12/20/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/18/2014 05:59 EST

Citizenship backlog stark contrast to fast-tracked Olympic skater

Earlier this week, American ice dancer Piper Gilles received her citizenship in time to compete for Canada at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

It was a good news story, a skater realizing her "dream" to represent Canada thanks to a provision in the law that allows the government to fast-track citizenship claims in “exceptional cases, in order to reward services of an exceptional value to Canada.”

But Gilles’s smooth glide to citizenship is in stark contrast to the growing number of landed immigrants caught in a backlog that sees them waiting as long as three years to receive their official welcome to Canada.

That backlog increased more than eleven-fold in 2012 compared to 2011, partly due to a spike in applications but also to delays that critics blame on excessive paperwork, according to CBC News analysis of citizenship and immigration statistics.

The numbers are contained in a report obtained under the federal Access to Information Act and recently released to the CBC by Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

Backlog outpaces rise in new applicants

In 2012, the most recent full year for which statistics are available, 188,870 people were caught in the backlog, compared to just 17,026 the year before. The number of new applicants for citizenship was up by 94,400 in 2012, but the backlog grew by more than 160,000 people.

Critics say the long wait times of up to three years to have an application processed are leaving landed immigrants waiting to become Canadian citizens in limbo, making it difficult for them to travel and impossible to vote.

"I think we’re heading into a perfect storm where we’re going to see some [new] legislation,” says Mario Bellissimo, an immigration lawyer and chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s national immigration law section.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to answer specific questions about its backlog.

But in an emailed response, the department’s Remi Lariviere, wrote: “The increase in processing times is also partly due to efforts to crack down on residency and citizenship fraud.”

Stephen Green doesn’t buy that explanation. The immigration lawyer, who represents people caught in the backlog, says the government has “taken a sledgehammer for a very small problem. And that sledgehammer is affecting all kinds of people who really don’t deserve it.”

Under the rules, people can apply for citizenship after living in Canada three years. But there’s a catch. They have to have been physically in Canada for that length of time. If there is any interruption – say, to go on vacation or leave the country to work – then they are obliged to fill out paperwork to prove that they’ve lived in Canada.  

“They are asking for three years’ worth of bank statements. They are asking for three years’ worth of Visa cards. Three years’ worth of telephone bills,” Green says.

“Many lawyers are going to the Federal Court, forcing the government to process the application[s]. You say that [my client hasn’t] been been deported, doesn’t have a criminal record and meets the residency requirements. Ninety-nine per cent of the time the Justice Department settles it because there is no defence.”

As far as the Canadian Bar Association’s Bellissimo is concerned, the government needs to amend the law to make it clear what it means to live in Canada.

For instance, if a live-in nanny leaves the country for a short time to visit her family back home, she can technically be seen as breaking the residency requirements and must provide proof that she has been in Canada for three years.

'Clearer test' of citizenship needed

The Citizenship Act has established tests to determine whether an applicant has fulfilled the residency requirements, but critics say those tests are hard to interpret.

In a May 29 decision, Federal Court Chief Justice Paul S. Crampton issued a stern warning about the law’s weaknesses, in ruling on an appeal brought by a rejected applicant.

"What is clear … is that the jurisprudence pertaining to the test for citizenship remains divided and somewhat unsettled."

Though Crampton ultimately upheld the decision by the citizenship judge to reject the application, he warned the federal government it had some work to do to make the law clearer and easier for judges to interpret.

"The optimal resolution of this state of affairs would be for Parliament to legislate a clearer test for citizenship under the Citizenship Act."

The Conservative government has tried and failed to introduce amendments to the act. In response to Justice Crampton’s ruling, a spokesperson for then-immigration minister Jason Kenney said earlier this year the government was still committed to amending the law to specify that "residence" means a "physical presence" in Canada.

Bellissimo notes that another attempt at changing the act has yet to happen under the new minister, Chris Alexander.

In response to specific questions about the Federal Court judgment, Lariviere said in an emailed response, "Minister Alexander has stated that [Citizenship and Immigration Canada] is looking to introduce a number of improvements to the Citizenship Act in the new year. These amendments will help make the citizenship process more efficient and strengthen the value of citizenship."

Mobile users, read Justice Crampton's decision (pdf) here