TORONTO - As more countries compete for the world's top talent, some worry that planned changes to the Citizenship Act could hamper Canada's efforts to woo international students, a group that contributes billions of dollars to the Canadian economy.
The changes, which are expected to become law later this year, do away with a provision that eased the path to citizenship for those who live in the country before becoming permanent residents — a rule that benefited foreign students.
"We're taking away one of our major selling points," said Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.
"We're continuing to compete internationally with countries like the U.K., U.S. and Australia increasingly for talent and it makes no sense for us to take away incentives that we knew would bear fruit."
The move seems to run counter to the government's pledge to double the number of international students in Canada by 2022.
The impact of the change could be significant, considering the government estimates international students currently contribute more than $8 billion to the economy and support 86,000 jobs.
"We usually have laws to address a problem. I don't know what the problem was," Douglas said. "It was a win for Canada, it was a win for people coming here."
Under current laws, for individuals like international students, foreign workers or live-in caregivers, every day spent in Canada as a non-permanent resident counts as a half day of residence needed for their citizenship application, up to a maximum of two years.
In addition to taking away that provision, the government is simultaneously increasing residency requirements for citizenship from three out of four years to four out of six years.
The change is raising some eyebrows as it creates a potential hurdle for those who typically make well-integrated, sought-after immigrants.
"Increasingly international students are seen as a fabulous talent pool for Canada, they're golden immigrants," said Jennifer Humphries, a vice-president at the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
"They can be huge contributors to the Canadian society, Canadian economy. If we create roadblocks to them, what will happen could mean that they could get their education in Canada and end up going to work in the U.S."
In 2012 Canada welcomed a record number of over 100,000 international students. And over the last three years, more than 23,000 transitioned to permanent residency in Canada.
Observers will be watching closely to see how the changes affect future foreign students, but some who are already in the country say the new rules have put their plans in jeopardy.
Saman Maleki, who came to Canada from Iran as an international student in 2008, is one of them. The 31-year-old became a permanent resident in 2012 and was hoping to apply for citizenship this year, but may now have to wait.
He's not alone — a petition protesting the rule change has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures and features multiple posts from those who feel the government isn't recognizing their connection to a society in which they want to attain stable, long-term status.
"If anything I think the government should make it easier for people in my situation to get their citizenship. I want to live here, but I want to live here as a Canadian," said Maleki, who is currently completing his PhD in London, Ont.
"I may not be a Canadian on paper but I really consider this country my home and I'd like to have the privilege to vote in the next election."
The government says the change is meant to create a "level playing field" for all citizenship applicants.
"While it may take someone who came to Canada as a foreign student longer to meet the residence requirement under the new rules, the changes are designed to deepen their attachment to Canada," said Sonia Lesage, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.
To at least one observer, however, the proposed changes are in line with the Conservative government's increasingly hardline approach to immigration.
"Much of this bill is not about practical benefit. It's about symbolic benefit to Canadians who like the idea of appearing to get tough on immigrants and go after citizens of convenience," said University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin, who studies immigration and citizenship issues.
"If you look behind this to the function that was being served here, which is to recognize that people have been living, studying, working, residing and integrating into Canada, then you will see that (the change) disadvantages people who have been doing all those things without the benefit of secure legal status."
Immigration lawyer David Cohen has already been getting calls from those troubled by the proposed changes.
"These people were able to gain a year towards their citizenship in the past," he explained of the provision the government is doing away with. "It allowed people to plan their lives with some kind of certainty."
In taking the long view, Cohen pointed out, however, that those affected by the change would still be able to eventually gain their citizenship, albeit after a considerably longer wait.
"It's an inconvenience and it certainly affects people's lives but it's not a catastrophic or drastic change," he noted. "It's not eliminating anybody's right to become a Canadian citizen at the end of the day."
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