When we should, and shouldn’t, revoke citizenship

The long federal election campaign has been knocked off course at various stages by the unexpected: revelations from the Duffy trial; the accelerating Syrian refugee crisis; the niqab issue in citizenship ceremonies; and now, courtesy of Monday night’s Munk debate on foreign policy, the issue of the revocation of Canadian citizenship.

That issue, introduced by Stephen Harper, generated some heated exchanges from all three leaders, with Justin Trudeau declaring that Harper was playing the politics of fear and Thomas Mulcair intoning that a Canadian citizen is a Canadian citizen, full stop.

It makes no sense to export our problems elsewhere. We have laws to deter, punish and imprison people for national security offences.

Fire is good in an election campaign, but how much light was cast on the issue? Not much, not least because all three leaders were talking at cross-purposes, and for this segment of the debate over each other, which sparked some booing from the 3,000 attendees packed into Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.

Stephen Harper professed himself astonished that his opponents would find anything amiss with the idea of stripping citizenship from Canadians convicted of terrorism. No doubt that astonishment is real, but it also suggests that Mr. Harper is tone deaf about the political ramifications and public impact of his own government’s legislation (in this case Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act). In denouncing citizenship legislation changes, both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair were playing for votes.

Some light can be cast by considering the history of citizenship legislation in Canada. Prior to Bill C-24, there were two major citizenship acts on the books. The first dates back to 1947 and provided various grounds for citizenship revocation — including fraudulent application for citizenship, acts of treason, disloyalty to the Crown, and military service with the enemy. The next major change to citizenship laws came 30 years later, in 1977. At that point, the grounds for revocation were narrowed to a single count — fraud. Fast forward to Bill C-24, introduced in 2014 and passed into law this year, and we are also moving backwards to a re-embracing of the 1947 measures, with some added tweaks. It’s a curious move.

Bill C-24 retains fraud as a justification for revocation of citizenship, brings back treason and serving in foreign conflicts with enemy forces, and adds espionage offences and the conveying of sensitive government information. To bring us full square into the current security environment, it also adds convictions for terrorism offences as a rationale for revocation.

Citizenship legislation in Canada is consistent on one issue — that it is right to revoke citizenship when a person has acquired Canadian citizenship fraudulently. In going back to the future, is C-24 a good idea? The answer has to be no, but not for the reasons suggested by opponents of the law. It is not that citizenship revocation should never happen — that is not our legal history. It is not that citizenship revocation creates a two-tiered system of citizenship — it only does so because Canada is obliged under international law never to render a person stateless by removing his or her citizenship, so revocation can only apply, because of international safeguards, to individuals who are genuinely dual citizens.

Should we deport Canadian citizens to another country on the grounds that they have been convicted (and sentenced to at least five years in prison) for various offences including terrorism? However emotionally satisfying this may sound, the answer has to be no, on practical and operational grounds. Such deportations will never happen and will involve long legal processes on the road to nowhere.

In any case, it makes no sense to export our problems elsewhere. We have laws to deter, punish and imprison people (with stiff sentences) for national security offences. Since when have we lost faith in our legal system? Since when have we decided to put faith in an unaccountable system of decision by ministerial fiat?

This piece was originally published on the Ottawa Citizen. Read the full version here.

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