Canada has always been a nation of immigrants. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s National Policy relied on immigration, (along with the construction of a transcontinental railway and the imposition of tariffs with the US) to build the Canadian economy and ensure the evolution of a separate national identity from that of our much larger neighbour to the south. Indeed, immigrants were actively recruited at that time. Since those early days the reputation of Canada as an immigrant-receiver country has grown exponentially. As of 2022 Canada surpassed even the United States to become the top immigration destination in the world.[i]
This has not happened by accident. Federal political parties of all stripes have consistently supported a policy encouraging immigration and the acceptance of refugees. And Canadians have always supported this longstanding pro-immigration approach. As one major study in 2011 concluded, Canadians have remained remarkably consistent in that support despite economic downturns, threats of terrorism or other negative international developments.[ii] In addition, Canada’s comprehensive system of immigrant settlement and integration programs has been considered the gold standard by many other immigrant receiver countries and recognized for its contribution to this widespread public support. In addition, these programs, along with Canadians’ acceptance of diversity, have been viewed as significant factors in the historically high level of immigrants choosing to become Canadian citizens.
Apart from the brief anomaly of the Harper era, during which both immigrants and refugees were routinely framed as cheaters and interlopers by an official government “discourse of distrust”, [iii] all political parties and federal governments have championed a positive image of both categories. Many of the Harper government’s repressive measures, including the quarantining of Tamil refugees in BC and the arbitrary removal of the oldest immigrant application files from the queue, were found to be unconstitutional or illegal, as well as violating international agreements to which Canada was a signatory. Moreover, as Paquet and Larios have noted, “the result of (Harper’s policies) was … conflict expansion” and his record was also “one of politicization of several issues having to do with immigration.”[iv]
It is worth noting that the Harper government’s policies were clearly repudiated by voters during the 2015 election,[v] and one of the Trudeau government’s first acts after that election was to rescind or revoke almost all of the punitive legislative and regulatory measures the Harper Conservatives had introduced.
It is in this context that two recent developments must be considered. First, the percentage of permanent residents (PRs) choosing to proceed to the next step and become Canadian citizens, once as high as 75%, in 2001, has declined dramatically over the past two decades and now stands at less than half, or 45.7%. (Under current regulations such PR’s enjoy all of the benefits of citizenship except voting, and can travel on a Canadian PR certificate instead of a passport.) [vi] Second, recent polling data analyzed by Environics Research demonstrate a decline in popular support for the current government’s policy of increased immigration targets. As one recent opinion poll analysis concluded, “Canadians are now significantly more likely than a year ago to say there is too much immigration to the country, dramatically reversing a trend dating back decades.”[vii]
A number of reasons for this second negative trend have been advanced, including widespread public dissatisfaction with the direction the country is taking, the impact of high interest rates and inflation, and the lack of affordable housing. This is particularly worrying since numerous expert commentators have demonstrated that the link between those issues and the level of immigration is either tenuous or non-existent. (In fact, several of these concerns have been decades in the making, while others are fueled by misconceptions or, as one commentator put it, by the unprecedented and growing gap between public perception and reality.)[viii]
But public perceptions are hard to dispel. It will likely take visible improvements in the economy and a growing source of affordable housing to assuage many of these concerns, although concerted public education efforts could also play a role.
Nevertheless, in this climate of growing public anxiety over immigration levels, and given the government’s stated ambitious immigration targets for the next few years, there could hardly be a less auspicious moment for other immigration concerns to re-appear on the public’s radar. Yet that is precisely what is happening now, in light of several highly publicized government rescue efforts. Simply put, in recent weeks Canadians have been exposed on an almost daily basis to stories of Canadian citizens and permanent residents being rescued from Gaza, many of whom have been highly critical of the government’s ‘failure’ to arrange for their escape faster or with more support. This follows hot on the heels of an earlier, similar rescue saga from Sudan in May of this year. In both cases, many of those being rescued appear to have been living in their country of origin for a long time, if not permanently, and some have even expressed a desire to return there again when the ‘troubles’ are over. Others, described as residents of a particular Canadian city or town, have nevertheless referred repeatedly to their country of origin as their home and their “country”.[ix]
Even more significantly, estimates by bureaucrats involved in the rescue process suggest roughly half of those rescued from Sudan originally came to Canada as refugees and then returned to that country once their citizenship or permanent resident status was achieved, or even while they were still in the refugee determination queue.[x] This, in turn, has re-ignited the “citizens of convenience” narrative that first emerged in 2006 when the federal government sponsored a far greater exodus of “Canadians and individuals with connections to Canada” from Lebanon.
As the Senate committee investigating that earlier effort noted, there were some 40,000 Canadian citizens living in Lebanon at the time, (the most of any country other than the U.S.) of whom 14,000 requested assistance and were evacuated at government expense (an estimated $94 million), and a significant but indeterminate number of whom subsequently returned to that country.[xi]
As one former senior diplomat and federal public servant recently outlined, there continue to be several problematic paths to citizenship that make Canadian citizenship both highly attractive and comparatively accessible in comparison with other popular immigrant receiver countries.[xii] At the same time, as the Senate committee report also carefully noted, the issue of perceived “Canadians of convenience” is hugely complex. Democracies in principle cannot distinguish between categories of citizen. Or, as prime minister Trudeau famously declared during the 2015 leaders’ debates, “a citizen is a citizen is a citizen.” Meanwhile arguments to strengthen citizenship requirements, or to eliminate dual citizenship, also confront numerous difficulties both practical and ethical. For example, it would be administratively difficult and extremely costly to institute a procedure for exit controls in order to track the travels of Canadians, and ethically unacceptable in a liberal democracy. Similarly, roughly half of the countries in the world accept the concept of dual citizenship, including the United States, Australia and most of Europe, making it exceedingly difficult administratively for Canada to ban such a practice and, in the increasingly competitive world of immigrant recruitment, potentially placing Canada at a considerable disadvantage in terms of its ability to attract highly skilled workers.
However two concrete suggestions appear to be justified at this stage, in order to enhance the credibility of the citizenship process, and the perceived value of Canadian citizenship, for both native Canadians and potential newcomers. First, an informed and broadly based discussion about Canadian citizenship policies, including permanent residency, could anticipate and deflect growing public concern. This measure was first suggested by the Senate committee report in 2007 and repeated on several occasions since then by various current and former public servants involved in the administration of immigration policies.
Second, the recent proposal by the Trudeau government to implement a ‘virtual’ self-administered citizenship oath procedure should be rejected. As Andrew Griffith, a former Director General at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada recently wrote, “Citizenship is not just a mechanical process of getting a driver’s license. It’s making a decision to come to Canada, to contribute to Canada and to vote in Canadian elections. Citizenship ceremonies really give a sense of belonging and inclusion.”[xiii] Surely the benefits of Canadian citizenship merit the minor inconvenience that some applicants may experience by being required to attend an in person ceremony. It is the symbolic impact of such an event that must be considered above all, a demonstration of the commitment Canadians expect in return for their longstanding welcoming support.
[iii] Carver, Peter J. 2016. “A Failed Discourse of Distrust Amid Significant Procedural Change:
The Harper Government’s Legacy in Immigration and Refugee Law.” Review of
Constitutional Studies 21 (2): 209–34
[viii] D. Parkinson. “Economic Perceptions are Dangerously Off Base.” Globe and Mail. Sept.18, 2023