Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-16, the citizenship act. I will be sharing my time with the member for Halifax West.
I am a relatively new member of parliament. I was elected in a byelection last November. I am especially pleased to get up and, for the first time, talk about a subject that is near and dear to my heart.
I have very strong feelings about immigrants and refugees. Like many people in the House, my grandparents were immigrants to this country; on the one side from Germany and on the other from the Ukraine. My family members were farmers and settlers. As I was growing up, we did have a multicultural society for the time, a patchwork quilt in Saskatchewan of a variety of people, mostly from central Europe, in addition to the aboriginal people of course who had lived here for thousands of years.
My wife's family were Mennonite farmers who similarly had a long and interesting history of moving from place to place to place and always making great contributions in whatever place they lived.
One of the strongest experiences I have had with immigrant and refugee people was during the 1973 disaster in Chile when people had to leave their country. Interestingly, many of them at that time were branded as criminals by a regime that was actually criminal. I will have more to say about criminality and immigrants and refugees in a moment. It was clear and remains clear what a great contribution the Chilean community made to Canada. I am very pleased to say, in a personal sense, that some of these Chileans, who I met in the mid-seventies, remain my closest and dearest friends.
In 1979, 1980 and 1981 I worked with the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina. One of the very busy but pleasant jobs that we had was to welcome the Vietnamese boat people who were adrift in the South China Sea and ended up, in some cases, in our country. We co-operated with the immigration department in setting up umbrella agreements so that communities could accept these people.
I also want to mention that perhaps 10 to 15 years after these people came here destitute, and, in some cases, not even the clothes on their backs when they got off the ships, a significant academic study was completed showing that the Vietnamese refugees in Canada had made a very significant economic and social contribution to our country.
Both my wife and I have been involved in refugee work from almost the beginning of our marriage, which goes back many years. We have, in successive times and places, welcomed Central Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, eastern Europeans, Somalis, Eritreans, Bosnians, Africans, particularly from Sudan, and the most recent family we have worked with is an Afghani family who had spent years in refugee camps in Pakistan.
I do believe I have some knowledge on which to speak, although not as much as my wife, but I can tell the House that it is often very worthwhile and interesting to work with people before making pronouncements about what one fears may be their negative contribution to our country. That has been far from our experience.
In a more philosophical vein, I did spend a number of years working for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops who often had things to say about immigration policy and the whole question of immigrants and refugees. I will only mention one point and it is of a theological nature.
I learned, from things that the bishop said about the biblical code of people in countries at the time of Christ and before, how to welcome a stranger. When the stranger came, they opened their tent; they killed the fatted calf; they literally rolled out the carpet. One of the statements the bishops issued while I was working with them on the immigration policy was called “Welcome the Stranger”.
Before I get into more specifics of the bill, I want to mention my political experience, brief as it may be. During the byelection in November 1999, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of immigrant peoples in the riding of Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, particularly on the west side of Saskatoon where I was doing my door knocking. When I knocked on the doors of Filipino people, Vietnamese people and people from other countries, I was often welcomed in a way that I was sometimes not at other doors. These people were extremely pleased to be taking some part in the democratic process. I remember various episodes where people told me that it was not only their duty but their pleasure to vote and become involved.
I can remember a Filipino man in particular. When I went to his house in the dark one evening, he invited me in and asked if I was alone. When I said that I was alone, he said “Well, what a wonderful country when you can campaign politically without having to take your bodyguards along with you”. That was the experience that he was bringing to this and that was his view of our country and now his country.
I will summarize by saying that I have great respect, admiration and compassion for immigrant and refugee peoples. This arises out of my family background, my life experiences and my philosophical orientation.
I know that often there is a backlash toward immigrants and refugees. For all the reasons I have mentioned, I certainly do not share that. I try at every opportunity to talk to people about it.
I want to say as well, as my colleague from Winnipeg Centre said earlier today, that there is an element of self-interest in our welcoming immigrant and refugee people. He talked about how Canada should think about and decide how many people it wants and what sort of population it wants, and cast its policies in that way. If we look at our past, and he mentioned the time of Sifton when the great west was settled, there was a great openness for people from other countries because we knew that we needed them. I would say that we still need them today and will continue to need them in the future.
If we have any doubt of that, there was an interesting story in the newspaper within the past week about Japan and Korea and how they will have to have fairly massive immigration. Otherwise they will see a loss in population and a shortage of workers, and I would say a shortage of prosperity. That is something which Canada has to look at as well.
This does not mean that it should be completely open ended. We have to have due process. We have to ensure that we do not have queue jumping. We have to do checks to ensure that we are not accepting people with a criminal past into our country.
If I may, I would like to make several specific references to the bill. I have talked about due process. A good number of groups appeared, on a previous incarnation of this bill, to talk about things they thought important, and they made some very good points. I will refer to a few of them.
There is a possibility, the way the legislation is structured, of giving the minister new powers to annul citizenship and broadening measures to revoke it. This means that citizens born outside Canada could lose citizenship, even after many years here, without due process, and in some cases without the right to a hearing.
There are lengthened residency requirements for citizenship. We are concerned about some of these.
There are increased language requirements, imposing more rigorous requirements on applicants for citizenship. This would penalize people who have difficulty learning a new language, and elderly people, often women, survivors of torture.
I could tell the House of the experiences I have had since being elected of immigrants who have come to me who have had great problems one way or another with the language, which creates great problems with the immigration officials.
There will be a certain loss of discretion in citizenship making. Citizenship judges will no longer be the people who make decisions. Frequently it will be civil servants working within specific guidelines. This concerns our caucus as well. We believe that cabinet powers to refuse citizenship are too broad.
We are concerned that business people may find the requirement to live in Canada for three of six years such a difficulty that many may not immigrate to Canada and may take their business elsewhere as a result.
In summary, I and my colleagues in the New Democratic Party feel that it is time this bill be brought to bear and that we have new regulations for immigration, but at the same time we have certain concerns with the bill, some of which I have outlined very briefly and others which my colleague from Winnipeg Centre talked about in more detail earlier today.
We would hope to see in committee some changes which would improve this bill and make it more possible for us, perhaps, to support it.