Mr. Speaker, I hear the member for Calgary Northeast endorsing that view. Canadians across this country are passionate about their citizenship as never before.
This government is passionate about the contribution of the member for Calgary Northeast to this bill. This has been the work of many hands, including those of my hon. colleague the member for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country and many others who have been absolutely instrumental in weaving together the reforms that we are now presenting and debating.
Why is citizenship seen as being so important? What is citizenship in the 21st century? It is an ancient concept. Some have traced it back to biblical times, to the Holy Scripture. In many different countries some refer to the holy covenant that the people of Israel had with their God, a kind of contract between a whole people and a God that had given law, according to which those people felt obliged to live.
In ancient Greece, the concept of citizenship achieved a new level and a new recognition of the role of individuals in participating in the life of their cities, of their communities, of their political entities. It became clear even in the fourth and fifth century before the Christian era that true freedom, true human potential in all of its facets, could only be realized when people work together on the basis of laws, when no one person was the arbitrary master of others, that slavery was an inferior way of living, and that the freedom that underpins citizenship would be one of the primary aspirations of humanity, and so it remains today.
Citizenship is quite simply the opportunity to be at our best. It provides the opportunity to participate in institutions that have been handed down to us by generations over generations. It is a balance between the responsibilities that go with participation on the one hand, and the obligations and rights on the other hand. Citizenship is sharing in the civic life of a country, in the full sense of the word, not just holding a passport. It is not just coming every four years on voting day to mark one's ballot, although both of those are absolutely fundamental aspects of our citizenship.
Citizenship is participation in the fullest sense, participation in the needs of our neighbours, participation in voluntary organizations, participation in the economy and the economic excellence that a country like Canada has managed to achieve. These are the gains of freedom to which citizenship has opened the door over centuries, indeed millennia, and which have been achieved on a level in this country that we think is without parallel in the history of humanity.
What is Canadian citizenship? What is our version of this great global legacy to which so many aspire but few actually achieve in the highest sense; where freedom is a reality for individuals, including minorities?
In Canada, our citizenship has involved first nations and Inuit. It has involved their languages and culture, their love of the land.
This has involved the creation of institutions that date back to Cartier and Champlain, and to their colleague Mathieu da Costa, whom we honour during Black History Month every year in Canada. It goes back to the era of New France when people like Frontenac, La Salle and La Vérendrye set off to discover an entire continent. They were forging a vision of a country that inspires us to this day.
It is also a citizenship that as you know, Mr. Speaker, has striven to make institutions as representative as possible.
There was already a conseil souverain under the ancien régime at the time of Nouvelle-France, but we know that Canada was one of the first countries to establish assemblies in the two Canadas. In Nova Scotia, a representative assembly was established as far back as 1758, which was among the earliest in the British Empire.
Through the War of 1812, when those traditions were challenged and our numbers were augmented by those who had fled the United States decades earlier during the American Revolution and in the decades leading up to Confederation, we fought in this country to have not only assemblies and honest government, free of corruption; we also fought to have accountable, responsible government. It was citizens across this country, in cities, towns, rural areas, and urban centres who paved the pathway to Confederation. They underpinned that national policy. They brought us, strong and free, into the 20th century, when the story of a larger Canada, and a Canada that eventually adopted a Citizenship Act in 1947, begins.
It is a tremendously exciting legacy. It is one that we all have a responsibility to live up to in this day and age. It is one that we are seeking to renew and reinforce with this bill.
The bill has three highlights. First, it aims to reinforce the value of citizenship by strengthening that value and improving the efficiency of processing. It would also deter citizenships of convenience and the idea that the passport is all that it is about. It would deter the idea that Canadian citizenship could be, for some, a flag of convenience without the full participation of Canadian life that we know is so essential to the success of our country.
Secondly, it is about maintaining the integrity of citizenship. It is about combatting fraud, which we have to do across our programs as the challenge of fraud becomes more sophisticated throughout modern life. It is also about deterring disloyalty. There are those who would plant disastrous ideologies through the Internet, or through other forms of recruitment, and into the minds of our young people and turn them against Canada. We are pleased to be able to report that those are a very limited number in this country, but we want to deter that kind of behaviour altogether.
Finally, as always on this side of the House, we want to honour those who serve Canada. There are several measures in this bill that would do so.
I would like to begin by discussing, in more detail, ways to reinforce the value of citizenship. As I said, Canadian citizenship is considered extremely valuable around the world, and our policies must reflect and reinforce that value.
I do not think that all hon. members of the House understand just how desirable Canadian citizenship is to people around the world. Many people admire us, respect us and want to become immigrants and citizens.
Among the measures in Bill C-24 that will achieve that objective, I would like to point out changes to residency requirements for granting citizenship, in other words, the time period during which those seeking citizenship must be present in Canada before they may apply for it.
These changes will promote the integration of new immigrants by changing the residency requirement from three out of the four years preceding the application to four out of the six. The bill also clarifies that residency means physical a presence in Canada.
In other words, we would ask those who apply for Canadian citizenship to make that commitment explicitly and upfront, to be physically present in Canada not for three out of four years but for four out of six years. That is something we did not do before.
Canada's presence requirement will help newcomers better integrate into Canadian society. For people to understand Canada's social and cultural norms, they need to experience them. Nothing can replace experiencing our customs, landscape, institutions and communities first-hand.
