Let’s Look in the Right Place for Proof of Citizen Allegiance

Sometimes magical thinking pops up in the most unexpected places—like the recently-revived complaints about dual citizenship that have arisen around the candidacy of Thomas Mulcair (a dual citizen of Canada and France) for the NDP leadership. On Mulcair’s account, he chose to acquire French citizenship by marriage in order to go through airport customs with his family more easily. Not the kind of decision you’d think would tell much about his character or suitability as a potential Prime Minister. But many people believe otherwise.

Journalist Andrew Coyne, for instance, has criticized Mulcair in tones that left little room for uncertainty about a link between dual passports and perfidy. While “no one can force [Mulcair] to put Canada first,” Coyne harrumphs, Canadians have a right to expect that he should. That’s because choosing to adopt or renounce citizenship is a symbolic act demonstrating solidarity with fellow citizens in the project of building a just society together; and we cannot wholly commit to that project unless we’re prepared to jettison competing commitments. Hence Coyne is appalled at the thought of a prospective Prime Minister “who had the power to demand all sorts of sacrifices of his fellow citizens but who was not himself prepared to make the most elemental sacrifice in return—that he forswear all other allegiances, and cast his lot with them.”

This formulation closely echoes the traditional marriage vow to forsake all others and be faithful unto one’s spouse alone. And so it raises a question: is citizenship renunciation an elemental enough sacrifice for a would-be Prime Minister? Wouldn’t forsaking spouse and family in order to cleave unto the Canadian populace alone be a more elemental, and hence more fitting, sacrifice to make?

Taken to its logical conclusion, Coyne’s symbolism of sacrifice is an argument not for unitary citizenship but for priesthood. And his lofty demand that a prospective Prime Minister renounce other citizenships to show Canadians his undivided allegiance and solidarity is akin to my toddler’s rather more raucous demand that I show him my love by refusing to let his older brother share access to my lap at storytime.

None of this is to dispute the importance of the question Coyne poses: “What can we legitimately ask of each other in [Canada’s] name?” But the answers he arrives at show some fundamental errors of thinking inherent in a conception of citizenship that’s wrapped up with symbolic pieties about elemental sacrifices and exclusive allegiances.

To cast matters in a different light, here’s a familiar piety to consider: “By their deeds you shall know them”. That sentiment is something that the revised 2011 citizenship study guide, Discover Canada, gets right. It doesn’t tell new citizens to renounce their previous citizenships as a symbolic way of showing they’ve chosen Canada. Instead, it tells them to manifest the reality and meaning of this choice by contributing to Canada through political participation, employment, family-rearing and volunteering. There’s some deep political philosophizing going on in this prescription. It casts citizenship as something most fundamentally shown in one’s life actions, rather than in an inner disposition of the heart or on an official database.

What if we extended that understanding beyond the pool of new compatriots and applied it to all Canadians, including political leaders? What if we affirmed that the deepest and truest sense of Canadian citizenship lies in demonstrable service to the country, rather than a lack of formal legal ties to any other nation? Would anything be lost if we decided to presume (barring concrete reasons to think otherwise) that any credible candidate for high political office is as manifestly committed to Canada and its people as we could ask a citizen to be?

Actually, something would be lost: the wishful belief that legal citizenship status enables us to divine our fellow citizens’ affections and intentions. Such magical-symbolic thinking underlies Coyne’s verdict that “it is an odd sort of nation that would permit such an ambivalent status [as dual citizenship], not only with respect to private citizens, but in its highest public office”. It’s a lot easier to live with such ambivalence once we accept, as Chris Selley recently noted, that “dual citizenship isn’t evidence of treachery any more than single citizenship is proof of loyalty.”

In reality, citizenship status isn’t proof of anything definitive beyond its legal implications. For some people, being a citizen of Canada or another country is a matter of deepest identity; for others, it’s a mere convenience or a nullity. If we want to know which the case is when it comes to our political leaders, all we can do is to see how they’ve led their public lives thus far, and judge accordingly.

So perhaps Mulcair sings the ‘Marseillaise’ in the shower each morning—but we can live with ambiguity on this score. Judging from his public actions, his affinities are solidly with Canada. Whatever the number of his passports, we can’t, and needn’t, know any more than that.


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