Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my colleague, the member for St. Catharines.
I am very pleased and privileged to have this opportunity to add my voice in support of Bill C-24, the government's legislation that would strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. Let me also say that it is a privilege to be a Canadian citizen and to be able to rise in the House to speak. I first came to this country as an international student in 1968, but I was made a stateless citizen in 1971 when Canada chose to change its recognition from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China. Due to the generosity of the Canadian immigration system, I was able to apply for my permanent resident status and subsequently became a citizen in 1976.
Let me address some of the issues in the new citizenship act. As we know, Canadian citizenship is highly valued around the world. The fact that more than 85% of eligible permanent residents go on to become citizens is a testament to this. Last year, this translated into nearly 129,000 new Canadians citizens from no fewer than 219 countries, a 14% increase over 2012 numbers. We can all take pride in the value of our citizenship and in our high naturalization rate. Unfortunately, because Canadian citizenship is so valuable, some people are prepared to lie or cheat in order to qualify. For example, they may break our citizenship law by pretending to be living in Canada when they are living abroad. In fact, more than 85% of Canadian citizenship fraud involves falsifying residency. In many cases, permanent residents have used the services of immigration consultants who fraudulently establish evidence of residence in Canada while living abroad most, if not all, of the time.
Ongoing large-scale fraud investigations have identified more than 3,000 citizens and 5,000 permanent residents linked to major investigations, the majority of them related to residents. In addition, nearly 2,000 individuals linked to these investigations have either abandoned or withdrawn their citizenship applications. Individuals who seek to obtain Canadian citizenship fraudulently have no real attachment to Canada. They want citizenship for no other reason than to obtain the many benefits associated with Canadian citizenship or purely for financial gain.
Right now, applicants must reside in Canada for three out of the previous four years before being eligible to apply for citizenship. The major fault with the current citizenship requirements is that “residence” is not defined under the current Citizenship Act. As a result, it is currently possible for someone to become a Canadian citizen even if he or she has spent little time actually living in Canada.
Under the changes we propose, the rules around resident requirements would be strengthened so that adults applying for citizenship would have to be physically present in Canada. We would also lengthen the residency requirement to four years out of the previous six years, with a specific requirement to reside in Canada for a minimum of 183 days during at least four of the six qualifying years.
In his testimony before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Martin Collacott, a former Canadian diplomat and spokesman for the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, said:
...I think newcomers will value their citizenship more if they know it is not something that can be acquired quickly or without meeting certain standards.
I strongly support the provisions of Bill C-24 aimed at ensuring that residency requirements are actually met, particularly in view of evidence that thousands of people have obtained their citizenship fraudulently by claiming they had spent time in Canada when they had not.
The proposed residency requirement in Bill C-24 would be consistent with the Income Tax Act, which says that those in Canada for less than 183 days with no other attachment to Canada are considered non-residents for income tax purposes. Unlike the majority of Canadians, non-residents are generally only required to pay taxes on their Canadian-sourced income. By better aligning the residency requirement for citizenship with the residency rules under the Income Tax Act, it would help to further strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. Coupled with the new residency requirement, it would also strengthen the permanent residence attachment to Canada.
Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, in a recent appearance before the standing committee, said the following:
For the first time, we have a pragmatic, transparent threshold to access Canadian citizenship. That is long overdue.
We obviously agree. I would add that these amendments to the Canadian Citizenship Act are also important because the physical presence in Canada assists with permanent residents' final integration into society.
A longer residence period would enable newcomers to develop a stronger connection to Canada. Furthermore, creating a clear and longer physical presence requirement would help deter citizens of convenience. Those individuals become citizens purely for the convenience of having a Canadian passport and to access the full range of taxpayer-funded benefits that come with this status, without any intention of contributing to Canada or even residing here.
In other words, they regard their Canadian citizenship primarily as little more than an insurance policy, to quote Mr. Collacott.
Of course in order to support their admission to Canadian society, citizens must first have an adequate knowledge of one of our official languages. As Mr. Collacott has said, the basic command of one of Canada's official languages is an essential skill for newcomers who are going to be able to contribute to society and the economy, as well as be able to realize their own dreams and aspirations as immigrants.
The government also believes that citizens must have knowledge about our country as well as the responsibility and privileges of Canadian citizenship, as this knowledge is essential to a new citizen's civic participation. This is why the amendments contained in Bill C-24 would also expand the age group who must first show proof of their language proficiency and take a citizenship knowledge test. We would expand the current age group from 18 to 54 years old, to 14 to 64 years old.
This would provide incentive for more individuals to acquire official language proficiency and civic knowledge, thus improving their integration. It would also ensure that more newcomers are better prepared to assume the responsibility of citizenship.
Lengthening the residency requirement and expanding the group that must meet knowledge and language requirements would ensure that more new citizens are better prepared for full participation in all aspects of Canadian life.
As I have said, these changes would also help deter citizenship of convenience. Taken together, the amendments in Bill C-24 would preserve and protect the value of Canadian citizenship both today and in the future by ensuring Canadians have a real, rather than a tenuous or non-existent, connection to Canada.
In his testimony before the standing committee, Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said his organization appreciates the steps taken by Bill C-24 to promote strong ties to Canada and buy-in to core Canadian values. He also added that the introduction of more robust residency requirements including physical presence to qualify for citizenship is particularly well received.
Canadian citizenship is highly valued around the world and, with this balanced set of reforms, the government is taking steps to ensure that it stays that way.