Rethinking Citizenship

Two concurrent events have recently had me thinking a great deal about what citizenship really means. The first has been the horrifying events surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, most notably the tragic loss of life on the shores of Turkey, and heart-breaking footage of children washed up on desolate beaches. Those images have profoundly affected me and I find it difficult to look at my three year-old son and not superimpose the mental image of a similarly aged boy lying face down on the beach, almost as if asleep, but never again to awake.

The second has been an incredibly disappointing and “un-Canadian” turn events with the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), enabling citizens (notably, dual-nationals) to be “stripped” of their Canadian citizenship if implicated in acts against the state, including acts of terrorism. The language of the act opens a serious crack in the door of the ‘robust’ notion of citizenship and gives government considerable discretion over how it chooses to repeal the grant of citizenship.

I’m a Canadian-Australian dual national. I was born in Calgary and have maintained close ties to Canada all my life. I return to Canada regularly to be with friends and family. I own property in Canada. I take interest in Canadian political and national affairs. I identify with Canada’s multicultural and international reputation for fairness, freedom and institutional integrity. Yet, this change in Canada’s stance on what it means to be “Canadian” is truly shocking, especially at a time when sovereign identity and the role of the international community needs to be balanced with the basic human needs and rights of the displaced.

There are four fundamental flaws with the Canadian Government’s changed notion of citizenship. The first is that is destroys the true sanctity of the definition of citizenship, and what it means to achieve it. The vast majority of people that become a Canadian citizen do so through hard work, commitment and an often difficult journey to become part of something great. In creating the potential for the discretionary revocation of citizenship, with fairly wide purview, the absolute meaning and aspiration of citizenship is diluted. For example, how could we ever allow Syrian refugees to become Canadian “conditionally” after everything they have been through (don’t get me started on Canada’s political and military intervention – or lack thereof – to begin with).

The second tragedy of this law is that it effectively creates a second class “citizenship”. It establishes a class of citizens that remain vulnerable to the discretion of government. Governments make mistakes, governments over-reach their authority, and this law opens the door for all kinds of abuse and corruption that has the potential to permanently threaten vulnerable segments of the populace. Canada’s institutions may be more robust than that of many other countries, but no executive branch of government is flawless.

Thirdly – and somewhat related to the second point – is the disappointing side-effect that it is no longer acceptable to be Canadian and “something else” as well. I always thought that one of the great things about being Canadian was that it was ok to be a Canadian-Pakistani, or a Canadian-Afghan. Unlike the USA, where I would argue cultural identity is constantly pressured and subjugated to the “ideal” of America (you are, first and foremost, American goddammit), with considerable racial tensions that result, Canada always seemed to more peacefully allow multiple identities to co-exist. This legislation will threaten Canada’s multi-cultural tolerance.

However the worst – and most ironic – thing about this legislation, is that it will effectively make Canada less lawful on the international stage. The upstanding moral compass, the “decency”, Canada’s hard-earned international reputation for fairness, integrity and freedom is threatened by this legislation. Why? Because in stripping individuals of their Canadian citizenship, they are no longer subject to Canada’s extraterritorial laws. Let’s take a hypothetical example – you have a Russian-Canadian dual national that decides to go and fight for ISIS, and Canadian citizenship is repealed. Instead of being able to subject that individual to Canada’s terrorism laws, the government effectively wipes their hands and leaves them to the jurisdiction of the “other” nationality. If that other country has a weaker legal system, then less control and less recourse is able to be exerted.

For example, Australia has extra-territorial laws regarding pedophilia. If an Australian goes abroad Thailand on vacation and has sex (consensual or otherwise) with a minor (by definition of Australian law) they are subject to prosecution in Australia upon their return. It doesn’t matter that the offense was committed offshore, it is an illegal act of citizenship. In my opinion “statutory rape” is just another kind of terrorism, no different than the barbarian acts of ISIS – often committed against women and children.

Instead of stripping Canadians of their citizenship, the government should be holding them ABSOLUTELY to the standards of Canadian citizenship at home and abroad. That would not only strengthen and define what it means to be Canadian, but it would serve to project the power and integrity of Canada around the world.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Citizenship

  1. The current refugee crisis re-focuses our minds on this notion of what is citizenship. Belatedly I have discovered the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu whose recently published lecture series “On the State” has one of the most interesting discussions of citizenship and the meaning of the State I have come across (but a warning that this is not a book for the impatient or fainthearted!). Bourdieu contrasts the “German” model based on “blood ties” with the French “universalist” model – and I think that Chris is more in the later camp!

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