Mr. Speaker, I am going to be splitting my time this evening with the member for South Shore—St. Margaret's, and I will be directing my comments to the residency requirements portion in Bill C-24.
I am grateful to have this opportunity to add my voice in support of Bill C-24. It is a long-overdue piece of legislation that would restore value to our Canadian citizenship after decades of neglect and abuse. The Liberals had 13 years to fix the Citizenship Act and did not do anything to crack down on citizens of convenience. This important piece of legislation would also deliver on the government's promise in the most recent Speech from the Throne to strengthen and protect the value of Canadian citizenship.
Canadians recognize the important role immigration has played in building our country throughout its history. Canadians welcome newcomers who wish to become citizens and contribute to the political, social, and economic life of this country. However, Canadians have little patience or tolerance for people who do not play by the rules.
We have all heard the stories about individuals who lie or cheat to become citizens of this great country. These people concoct schemes and pretend to be living in Canada but have no real intention of ever moving and planting roots here. Instead, they only wish to abuse the privileges of our citizenship, using their Canadian passports or citizenship whenever it is most convenient for them. This is something that must end. We must protect the value of our citizenship and take action against those who seek to cheapen it, to protect the system for those who use it properly and who play by the rules.
That is why we have introduced Bill C-24: legislative changes to the Citizenship Act that would strengthen the program and the value of citizenship by helping to ensure citizens have a real connection and commitment to Canada.
One big problem is the residence requirement for Canadian citizenship. Currently, adult applicants must reside in Canada for three out of the previous four years. However, residence is not defined in the act. As a result, it is possible under the current act for someone who has spent little time in Canada to become a citizen. Under proposed changes, the rules around citizenship residence requirements would be strengthened so that adults applying for citizenship would have to be physically present in Canada for a longer period: four years in the six years prior to applying for citizenship. In addition, applicants would also be required to be physically present in Canada for at least 183 days for four out of those six years. Not only is this common sense, but it also is important because physical presence in Canada assists with newcomer integration.
Let me read what Canadians have been saying about strengthening the residency requirement.
Immigration lawyer Raj Sharma said we do know that citizenship fraud has been rampant, especially out of certain places in Canada such as Montreal. He thinks that unilateral revocation for the purpose where there is fraud or identity fraud or other fraud is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to recognize that Canadian citizenship is a sought-after benefit or a commodity and certain unscrupulous individuals will lie or deceive to exaggerate their time in Canada.
Then there is also Simon Kent, a Toronto Sun columnist. He said he thinks a lot of people would say it is a reasonable expectation if they want to live in Canada. If they want to enjoy living in a free and prosperous country like Canada, they should spend time there and they should live and contribute according to civil society. While that sounds like something out of politics 101, basically saying living here, enjoying the fruits of one's labour, paying taxes, showing that one is committed, and extending the period of permanent residency here from three to four years or maybe even five years before one can take up citizenship is a very fair and reasonable proposition.
Nick Noorani, the managing partner of Prepare for Canada, said:
I congratulate the government on its changes Citizenship Act that combat residency fraud and ensure new Canadians have a stronger connection to Canada. With the changes announced today, processing times will be improved and new Canadians will be ready to fully participate in Canadian life.
Martin Collacott, with the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform and a former Canadian ambassador in Asia and the Middle East, comments:
The government's new citizenship legislation addresses a host of long overdue issues relating to the acquisition of citizenship. Its provisions, such as strengthening residency requirements for applicants, will increase the value and meaning of Canadian citizenship and will be warmly welcomed by both Canadians and newcomers serious about becoming full members of the Canadian family.
Then there is Gillian Smith, executive director and chief executive officer of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, who said:
Our organization works extensively with Canada's newest citizens who tell us that measures taken to foster their attachment and connection to Canada have a positive effect on their successful integration. New citizens' sense of belonging comes in large measure from experiencing Canada first-hand¾its people, nature, culture and heritage.
Shimon Fogel, from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, commented:
We also support the introduction of measures to ensure that those who apply for Canadian citizenship actually intend to maintain a meaningful connection to Canada after taking the oath. The “intent to reside” provisions are an important element in this regard and could have a significant impact on reducing the problem of citizens of convenience.
Paul Attia, of Immigrants for Canada, says the following:
I am in favour, and the organization is in favour, of the longer requirement. You want to be able to have the person experience life in Canada and establish life here before he commits to citizenship. Citizenship is meant to say that you are a Canadian now.
It is clear that a longer residence period may allow newcomers to develop a stronger connection to Canada, while at the same time helping to deter citizens of convenience.
It would also ensure that the residence requirement is applied consistently. Creating a clear physical presence requirement would strengthen the legislative tools to deal with residence fraud.
Meanwhile, a six-year window to accumulate physical presence would provide more flexibility to accommodate applicants whose work or personal circumstances require regular travel outside Canada.
Crown servants who are permanent residents, as well as their spouses and children outside Canada, would be permitted to use time spent abroad in service to Canada for the purposes of meeting the residence requirement.
That said, under the proposed new requirements, all applicants would be able to accumulate absences of two years within the qualifying period. This should accommodate newcomers who have to travel outside of Canada for their work.
Another residence change concerns time applicants spend in Canada before becoming a permanent resident. Currently, a day that citizenship applicants spent in Canada before becoming permanent residents counts as a half-day of residence toward their citizenship application, up to a maximum of two years in Canada as non-permanent residents. Under the proposed changes, to further strengthen the residence requirement and create a level playing field for all citizenship applicants, applicants would no longer be able to use time spent in Canada as non-permanent residents to meet the citizenship residence requirement.
While it may take people who came to Canada as temporary foreign workers or foreign students a little longer to meet the residence requirement under the new rules, this change is designed to deepen their attachment to Canada.
In addition, to be eligible for a citizenship grant, an adult applicant would have to file a Canadian income tax return for four years out of the six years before they apply, if required to do so under the Income Tax Act.
Canadians are pleased with this requirement. Hard-working, tax-paying Canadians expect this from all permanent residents and Canadians. The message is clear: if they have a serious connection and attachment to Canada, they should show it. It is not hard to provide proof that they have filed their taxes. We all do it at least once a year.
Immigration lawyers like Richard Kurland have praised this new requirement, saying that until today many people have been able to get away with being resident for immigration citizenship purposes but not for tax purposes. That meant that they had the benefit of Canadian citizenship without the burden of filing Canadian income tax returns like everyone else.
Salma Siddiqui from the Coalition of Progressive Canadian Muslim Organizations has also applauded our government and said:
The requirement for citizenship applicants to file Canadian income tax is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. I believe that even after the grant of citizenship, Canadians living abroad should be asked to demonstrate that they have contributed taxes to avail themselves of public services subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer.
Payment of taxes is an important obligation of permanent residents and citizens. This new citizenship requirement would help to further strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship.