10/18/2012 05:19 EDT | Updated 12/18/2012 05:12 EST

Less Access to Citizenship Means a Worse-Off Canada

Canada's immigration selection system has always been rigorous, in part because we have viewed immigrants as "citizens in waiting." After three years of permanent residence, they are able to apply for citizenship and more than 89 per cent choose to do so -- one of the highest naturalization rates in the world.

But, recent and proposed changes to Canada's immigration and citizenship rules are making it much more difficult for immigrants to become citizens.

In 2009 the government changed the citizenship guide that prospective citizens need to review to pass a citizenship exam. The new guide is 15 pages longer and places a greater emphasis on Canada's monarchy and military history and less on civic participation. The associated exam was also revised and the pass mark was increased from 60 per cent to 75 per cent. The fail rate rose as a result, from four per cent to 15 per cent, and is now high as 41 per cent among immigrants from some source countries.

The government subsequently proposed to require proof of language ability in English or French in citizenship applications. For some immigrants who access federally-funded language training this will not be a barrier, because successful completion of these programs at certain levels will be considered proof of language proficiency. But such language training is not available in all parts of the country, and in some regions, there are long wait lists. Immigrants who don't have access to federally-funded language programs or who did not complete their education in one of Canada's official languages, will have to pay for their own language training or for a language test, adding an additional financial cost to the citizenship process.

But the government isn't just making it harder to become a citizen. Some people will never have access to Canadian citizenship. Children born abroad to Canadian citizens will only be eligible for Canadian citizenship if their parents were either born or naturalized in Canada. In a globalized world, where citizens of one country work, study or live abroad more frequently than ever before, this puts many children at risk of being stateless.

Most problematically, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has proposed denying citizenship to those born in Canada if their parents did not have legal status in Canada. In other words, people born in Canada would not automatically become a citizen.

While the Minister has indicated that this would prevent "birth tourism" -- presumably those who visit Canada specifically to give birth here to gain Canadian citizenship for their children -- there is no evidence to suggest that this is a widespread problem. But this policy could negatively affect the children of undocumented individuals, failed refugee claimants, or temporary foreign workers whose work permits have expired. Through no fault of their own, these children may become stateless. Even if they've never lived anywhere but Canada they will live in constant fear of being deported.

Maytree recently published a paper, "Shaping the future: Canada's rapidly changing immigration policies" co-authored by Naomi Alboim and Karen Cohl which cautions the government to collect data, and analyze the implications before proceeding with further action that discourages, delays or prevents the attainment of citizenship.

Restricting or delaying access to Canadian citizenship is too important to Canada's future to be made without such reflection. Acquiring citizenship goes to the heart of who we are as a country, the success of immigration, and ultimately the success of our country.

High rates of citizenship acquisition are associated with better employment rates and being a citizen is a prerequisite for participating in many aspects of civic and political life. It is an indication of an immigrant's commitment to the country, and the country's responsibility to the immigrant. It enhances immigrants' sense of belonging and integration and allows for a more stable society where our neighbours do not live in fear of deportation.

As we celebrate National Citizenship Week this week we should pause to remember how important citizenship is and how successful Canada has been in using it as a tool to strengthen our nation. Otherwise, we will have much less to celebrate in years to come.