Even as we look forward to many more occasions for the Canadian anthem to sound out in Sochi, parliamentarians are debating the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act — billed as the most comprehensive reform of citizenship laws since the 1970s.
It would be tempting to cheer for the act in the same spirit as cheering for our athletes — as a celebration of citizenship and a salute to the accomplishments of our fellow Canadians.
But that would be ironic, since the act has made it harder to become a naturalized citizen and in effect devalued the standing of Canadians who live abroad, including many of our Olympians and our NHL greats — past and present.
The new act will lead to lower citizenship accession rates, which will result in reduced economic benefits for resident Canadians. Extensive research has shown that there is a citizenship premium of higher earnings and greater tax payments that come from naturalized Canadians who have invested in themselves while waiting to become citizens. The new more stringent rules will reduce the incentive for new immigrants to make that kind of investment and — by denying the vote to those who fail to meet accession criteria — lessen their attachment to Canada.
Yet, immigrants who don’t meet citizenship requirements can retain their landed immigrant status indefinitely, which means they are able to draw on social benefits. What is the point of bringing in immigrants (who receive social benefits) and denying them citizenship, which would increase their tax contributions? If it is to “punish” them for not being in Canada, the predictable result is perverse: they will indeed choose not to come back to Canada, which deprives the country of a talent pool that was specifically sought out in the first place.
The new act rightly identifies an important objective of citizenship policy as the need to create attachment to Canada. This policy, however, should not be defined in the narrow sense of physical presence within our borders. The reality of a globalized workforce — especially for highly skilled workers — is that they have the option to work in many different jurisdictions and likely will spend parts of their professional lives outside of their native or adopted countries. Exhibit A: the Governor of the Bank of England.
In a highly competitive market for global talent, the challenge should be defined not as how to stop immigrants from leaving, but rather as how to encourage our citizens abroad to stay attached to Canada.
The implicit message of the new act — which requires immigrants to be resident in Canada four years out of six in order to become a citizen — is that Canadians who spend more than one-third of their lives outside the country are lesser citizens. Indeed, the current rules deny Canadians the right to vote if they have lived abroad for more than five years. That would include Mark Carney by the time he completes his term at the Bank of England.
The proposed bill will be popular because it responds to the personal offence that many feel over “citizens of convenience.” That sense of offence is real and it is founded on a deep-rooted belief in the value and importance of Canadian citizenship. But it is never a good idea to design public policy around spite. The broader interest of the country should be about building the talent pool of Canada by investing in young people and workers, attracting high-quality immigrants and creating incentives for these immigrants to stay attached to Canada whether or not they live within our borders.
Why do some immigrants choose not to live in Canada? The first thing to stress is that their reasons are not dissimilar to those native-born Canadians who live abroad. These may include family and personal preferences or, more often, better job opportunities abroad. We should not begrudge Canadians who take this path, whether they are native-born or foreign-born.
But what about immigrants who game the system — people who emigrate with no intention of living in the country (and paying taxes) but who connive to accept social benefits from the state?
The solution is not to make it more difficult for all immigrants to get citizenship. Rather, it is in instituting strict eligibility requirements for health and other social benefits for non-residents. In this regard, the recent decision by the B.C. Court of Appeal denying health benefits for a family that did not live in the country is the right approach.
There is a “price of entry” for immigrants seeking to come to Canada; they must meet criteria for education, skill and language levels, and general character, as well as — in the case of the now-defunct investor program — a large financial commitment. It is entirely appropriate for Canada to be highly selective about who is admitted to the country. But having chosen carefully who we want, the objective surely is to encourage citizenship accession rather than to create unreasonable barriers. The preferred policy mix is a high bar for entry paired with a relatively low bar for full status.
The government has gone a long way to reform immigration policy so that it is better aligned with Canada’s human resource needs. The proposed Citizenship Act runs counter to the previous reforms because it will deter highly skilled workers who are globally mobile from considering Canada as a home base. And it will alienate further the 2.8 million Canadians living abroad who are cast as second-class citizens.
Yuen Pau Woo is President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Don J. Devoretz is professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University.
A version of this article was originally published in the Toronto Star on February 18. 2014.