizenship has increased by more than 30%.
The measures in the blueprint for citizenship improvements in Bill C-24 include a streamlined decision-making model, an improved ability to determine what constitutes a complete application, and a strengthened authority to abandon applications where applicants would not take the steps requested to provide information or appear for a hearing. These measures would improve the process, support ongoing efforts to speed up citizenship processing, and ensure that resources are focused on processing qualified applicants.
In addressing backlogs, there are two quotations I would like to bring to the House's attention. Mr. Warren Creates is an immigration lawyer, and this is what he said:
There'll be a one-step process. It's going to take a year. This is what people want. They want clarity. They want certainty and they want efficiency, and the Canadian taxpayer wants that too.
This was said on Ottawa Morning on CBC Radio One on February 10.
Richard Kurland, who is a renowned immigration lawyer in our country, said on Global TV's Global National, on February 6, 2014:
The guesswork is taken out of this new system and your processing time will be, relatively speaking, lightning fast.
I urge the members opposite to support the passage of the bill so that it receives royal assent this summer. The passage of the strengthening Canadian citizenship act would significantly reduce the backlog and average processing time for citizenship applications. This is something the opposition has supported in the past, and the responsible thing would be to support it now.
The blueprint for citizenship improvements mandates a new single-step decision-making model, thus improving processing timelines.
However, a misconception has arisen about this efficiency measure. There is a worry that we are moving away from independent decision-makers. I want to reassure my hon. colleagues in this House that this is not the case. In fact, citizenship officers are unfettered, highly qualified decision-makers who are delegated to review and make approximately 100,000 case decisions a year on citizenship matters. Their decision to grant or deny citizenship would continue to be based on the criteria in the law, supported by objective evidence.
The second set of reforms in the strengthening Canadian citizenship act would strengthen the rules around access to Canadian citizenship, ensuring that those rules reflect the true value of Canadian citizenship and that new citizens are better prepared for full participation in Canadian life.
If implemented, Bill C-24 would lengthen the residency requirement from three years to four years in Canada to four of the previous six years before a person could apply for citizenship. It would clarify that residence means physical presence in Canada, which I think is a reasonable expectation Canadians have. It would require adult citizenship applicants to file income tax returns for four years out of the previous six, if required to do so under the Income Tax Act, to be eligible for citizenship, and it would also to require them to make an upfront commitment that they intend to reside in Canada.
Several people have commented on just those provisions, and I would like to point out some of them.
Toronto Sun columnist Simon Kent said, on February 6 in Straight Talk, that he thought a lot of people would say that it is a reasonable expectation if one wants to live in Canada. If people want to enjoy living in a free and prosperous country like Canada, they should spend time here and live here and contribute to society. He said that he knows it sounds like something out of politics 101, but that people living here, enjoying the fruits of their labour, paying their taxes, showing that they are committed, and having an extended period of permanent residency from three to four years, and maybe even five, before taking up citizenship is a fair and reasonable proposition.
Gillian Smith, executive director and chief executive officer of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, said:
Our organization works extensively with Canada's newest citizens who tell us that measures taken to foster their attachment and connection to Canada have a positive effect on their successful integration. New citizens' sense of belonging comes in large measure from experiencing Canada first-hand: its people, nature, culture and heritage.
Bal Gupta, a widower, from the Air-India 182 Victims Families Association, endured a tragic experience in his life.
Well, it's not anything new. When I came to Canada in 1968, at that time the requirement was five years, except that there was a loophole for Commonwealth citizens. For them it was three years. So it is not anything unusual. Also, many countries around the world have a five-year residency requirement, so it is not unusual to have a requirement of four years. I don't think it is something that's unreasonable.
Reis Pagtakhan, an immigration lawyer, said:
First, I would like to support the proposal to change the residency requirement for citizenship from three out of four to four out of six years. I believe that the longer an individual lives, works, or studies in Canada, the greater connection that person will have to our country.
James Bissett appeared before our committee as an individual. Here is what Mr. Bissett had to say:
I'm also pleased to see that we've extended the wait time by at least one year. I argued in 1977 that we shouldn't have abandoned the five-year wait. I think three years has been too short a period for people to know enough about Canada and our cultural systems to apply for citizenship. I approve of that change, even though it doesn't go quite as far as I might have wanted.
Mr. Bissett was the deputy minister in 1977.