I would like to add, before we get too far into this, that the rules would only apply after this law comes into force and after the necessary orders in council have been gazetted, changing the regulations in this respect. So anyone who is making an application to become a Canadian citizen now or for the foreseeable future as this bill moves through this House and the other place, will be treated under the current rules. I want to be absolutely explicit on that point.
As well, citizenship applicants would no longer be able to use the time they spent in Canada as non-permanent residents to meet the citizenship residence requirements. Again, this would reinforce the value of citizenship by requiring applicants to demonstrate a commitment to Canada through permanent residence. We do this for most permanent residents, so why should we not do it for all in a country where equality is such a highly prized principle, and a defensible principle in this case? Any move to part ways with that principle would risk confusing a situation that in the past has been confused and has led to abuse on a significant scale.
Another proposed measure relating to residence requirements would require applicants to declare, prior to obtaining citizenship, their intention to reside, something that I have already mentioned.
However, these are not the only measures in the bill that would reinforce the value of Canadian citizenship. A proposed amendment would require more citizenship applicants to meet the language and knowledge of Canada requirements.
We want to ensure that potential citizens can speak French or English when they apply for citizenship, which will enable them to become full-fledged members of Canadian society. We also want to ensure that they have adequate knowledge of our country.
Consequently, if Bill C-24 is passed, applicants aged 14 to 64 will have to meet language requirements and pass a knowledge test in one of our two official languages.
Right now, applicants aged 18 to 54 are required to meet language and knowledge requirements.
I must say that we are making this move because the language and knowledge requirements we have put in place so far have proven to be so successful and popular. They have actually increased the interest in and popularity of Canadian citizenship. All of those who come to this country understand how important it is to know the place they are living and to have some knowledge of the local languages, at least during their working years or high school years.
Second, a number of the measures in Bill C-24 will give us more effective tools for fighting citizenship fraud and, more broadly speaking, ensuring the integrity of our system.
Bill C-24 contains provisions that target unscrupulous citizenship consultants. Under these provisions, the government will have the ability to designate a regulatory body whose members would be authorized to act as citizenship consultants. Individuals not authorized to act as citizenship consultants or representatives will be charged with an offence, and the sentences will be harsher for fraud and false statements related to citizenship matters.
As we know, this reflects or mirrors in many ways a move that my hon. colleague, now the Minister of Employment and Social Development, made with regard to immigration consultants. It has had an extremely positive, felicitous effect. We trust that the same would happen for the smaller group of citizenship consultants.
Currently, the Citizenship Act bars applicants from citizenship when they have been charged with or convicted of an indictable offence in Canada, or if they are serving a sentence in Canada.
The provisions in Bill C-24 would expand criminal provisions to bar applicants for equivalent foreign convictions. No, we would not accept bogus foreign convictions. There would be a provision by which a person who had been falsely charged and convicted abroad by a repressive regime, an abusive regime, an autocratic regime, could still become a Canadian citizen on the basis of an administrative and, if necessary, judicial review here in Canada.
If passed, Bill C-24 would also streamline the process to revoke citizenship acquired by fraudulent means, leading to timelier revocation decisions while still ensuring legal recourse to individuals.
As well, measures in the bill would ensure that international adoption safeguards are met.
Finally, on the integrity and fraud front, dual citizens and permanent residents convicted of terrorism, high treason, treason, or certain spying offences, or who received a specified minimum sentence, would be similarly affected.
Let me emphasize. This is a matter that relates only to dual nationals or to those who are permanent residents seeking to become citizens.
However, there is the following aspect, unfortunately, to our global reality today. According to CSIS, 130 Canadians are fighting with extremists somewhere in the world, with terrorist groups that have been listed by Canada or that face listing by Canada, some 30 of them in Syria. There is a real question for us, and I think for most Canadians, about whether those Canadians, when they are dual nationals, have not literally breached their contract with Canada. This legislation, thanks to the hon. member for Calgary Northeast, would allow us to take action against them.
I almost passed over one of the most popular parts of the bill, the measures that would make the citizenship program more efficient and ensure that qualified applicants become citizens more quickly. These include a streamlined decision-making model that would reduce the duplication of work from a three-step to a one-step process, giving the government authority to define what constitutes a complete citizenship application, and ensuring a more uniform judicial review system for decisions under the Citizenship Act.
A third group of provisions in Bill C-24 will pay tribute to those who serve Canada. One of those provisions would extend the granting of citizenship to the children of persons born or adopted abroad whose parents were working for the Government of Canada or serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Under another initiative, permanent residents who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces would be granted citizenship sooner. The measures in the bill will allow the government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of people with dual citizenship who are members of an army or an organized armed group engaged in armed conflict with Canada.
In conclusion, I should mention the question of lost Canadians, those born before January 1, 1947, when the first Citizenship Act came into force, or, in the case of Newfoundland, before 1949, who have not so far been entitled to the benefits, privileges, and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship.
My colleague the minister of Minister of Employment and Social Development took the most important steps to right the grievous wrong that had been left unaddressed for decades. The bill would ensure that we take the final steps to make sure that the lost Canadians, the children of those who fought in World War II, those who were among the most committed to the defence and service of this country, enjoy all the benefits of Canadians, not just in the first generation but also in succeeding generations, as governed by the provisions of this law.
We are proud of the bill. We are proud to be presenting it on a day when His Highness the Aga Khan said in the House that Canada has among the highest activity of voluntary institutions and not-for-profit organizations in the world. We think that is proof of the value of Canadian citizenship, that is proof of the dynamism of our society, and those are the grounds for strengthening Canadian citizenship for a new century, for a new millennium.