Mr. Speaker, to hold Canadian citizenship is our greatest honour and responsibility. It is also recognized around the world as a symbol of opportunity, equality, freedom, fairness, and above all hope.
If we are to move forward as a nation Canadian citizenship must be strengthened and appreciated even more.
Next week is National Citizenship Week, a time when all Canadians are encouraged to reflect on the principles, rights and responsibilities of our citizenship. Therefore this is a most opportune time for me to make two announcements on behalf of the government and the people of Canada.
First, I am pleased to announce plans for the development of a new Citizenship Act. We have had a proud history of citizenship legislation in the country, a history of generosity and progressiveness, but the Citizenship Act as it exists today is almost 20 years old and we have rarely amended it in any serious fashion.
I wish to propose far-reaching changes to citizenship legislation that will be part of the renewal of our identity as Canadians-changes to strenghten the ties that hold us together-whether we are Canadian by birth or by choice.
There are compelling reasons to undertake this initiative at this time. It actively addresses an issue important to all Canadians, affirming a sense of pride in ourselves and confidence in our nation.
We also require a new Citizenship Act both to respond to the realities of our changing society and to guide us into that future. We need a dynamic act that underscores the significance of an active, aggressive, enthusiastic citizenship. We need a Citizenship Act that also ensures fairness and integrity, one that removes certain discriminatory aspects of current legislation, eliminates inconsistencies in the granting of Canadian citizenship and improves the process of acquiring that citizenship and that Canadian passport.
These important issues need the input and deliberation of Canadians and the careful consideration by members of Parliament in this Chamber.
That is why I am pleased to say that the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration will be examining the principles, rights and responsibilities which are fundamental to the Canadian concept of responsible citizenship.
I have asked the committee to consider the reciprocal obligations inherent in the relationship between Canadian citizens and our society.
I hope the committee will make recommendations on ways to enhance the value and visibility of Canadian citizenship. I am hopeful that a report can be completed by June and make way for preparations of a bill to come to this place in the fall.
Creating a new vision of citizenship for all Canadians is vital but it is not enough. Too many of those who are currently entitled to become citizens and desperately want to do so are blocked by an administrative system which has become overburdened and unable to cope.
Denying would-be citizens the chance to participate in and contribute to the life of our society is unacceptable for this minister and this government.
In Toronto, for instance, people have had to wait as long as two years to get their citizenship after meeting all the basic requirements and criteria of being landed immigrants for three years. That is unacceptable as well.
There are a number of serious bottlenecks in the system. We are one of the last countries, one of the last jurisdictions, for instance, to grant citizenship through a one on one interview basis conducted by citizenship court judges. In essence we are saying yes too slowly and at too high a cost because 95 per cent of all applicants get accepted. Why make them wait and why do
taxpayers have to pay the price for that process to take shape? Clearly there is a better way.
That brings me to the second announcement. I intend on the part of the government to streamline the system by eliminating the role of citizenship judges and replacing them with a more efficient and effective administrative process. However we will not wait until legislation is passed in order to do away with the position of citizenship court judges as a way of enhancing the processing of time.
We will move instead immediately on a series of administrative and regulatory changes to speed up the process today. This includes increasing the daily number of hearings, establishing group hearings to test knowledge and language requirements, encouraging applicants to file by mail rather than the long administrative process they have to go through today, extending business hours to evenings and Saturdays for citizenship courts which is also more convenient for the working public, as well as inviting distinguished Canadians to preside at citizenship ceremonies.
These measures will speed up the process. They will also strengthen the fairness of the system and ensure that all citizenship candidates meet the essential requirements that we as Canadians would want. My ultimate goal and that of my government is that applicants obtain citizenship six months after applying for this privilege.
Our judges have done a fine job and we are indebted to them for their work. Let us be perfectly clear. The political and partisan appointments of citizenship judges will become a thing of the past. As vacancies arise new citizenship court judges will not be appointed. Current judges will become part of the new administrative process and help us in this transition until the expiry of their terms.
Mr. Speaker, I have discussed this issue with my hon. colleague the President of the Privy Council and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. I am pleased to say that these changes are in step with the initiative taken by government to streamline its agencies and commissions, and to reduce to a minimum the number of order-in-council appointments.
I propose to ask eminent Canadians, for instance, those who have received the Order of Canada, to preside over citizenship ceremonies. I also intend to move more of those ceremonies out of the citizenship courts and into the heart of all of our communities, the heart of Canada, so that citizenships can be celebrated in school gymnasiums, in cultural auditoriums, in community halls, in church basements where many more people from the entire community can join in honouring and welcoming the new members of the Canadian family and where all of us, young and old, can be reminded of the importance of our citizenship. Sometimes the things we value most are the things we take for granted. We must start to view citizenship as more than just the aspirations of immigrants and newcomers to Canada. We must come to celebrate citizenship as a bond among all of us.
I am counting on the members of the House of Commons, the members of the committee and my parliamentary secretary, whom I wish to thank, to help make this initiative truly meaningful and inspirational.
I will also work closely with my colleagues, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and others in the development and promotion of our new Citizenship Act.
A country's citizenship act should be a proud, bold and enthusiastic statement of its history, its hopes, its principles and its dreams. A revitalized citizenship act should be a symbol of what we hold to be important as Canadians.
There is an appetite across the country for us to strengthen those symbols and to articulate the vision that ties us all together as Canadians, irrespective of the fierce loyalty we feel for our regions, our provinces and our own backyards.
We need a symbol that unites us, east to west to north. I invite all hon. members to join with me and the government in this exciting endeavour and to seize this opportunity for progress and renewal of the Canadian spirit.