I would like to address the ill-informed argument against some of these measures, which states that the intention to reside provision contravenes mobility rights guaranteed under the charter. In fact, the provision simply signals that citizenship is for those who intend to make Canada their home. Citizenship applicants would be asked as part of the application process whether they intend to reside in Canada. I do not think we would find a Canadian in the country who would say that people can have citizenship even if they do not intend to reside here.
If applicants indicate that they do not intend to reside in this country, they would not be granted citizenship, as Canadian citizenship means contributing to Canadian life. These requirements are not onerous, and they are in line with those of key partner nations, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
Nothing about this provision would limit the mobility rights of new citizens. They would be able to leave and return to Canada like any other citizen. In fact, as my hon. colleagues are aware, every government bill presented in the House of Commons is to be examined by the Minister of Justice to ascertain if it is consistent with the purposes or provisions of the charter. Bill C-24, as my hon. colleagues should know, is no exception, and it would not be before the House today in its current form if any such inconsistencies had been found.
The third set of measures in Bill C-24 would help counter citizenship fraud and combat abuse of the citizenship process. Among other reforms, these measures would give the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration the authority to develop regulations to designate a regulatory body whose members would be authorized to act as consultants in citizenship matters. The measures would also substantially increase the penalty for committing citizenship fraud, which has not been increased since 1977; streamline the revocation process; and bar people whose citizenship was revoked before they obtained it fraudulently from reapplying for citizenship for 10 years.
Finally, it would provide the authority to revoke Canadian citizenship from dual citizens who are members of an armed force or organized armed group engaged in armed conflict against our country, Canada, and to deny citizenship to permanent residents involved in the same actions. Dual citizens and permanent residents convicted of terrorism, treason, high treason, or spying offences would be similarly affected, depending on the sentence received in the courts.
These last measures, although they would likely only apply to a small number of individuals, would deliver a very strong and clear message that those who betray our country or take up arms against our armed forces have, in essence, forfeited their right to Canadian citizenship. The opposition parties have criticized our government for this provision. On this side of the House, we are sending a clear message to those who commit serious crimes such as terrorism. Canada's doors are closed and will remain closed to criminals who are undeserving of the rich opportunities that exist with Canadian citizenship.
Any government's priority is the safety and security of its people. The people are who we serve.
We are proud to say these measures are fully in line with our efforts in this regard. This is what Canadians expect and this is what they deserve.
Here is what Shimon Fogel, from the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs, had to say about that very issue:
—one of the things that has been percolating is the notion of not just the rights we enjoy but the responsibilities that attach to being a Canadian.
I don't look at this so much as an issue of punishing people by revoking their citizenship as a result of particular undertakings or acts they've committed, but rather that they are so fundamentally at odds with core Canadian values that there's no rationale or way to reconcile Canadian citizenship with that kind of activity.
Sheryl Saperia, from the Foundation of Defense of Democracy, said:
Bill C-24 suggests that Canadian citizenship, whether bestowed by birthright or naturalization, is predicated on a most basic commitment to the state: that citizens abstain from committing those offences considered most contrary to the national security interests of Canada.
Maureen Basnicki, from the Canadian Coalition Against Terror, Alliance of Canadian Terror Victims Foundation, said:
—yes, terrorism is a global situation. Even though Canada has been fortunate in not having large numbers of Canadians who have been killed by terrorists, we do have them, by the way, from 9/11 and from Air India and many other acts of terror. So we can't disregard that. We do have Canadians who choose to engage in terrorist activities. So if this bill or any such legislation could help deter and help Canada with its statement of intolerance for the most heinous crimes—not to create a hierarchy but it targets innocent civilians—if this can help then I think it's a good thing.
While the package of reforms before us today has been well received by Canadians as reasonable, even overdue, changes to Canada's citizenship laws, the most vocal opponents have been telling.
We have heard the manufactured umbrage of activist immigration lawyers who never miss an opportunity to criticize our government's citizenship and immigration reforms. Their feigned outrage is generally born out of pure self-interest in our opinion and that is the case in this instance.
These activist lawyers, some of them opposition partisans, oppose this change because they are attempting to drum up business by promoting the interests of convicted terrorists and serious criminals over the safety and security of Canadians.
I see the opposition House leader smiling over there. That is a fact, Mr. Speaker. There is nothing to smile about. You should be ashamed to make those kinds of comments—