Passports Are Powerful Tools

In A Thousand Farewells, her memoir of covering civil unrest and war in the Middle East, Canadian reporter Nahlah Ayed writes about the striking reception her citizenship received in that region. The Winnipeg-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Ayed found it difficult to convince Arabs she met that being Canadian was a deeply substantive identity, not just a lucky technicality:

“. . . it was a difficult concept to grasp for those whose citizenship bestowed few benefits and meant little more than residence,” she writes. “It was hard for many of them to look past the notion that a foreign passport was anything more than a tool, a buoy that could solve all of life’s problems, especially when they lived in a place with no future. . . ”

Most of the hardest questions are bound up with the geopolitical realities, economic pressures and human strivings that make a passport one of the most prized commodities existing today.

Resisting such a cavalier attitude to citizenship among would-be Canadians has been one of the signature efforts of the Harper government under ministers Jason Kenney and now Chris Alexander. Measures to “strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship” — by setting more stringent conditions to deter its use as a tool for ulterior purposes — are expected to be prominent among reforms promised in 2014.

But of course a passport is a tool, one of the most powerful that exists in our globalized and unequal world. Since it promises escape and opportunities for those stuck in dire situations, those with resources will acquire them to better their life chances. Hence, as Ayed witnessed, many made use of this device during a particularly grim period of civil conflict in Lebanon:

“. . . they pressed the panic button and scrambled for a way out. They dusted off foreign passports that they’d kept tucked away for just such an emergency.”

Many Canadians may object to the notion of our passport as an emergency exit device. Indeed many howled loudly at the tax dollars spent evacuating some of our fellow citizens from Lebanon during its 2006 conflict with Israel, when it emerged that some later moved back there. In more recent years, popular indignation has been fanned by Conservative ministers’ attacks on so-called “bogus refugees” as well as “passport babies” (ones delivered in Canada by foreign mothers in order to enable strategic use of the child’s Canadian citizenship in later years).

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Other uses of our passport as a tool for individual benefit are less high-profile. According to a recent New York Times Magazine article about desperate refugees in East Asia, Canadian visas are being bought in Afghanistan by would-be asylum seekers for up to $40,000. And inside our own borders, lawyers are advising rich foreigners how to boost their financial and personal security by adding Canadian citizenship to their “passport portfolio.”

Yet the passport as tool cuts both ways. It’s also an enticement that Canada dangles to gain skilled workers and investment, and occasionally prospective Olympic medallists. Those who have the talent or money Ottawa wants get preferential access to our citizenship — a recruitment tool that Canada must keep well-honed since other western countries are similarly using passport access to get the citizen workers and investors they want.

Is all this scheming and tit-for-tat a fair way for the business of citizenship to be run? Maybe not, but very little about passports and citizenship is fair in light of the dangers and protections they bring. It’s not fair that those in war-torn or dead-end countries who have the right cash and connections get to resettle abroad while their poorer compatriots are trapped in place. And which of us wouldn’t avail ourselves of any foreign passport we could if we lived in desperate conditions here in Canada?

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These aren’t comfortable realities to face. Many politicians and citizens alike would rather change the topic by hewing to a loftier notion of citizenship as a marker of loyalty, shared values and a common fate. We’re lucky that a passport is more than just a tool in Canada, where it also symbolizes shared values and reciprocal obligations between government and citizens. That said, discussions and policy-setting must take into account more than just the high principles of citizenship. Most of the hardest questions are bound up with the geopolitical realities, economic pressures and human strivings that make a passport one of the most prized commodities existing today.

These thoughts suggest that realism and sympathy are in order as the government proceeds with its citizenship review in 2014. There’s not much danger that the new citizenship rules will constrain Ottawa’s ability to extend Canadian passports as a tool for serving pressing economic interests. But in its zeal to defend “the value of Canadian citizenship,” the Harper government may depict that value in ways that obscure broader global realities and blunt our sympathies. Acknowledging clearly the many ways in which a passport is indeed a tool, as well as a political emblem, will make for a healthier national conversation about citizenship policy.

Published in the Toronto Star, January 8, 2014

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