OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are getting started on repealing some of the previous government's sweeping — and controversial — changes to how people get or lose Canadian citizenship.
But the Liberal plan promises to be controversial in its own right, since it would, if passed, restore the Canadian citizenship of Zakaria Amara — sentenced in 2010 for his role as a member of the so-called Toronto 18.
Immigration Minister John McCallum introduced a new bill Thursday that, if passed, would remove terrorism or other crimes against the national interest as grounds for revoking citizenship from dual nationals.
Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks at a press conference in Ottawa. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
The legislation would also restore citizenship to anyone who has been affected by those provisions; Amara is the only person in Canada to have had his Canadian citizenship revoked under the Conservative law.
Amara, believed to be the ringleader of the group, was sentenced in 2010 to life in prison with no chance of parole until 2016 after admitting he was involved in the plot to attack targets in Toronto.
"Canadian citizens are equal under the law," McCallum said in a statement. "Whether they were born in Canada or were naturalized in Canada or hold dual citizenship."
The bill also shortens the length of time someone must be physically present in Canada before qualifying for citizenship, and allows time already spent as permanent residents to count towards the residency requirement.
The Conservatives had also expanded who needs to pass language and knowledge tests before qualifying for citizenship; the Liberals are returning to the previous age requirement of 18 to 54.
"Canadian citizens are equal under the law."
But the bill also makes some new changes, including adding those serving conditional sentences as people barred from seeking citizenship.
None of the changes would take affect until the bill becomes law and coming-into-force provisions are established.
When the Conservatives introduced the new law in 2014, it led to accusations that they were creating two classes of citizens, but they argued the move was in keeping with laws in other countries.
Citizenship can still be removed from those who've obtained it via fraudulent means or misrepresentation.
In an email to The Canadian Press ahead of the announcement, former Conservative immigration minister Chris Alexander said the changes his government made were in keeping with Canadian values.
"Terrorism, espionage and treason are serious crimes, representing gross acts of disloyalty. They are far more serious violations than covering up minor crimes from one's past — a common form of misrepresentation," he said.
The Conservative bill was attacked as setting a dangerous precedent and even challenged, unsuccessfully, as unconstitutional.
When the bill was rolled out, there was particular concern in ethnic communities that, over time, the criteria to revoke citizenship would expand to include convictions for lesser crimes.
The current law also has a provision that requires people to declare they intend to continue residing in Canada if granted citizenship. That raised concerns among some new Canadians that they could lose their citizenship if they moved outside of Canada. The new law would repeal this provision.
Attacking the bill was a key element of the Liberal election strategy in heavily diverse ridings, and they promised to overhaul the law during the campaign.
In 2014, the latest year for which full figures were available, 262,600 people were granted Canadian citizenship.