Mr. Speaker, I rise today to take part in this important debate on my hon. colleague's private member's bill.
The Conservative sponsor of this bill seems to be trying to do two contradictory things: to fast-track citizenship for some and then to make it easier to strip it from others. I would like to address each of those issues separately.
The bill would offer a new ministerial power to shorten permanent residency requirements for members of the Canadian armed forces who are seeking citizenship.
I want to make it clear that New Democrats support efforts to honour the permanent residents who serve in the armed forces as indeed we should honour all our veterans and current service members.
We also believe strongly in a military that is reflective of Canada's diversity.
In 2006, the Canadian immigrant population rose to 6.2 million, accounting for almost 20% of the Canadian population. It is projected that by 2017 the visible minority population will represent approximately one in five Canadians. However, data from the 2008 census also shows that the Canadian Forces do not reflect the same level of ethnocultural diversity. A small proportion of Canadian Forces personnel, only 6%, were non-Caucasians compared with 17% of the regular working population.
If my hon. colleague's intention is to bring greater diversity to the military, then that is a concept I can support. However, I think it is important for the House to examine this aspect of the legislation very carefully. The reality is that circumstances under which a permanent resident would be able to enrol in the Canadian Forces appear to be extremely narrow. In fact, the Canadian Forces website and a call by my office to the Ottawa recruitment centre have made it clear that a permanent resident may not enrol in the Canadian Forces. It appears that the only way for a permanent resident to serve is if he or she is authorized by the chief of the defence staff to fill a special need or it is in the national interest.
I do become concerned that yet again we have a Conservative member proposing legislation that would affect a tiny minority while ignoring the broader concerns of the majority of newcomers. In fact, the member belongs to a government whose radical overhaul of Canada's immigration system is turning Canada into a less welcoming country. The changes the Conservatives have made limit the possibilities for newcomers to be reunited with their families and help build stronger communities. Under the Conservative government too many newcomers are not getting the fair treatment they deserve. Instead of welcoming skilled immigrants and addressing Canada's long-term needs, the Conservatives are prioritizing temporary work visas to help big businesses pay lower wages.
I want to return to the issue of honouring the armed forces by making another point. Headline-grabbing legislation is not enough. We need real action to truly honour all of those who serve.
A few months ago it was revealed that nearly 70% of applications for financial help to bury homeless or low-income veterans are rejected by the Conservative government. This latest report just adds to the many embarrassing failures of the Conservatives on the veterans affairs file, from debilitating red tape to failing to transition ill and injured personnel to civilian life due to harmful budget cuts.
It is our collective duty to care for the veterans who gave us the freedom and peace we enjoy in this country. To undermine the sacrifices they made is to take everything we have today for granted. This is not a partisan issue. Canada's veterans fought for all of us.
The second part of the bill seems to strip citizenship from those who are engaged in acts of war against a member of the Canadian armed forces. On its face, this too may seem reasonable. We certainly want to make sure that Canadian citizenship has real value and that we protect our service men and women as much as possible. However, the aspects of the bill that deal with the renunciation of Canadian citizenship raise more questions than they answer and seem ill-considered. I will explain in more detail what I mean.
The bill is not clear that due process before the law is necessary to determine whether someone has committed an act of war, nor is it clear who would make such a determination. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the members of the government seem fond of stripping due process with very little accountability.
Additionally, some key terms are not defined. The terms “acts of war” and “legal resident” are not defined anywhere in Canadian law.
Without a definition for what would constitute a legal resident of another country, the bill would pose a serious risk of rendering Canadian citizens stateless, in contravention of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which Canada is a signatory.
The Conservative sponsor of the legislation has framed it as creating another pathway to integration for permanent residents, as well as underscoring the incredible worth of Canadian citizenship and honouring the contribution of our men and women in uniform.
On these principles, members will not hear any argument from this side of the House. Like many things from my Conservative colleagues, the devil is in the details or, in this case, the troubling lack of details.
As I have mentioned, Bill C-425 attempts to legislate the time within which certain permanent residents may apply for citizenship, but my New Democratic colleagues and I think the government ought to be working to address the exceptionally long processing times for citizenship more broadly. At the current rate, no one gets their citizenship recognized anywhere near the time they are legally entitled to it. As such, Bill C-425 is making a hollow promise to these permanent residents.
Our citizenship application processing backlogs only seem to be increasing. The data make it clear that even though CIC has been receiving more citizenship applications year after year, the department has been processing fewer and fewer, and there are far longer wait times.
Instead of supporting the immigration department with more resources to reduce the backlog, the government is cutting its budget and closing down its regional offices.
Last week we learned there has been a 73% drop in the number of permanent residents receiving Canadian citizenship under the Conservative government. The minister even acknowledged it is because there are fewer people to process more applications. That is not good enough and it is a failure of the ministry for which he is ultimately responsible.
We know the department is cutting almost $200 million over the next two years and has closed 19 regional offices. These cuts are affecting front-line services and causing backlogs to grow.
A perfect example of this is that nearly two years after paying the required fees and sending their permanent residence applications to Buffalo, thousands still have not received a response from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
To make matters worse, their files still have not been assigned to agents, and the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism will not even bother to answer their questions.
This Conservative boondoggle transformed the Canadian dream of thousands of people into a total nightmare. I only wish my hon. colleague were spending more time pressuring his government to make the immigration system more fair and accountable to newcomers and Canadians alike.
In closing, I want to reiterate my very strong support for our men and women in the armed forces. We should honour their tremendous sacrifice and do all we can to keep them safe.
However, I would urge members to take a close look at what is in the bill and, more important, what is not.
The bill would do nothing to fix some of the tremendous problems we see in our immigration system. It would do nothing to speed up processing times for hard-working newcomers who want to become citizens. It would do very little to truly honour and support veterans who have served this country with honour.
Let us take a serious look at this proposal, but let us look at the bigger picture.