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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Taking citizenship seriously

The 1950s was a terrific time to be a Canadian. When I arrived in 1955, mega projects such as the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line were in progress or were about to be so. These were then the modern-day equivalents of the canals, roads and railways constructed in the mid-1800s when Canada first began to find an identity to call its own.

The Right Honourable John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada (1957-1963)

Gar Lunney / Library and Archives Canada / C-006779

The post-Second World War years of the 1950s were a period when our country’s sense of itself was being more clearly defined, and the governments of Louis St. Laurent were investing massively in public education and treated immigration as an economic opportunity, not as a cultural threat.

Canadians were discovering and asserting their distinctness from Britain and the United States. Canada had played a leading role in the creation of NATO, had made a significant contribution to the Korean War and was about to make breakthroughs in diplomacy that still stand as high-points in our history.

There was such a thing as a “Canadian way” and the international community recognized and respected it.

In the latter part of the decade, John Diefenbaker championed individual rights, enshrining them in law in 1960 as the Canadian Bill of Rights.

Being Canadian really meant something back then, and I was more than happy to give up dual citizenship elsewhere in exchange for single citizenship as a Canadian.

Sadly, the Trudeau Era seems to have changed much of that. Individual rights have been shouldered aside in favour of the group rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Multiculturalism is now in vogue as a defining aspect of being Canadian—to the point that our distinct identity has become mushy and blurred. Many of our immigrants have become citizens for convenience only and continue to carry passports of their original homelands. Upon receiving Canadian citizenship, many return to live permanently in their homelands, paying taxes and raising their families there and all the while enjoying a free ride when it comes paying Canadian taxes and otherwise sustaining the benefits of their Canadian citizenship.

Recently, however, I’m sensing change. There seems to be more discussion about the responsibilities of Canadian citizenship. Articles and books like Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto by Rudyard Griffiths have sparked debates about what it means to be Canadian.

Even our laws have begun to change. On April 17, an important change to our citizenship laws comes into effect: any person born abroad to Canadian parents will be a Canadian only if their father or mother was born in Canada, or if one or more of their parents became a citizen by immigrating to this country. Those citizens who have chosen to have no real connection to Canada will no longer be permitted to pass on Canadian citizenship to their descendants.

More changes may be in the offing, for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently declared that the federal government will modify Canada’s citizenship program to include greater emphasis on Canadian “values.”

Apparently these recent developments are part of an attempt to overhaul of our citizenship laws so that a sharper set of distinctions can be drawn between Canadians who demonstrate an active commitment to their country and those who do not. I welcome this.

These trends leave me with a sense of cautious optimism and I credit Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for this.

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