09/17/2015 05:18 EDT | Updated 09/17/2016 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper's Citizenship Overhaul Heir to Chilling History of Exclusion

Library and Archives Canada

In the midst of an election season that seemed to hinge predictably on the economy, a single issue has risen to unexpected prominence: Canada's role regarding the global refugee crisis.

To echo the howling lament I imagine emanating from Tory campaign headquarters: How did this happen?

Certainly, our illusion of distance from the crisis was shattered by the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach followed by revelations of his family's attempts to gain asylum in Canada. It awakened many voters to the human cost of our hardened, fear-based approach to immigration and foreign policy. But equally important and more difficult to acknowledge is the way the refugee crisis has cast an uncomfortable light on the question of who "we" are, and how our laws make us.

To understand the anemic Canadian response to the refugee crisis, we must place it in the context of a broader policy overhaul that has radically reshaped the meaning of citizenship in Canada.

Citizenship is not a self-evident concept. First, it is relatively new to Western political thought, as are its associations with rights and duties. Since the French Revolution gave the world the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," the unwieldy relationship between states and subjects, and political and human rights, has been a source of debate and uncertainty. Second, over the course of the past century, in many Western states the borders around citizenship have continually shifted, always with the object of excluding certain unwanted claimants. By virtue of these histories, citizenship has been aligned with rights in the first place, and race in the second.

Over the past nine years, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper has demonstrated its keen understanding of the malleability of citizenship, if not the rights that make up its content (enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

The most recent law to consolidate the new citizenship regime is the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), proposed in 2014 by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and passed in May of this year. This law gives unprecedented discretionary powers to government officials to revoke the citizenship of those born outside the country, and radically expands the grounds on which citizenship can be revoked. This also applies to Canadians with dual citizenship or the even the possibility of citizenship elsewhere (including by marriage or ancestry), thus placing even citizenship by birth on shaky ground.

The government has marketed Bill C-24 as "protecting Canadians" from the threat of Islamic extremists, but has not explained how this law will accomplish this. There is no evidence to show that single-nationality Canadians are less likely to adopt extremist views or commit acts of violence. Nor is it clear how allowing government officials to strip one's citizenship for living "too long" abroad makes us safer.

Bill C-24 follows a series of measures that either withdraw rights from non-citizen residents or assign racial attributes to citizenship. These include the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which was billed, again, as "protecting Canadians," but criticized for exposing the "vulnerable women" it targets to only more violence. Likewise, in 2012 Immigration Canada moved to restrict refugees' access to healthcare. Doctors have since been protesting this policy, and in 2014 a federal court ruled the practice to be "cruel and unusual."

What makes these laws so chilling is the history that precedes them. Bill C-24, in particular, is heir to a legacy begun during WWI, when many Western countries legalized the denationalization of their own citizens. The first in Europe was France, in 1915, with regard to naturalized citizens of "enemy" origins. Next came Belgium, in 1922. Then, in 1926, the fascist regime in Italy allowed the denationalization of all citizens deemed "unworthy of Italian citizenship." In 1933 came Austria, and so on, until in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws divided German citizens into full citizens and citizens without political rights. Indeed, denationalization of Jews and Roma peoples before sending them to extermination camps was the one legal prerequisite the Nazis faithfully observed.

As denationalization laws emerged across Europe, similar restrictions on naturalized citizenship were escalated here in Canada. Osgoode Hall Law Professor Shin Imai has shown how, during the Great Depression, "immigration laws were used to deal with unemployed persons and political opponents of the government." As a result, 25 per cent of the population was made vulnerable to deportation and 28,000 people were deported from Canada. Meanwhile, provincial policies of forcefully uprooting Asian-Canadians, seizing their property and holding them in detention camps persisted for years after WWII had ended.

History tells us that degraded citizenship and denationalization operate on a continuum with statelessness, detention and expulsion. We may tell ourselves that detention camps are part of a dark past we vowed never to repeat. We look on in horror as Syrian and Iraqi refugees are now being tattooed and corralled into camps in the Czech Republic. But our own treatment of asylum seekers has not been much different. Since 2006, the Canadian government has spent $250 million to hold nearly 100,000 "irregular arrivals," including about 900 children a year, in indefinite detention. These people are held either in designated facilities or provincial prisons, including maximum-security prisons.

Millions of Canadians, myself included, have found ourselves on the wrong side of the line that Bill C-24 draws around "full" citizenship. But continuing on this path affects all Canadians. When the government uses language like "strengthening citizenship," it does not strengthen the rights inherent in citizenship, but rather builds a defensive wall around it. As the Anti-terrorism Act (Bill C-51) demonstrates, the Conservative government is willing to violate the privacy and free speech rights of Canadians under the same banner of "security." In other words, the program of this government has been to protect citizenship not as a safeguard of rights, but as a limited commodity to be kept from "undesirable" others.

The prominence of the refugee crisis this election provides a precious opportunity to use our rights as citizens to insist on the rights of the stateless, while asserting an organic, rather than imposed, vision of "Canadianness." Back in 2006, Harper famously promised that we "won't recognize Canada when [he's] through with it." Nearly 10 years later, the unfolding of this election suggests that, to the contrary, Harper does not recognize Canadians.


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