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.

They really did “send in the Mounties”, eh?

I was amazed to see a typically sensationalized headline in my newsfeed this week “Prabhdeep Srawn: Canadian soldiers to join search for Brampton man missing in Australia” and “Canadian Armed Forces join search for missing bushwalker.” Given prior analysis of Canadian culture, I just had to read … and pass comment.

Turns out this poor guy has been missing in Australia’s Snowy Mountains for about a month now. Having hiked a fair amount in the general area in which he disappeared, I can say from experience that it is a pretty rustic part of the world. The main issue is that weather can change dramatically this time of year and the terrain is really quite rugged. Wet surfaces, sharp rocks and trecherous escarpments means this is not terrain for the solo hiker. Plenty of snakes too – and likely to be sunnying themselves on rocks since it hasn’t been cold enough for snow and the fall sun has been lingering a bit…

In a prior blog I suggested that in the event of a Canadian in danger abroad, the government wouldn’t “send in the troops” – unlike their bretheren south of the 49th parallel who would have a Blackhawk over in a jiffy. When I read this article, I thought I was going to have to eat my words.

Not so.

As it happens, it’s a bunch of his buddies from the Army (he’s a reservist in the Canadian Armed Forces) and they are looking for him on their own time. I’m really impressed – it’s a true testament to the comraderie and concern of his friends that they would join in the search after the NSW State Police stopped looking for him after about a month.

I hope they find him – preferably alive. Good luck guys! Hike carefully… and watch out for Copperheads and Tigers, eh…

My thoughts also go out to his family.

The Difference Between Canadians and Americans

This last weekend I briefly passed through Montreal on my way to meetings in Washington DC. I had a really nice day hanging out with an old friend, trudging around the Vieux-Port in about -20 centigrade. To a first approximation it was a winter pub crawl (and a tiny bit of business).

However, every time I go back to Canada my visit almost always starts with annoyance. This is because each time I arrive at the “frontier” I am exposed to some distinct quirks of “Canadiana” that I think are culturally insightful. I mean let’s face it, there aren’t that many real differences between people on either side of the 49th Parallel. The two countries have been lambasting each other with TV signals, fast food chains and poor quality cars for decades. Indeed, as you drive from Vancouver to Seattle and pass through the Peace Arch border crossing, the inscription on the US side of the arch is “Children of a common mother.” Presumably this refers to Britain and not Eve.

The less touching version of this is “Canada – the 51st State” … but I digress.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few distinct cultural differences between Canadians and Americans – they are somehow “different” beyond just ice hockey and ending sentences in ‘eh. But they are not THAT different, I would say that the variations in custom are about as distinct as west coast US (i.e. California) and east coast US (i.e. Boston). Of course, we can agree that francophone Canada is very different, but I also think that we wouldn’t call that Canada – that’s Quebec.

I should also point out that I am a Canadian citizen, so I don’t want any hate mail about some goofy foreigner passing comment about Canadian culture.

So on to my story:

When one arrives at the Canadian border there are two queues. One queue is for Canadian residents. The other queue is for “visitors.” It’s that first queue that irritates me – it’s not for Canadian citizens, but for residents. A non-resident citizen is actually a visitor and every time I go through that line I pretty much end up getting an interview (even with the automated system).

This pisses me off every time.

Some years ago, I arrived in Vancouver to see my family and the border officer asked me “what is the purpose of your visit to Canada.” I felt my ire raise and I gave a polite but curt answer “visiting family.” The officer then went on and asked “oh, what family is that?” My blood pressure rose again and I snarkily answered “living family.” She then paused, glared at me and said “will you be staying with your living family or will you be staying elsewhere?” At this point I completely lost it and retorted “I haven’t worked it out yet but if I want to stay in a friggin’ (that’s the polite version) bus shelter, it’s my prerogative.”

Not one of my finest hours, I admit, but I was jet-lagged, irritated and I needed to pee. Needless to say, I was shuffled off into a room for a more detailed interview. After sitting on a sofa for about 20 minutes, presumably with someone watching me from the other side of the silvered window, this friendly looking officer, a geezer with a bushy white moustache walks over to me, sits down opposite me and asks “so what’s going on, eh?” Breathlessly (hey, I was in my 20s) I expressed my ire. He sombrely listened without expression and at the end of it he says “hmpf.”


“Well young man, I can see you are indignant about this and, to some extent I can understand why – but we can’t have visitors (note the term “visitor”) acting abusively toward our staff. These are our standard security questions and we expect people to comply.” Then he said something else, his expression softening, “Look, the next time this happens and you are feeling hard done by, take a deep breath and with a smile on your face say ‘do I really need a reason to visit my home and native land?‘” For those non-Canadians reading, this is a phrase from the national anthem. Clever. Cocky but irrefutable.

Over the years, I have used this response a dozen times with consistent effect, including last weekend. Sometimes it elicits barely concealed distain, sometimes it induces a chuckle. Most importantly, usually the interview stops there. But the contrasting observation here is that an American citizen returning to the US would possibly be asked “where have you been?” The border officer might be interested in drugs, or prohibited agricultural items, but the tenor (and I have heard it hundreds of times in airport line-ups) fundamentally assumes that if you are a Citizen, you are entering the US because you are returning home.

A US homeland security / border protection officer would never ask a US citizen “why are you here?”

This, folks, is the difference between Americans and Canadians – the fundamental notion of citizenship, identity and belonging. For our American brethren, it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, it is your identity that matters first – you’re an American (and a taxpayer) dammit. America is your home and guiding light, that beacon of civility and oversized food portions amidst a sea of chaos and al-Qaeda sleeper cells. It is my perception that the US government would unhesitatingly send in the Marines to airlift a citizen out of a foreign territory in a crisis. A less spectacular example is that if you lose your passport, you can get it replaced in 24 hours just about anywhere in the world.

Americans brag about this at cocktail parties…

In contrast, a Canadian abroad is not a citizen ambassador, is not a proud son or daughter acting upon the world stage – a Canadian outside of Canada is an outsider. If you ever got into strife in some third world country, the Canadian government would probably hold a referendum about it and then grudgingly send an emissary from a nearby British Embassy. If you need to replace your passport outside of Canada, it’s 8 weeks of gruelling paperwork out of Ottawa.

Living outside of Canada? Not really Canadian.