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February 18, 2014

Canada's new citizenship bill a Trojan horse: Walkom

Thomas Walkom

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Bill C-24 would give the Conservative government unprecedented authority to strip Canadians of their citizenship. It's not just Omar Khadr who'll be hit.

The federal government’s new citizenship bill is a Trojan horse.

It is presented as an attempt to reduce fraud and rationalize the process of becoming a Canadian citizen, both of which are sensible aims.

But it would also give Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government unprecedented authority to strip Canadians — including thousands born in this country — of their citizenship.

These are the most radical provisions of Bill C-24, unveiled Thursday by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

Canadian citizenship law has historically been tougher on the foreign-born. In the 1920s, the government stripped hundreds of naturalized Canadians of their status because it believed them to be Communists.

A 1947 law (since repealed) allowed the government to revoke the citizenship of any foreign-born Canadian convicted of treason.

Current law lets the government strip naturalized Canadians of their citizenship only if they obtained their status fraudulently.

But throughout history, the citizenship of Canadians born in this country has been irrevocable.

No more. Bill C-24 would let the government unilaterally strip citizenship from any Canadian — naturalized or native-born — who has been convicted in any country of a terrorist offence and sentenced to at least five years in jail.

Other crimes that could cost Canadians their citizenship would include treason and espionage.

In all cases, the only caveat is that the person could not be left stateless.

Decisions in these matters would be made by cabinet alone rather than a court.

Government press releases say the new revocation measures would apply only to dual citizens — that is, to Canadians who are also citizens of another country. Technically, this is true.

What the press releases don’t say is that thousands of Canadians born in this country may be dual citizens without realizing the fact.

That’s because, as the government’s own foreign affairs department points out on its website, many countries automatically treat the children — and even the grandchildren — of their nationals as citizens, regardless of birthplace.

Egypt, for instance, generally regards any children of Egyptian-born fathers as citizens of Egypt, no matter where they are born.

Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman says the Conservative government may be able to use this fact to strip former child soldier and Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr of his Canadian citizenship.

Khadr, who is serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted of terror-related offences by a U.S. military court of dubious legality, was born in Toronto. He has never been to Egypt. But his late father was born there. And with this bill, that puts him under the gun.

Some might welcome a law aimed at Khadr. They should be careful what they wish for. Bill C-24 casts a wide net. The government does not have to prove someone is a dual national in order to revoke his citizenship. The target must prove he is not.

Whether they know it or not, there are plenty of dual nationals here. Even the United States extends citizenship to Canadians with at least one American parent.

It can be argued that citizenship is a privilege rather than a right. It can be said that anyone who commits high crimes and misdemeanors — regardless of birthplace — should lose this privilege.

In an ideal world, that might make sense. But in the real world, public opinion can be fickle and government arbitrary.

After World War II, for instance, Ottawa seriously contemplated deporting all Japanese-Canadians, including those born in this country, to Japan. It probably would have been a popular move.

In the real world, as the career of iconic anti-apartheid fighter Nelson Mandela demonstrates, yesterday’s terrorist can be tomorrow’s hero.

We enjoy few birthrights. One of them is to be citizens of the country in which we were born. This government is preparing to subject that right to the whim of whoever happens to control Parliament. Do we really want that?

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