Are Immigrants Falling out of Love with Canada? (And is it Because We Feel the Same?)

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New Canadians may soon face a brand-new obstacle on their path to citizenship. Beyond interminable delays and hefty fees, by June they could also find themselves having to prove they’re not a robot by clicking on every image that contains a motorcycle. Or a parking meter. Or a horse.

Last month Ottawa announced plans to eliminate the long-standing requirement that citizenship applicants publicly swear (or affirm) Canada’s Oath of Citizenship at an official ceremony before receiving their citizenship papers. Such oath-taking ceremonies have been a requirement since 1947. And while they went virtual during Covid-19, they’ve always been public events overseen by a citizenship judge or other designated Crown representative.

Now, with massive waiting times afflicting the entire immigration system, the federal Liberals are proposing to speed up this last stage in the process via a “secure online solution.” Immigrants will simply have to left-click their computer mouse to complete their oath and thus become citizens of Canada. It seems an uninspiring culmination to what should be an important, if not life-changing, event.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government unveiled this time-saving proposal quietly in the Canada Gazette on February 25, but it has since attracted plenty of high-profile outrage from Canada’s Liberal elite. Former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson said she was “horrified” by the idea of doing away with citizenship ceremonies, calling them the “mark of a civilized society.” Sergio Marchi, federal immigration minister during the Jean Chrétien years, called it “a misguided idea” that would add “insult to injury!” (Exclamation in original.) Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi added that it was “a terrible idea.”

“Becoming a Canadian citizen is a transformational event,” explains Daniel Bernhard, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), in an interview. “This is truly a special ‘once in a lifetime’ occasion – you can get married more than once, you can have more than one child but you can only become a Canadian once. We should celebrate it as such.” Bernhard worries that turning the final stage of citizenship into a “box you tick” will degrade its significance by making it indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill online transaction.

The ICC, founded by Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul in 2005, is an advocacy group focused on integrating and celebrating new Canadians. To this end, it hosts lavish citizenship ceremonies in iconic locations, such as Toronto’s Pearson International Airport or in national parks, and encourages existing Canadians to attend in order to create a broader sense of community engagement. “Everyone is invited to the party,” Bernhard says. “We want to extend a collective welcome and make it a moment for reflection and celebration. Citizenship isn’t just something on your passport. It should exist in your heart as well.”

It is, of course, impossible to know what exists in Ottawa’s heart. But the federal government appears determined to make the citizenship process dramatically less special – downright banal, in fact. And for reasons that are of its own creation. While the federal government’s current service standard states that a citizenship application will be processed in 12 months, new applicants are currently being told it will take two years to complete, including a three-month wait to schedule a citizenship ceremony.

What’s causing the delay? Waiting times have exploded across the federal bureaucracy, and it can’t be blamed on a lack of resources. According to a recent report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is actually over-staffed when it comes to processing immigration applications. “IRCC is estimated to have 65% more staff than would be required to meet the goal” of its own service standards, the PBO reports.

Set against such evidence of bureaucratic ineptitude, it seems downright satirical for Ottawa to suggest that new Canadians will “enjoy time savings…[of] approximately 90 minutes” by not having to sit through a formal citizenship ceremony they would likely have remembered for the rest of their lives. “This government has a problem providing the basic service of immigration applications,” snaps Bernhard. “The ceremony is not the problem.”

An Even Bigger Citizenship Problem

When it comes to the state of Canadian citizenship, however, Bernhard has bigger worries than the mere loss of public formalities. Top of the list is the fact new arrivals to this country appear to be falling out of love with the idea of becoming Canadian in the first place. Earlier this year, ICC asked Statistics Canada for an update on the rate at which immigrants become citizens.

In 1991, 68.6 percent of immigrants holding a permanent residency card achieved citizenship between five and nine years of arriving. (Permanent residents can apply for citizenship after spending five years in Canada.) This figure rose above 75 percent in the next two censuses. It has since fallen dramatically. In 2016, only 60.4 percent of permanent residents became citizens within the stated time period. And according to the latest 2021 census data provided by Statcan, it’s now down to 45.7 percent. In other words, fewer than half of recent immigrants are choosing to become Canadian citizens once they’re eligible.

“The figures are shocking,” says Bernhard. He considers the trend a fundamental blow to Canadian identity: “One of the ways Canadians see themselves as being unique in the world is in how we welcome immigrants. It is a tradition that goes back to before the founding of Canada.” As proof, he cites an 1840 speech by pre-Confederation Quebec politician Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, who declared that Canada’s strength lay in welcoming “various populations which come from diverse portions of the globe” and making them “like ourselves, Canadian.”

Now, however, the data suggests a decided lack of interest among new arrivals in joining what Bernhard calls “the team that is Canada.” If immigrants decide they don’t really care about signing up for membership in Team Canada, “then we’ve got a big problem.”

Mobile Free Agents or Pressure from Communist China?

Canada has a lot invested in immigration. Earlier this year, the Trudeau government announced new targets for in-migration that are unprecedented in the modern era. After accepting fewer than 200,000 permanent immigrants in 2020, the Liberals now plan to increase intake to 465,000 in 2023 and 500,000 by 2025. Such a tidal wave of new residents clearly is already straining the capacity of the housing market and likely fuelling inflation as well. Nonetheless, immigration enjoys strong support across all political parties and regions, if somewhat tempered in Quebec. This national consensus appears to be holding because the needs of the labour market are so great. But if all these newcomers feel no particular attachment or affection for their new country, then the economic argument for immigration becomes much weaker.

Bernhard admits he doesn’t have an answer to why new arrivals seem to be increasingly disenchanted with becoming Canadian, and he’s hoping Statcan will soon offer more clarity on the issue. From his perspective, the worst-case scenario is if these ambivalent immigrants are mostly highly-educated, high-income “free agents” who are prepared to pull up stakes and move to another country as soon as something better comes along.

Bolstering this fear is a recent poll conducted by ICC of new Canadians showing that nearly one-third of 18-34-year-olds and one-quarter of those with a university education considered themselves likely to move elsewhere in the next two years. As these potentially wealthy – and wealth-creating – individuals offer a substantial economic advantage to whichever country they settle in, Canada has a strong incentive to retain them. Getting them to become citizens seems the surest way to lock them down.

Partly easing this fear of mobile free-agent immigrants is a 2019 Statcan study using earlier data that found the decline in citizenship uptake to be largely driven by immigrants with low education and low income. Further, almost the entire drop between 1996 and 2016 was attributable to migrants from one country in one region. “Most striking was the large decline in citizenship take-up among immigrants from East Asia – mainly China,” the Statcan report states. Naturalization rates for all East Asian immigrants fell from 83 percent to 45 percent over this time.

Communist China’s increasingly strident prohibition on dual citizenship may be to blame here, since it means footloose Chinese immigrants must now choose one passport or the other when they arrive in Canada. If they can’t have both, it appears most are deciding to remain Chinese citizens even after they settle permanently in this country. And if government policy in China is the principal factor behind the precipitous decline in citizenship uptake, then there’s little Canada can do to correct the situation.

An international perspective is also useful. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) International Migration Outlook 2022 Canada remains near the top of the immigration leaderboard despite recent concerns. We stand third overall in terms of total immigrants accepted, trailing only the United States and Germany. (While the U.S. is often painted as unwelcoming, it has long been the world’s dominant recipient of permanent, legal immigrants. Under President Donald Trump, for example, it admitted more than 1 million immigrants annually until Covid-19 hit in 2020; last year it welcomed over 830,000.)

As well, the average annual rate at which foreign-born residents become citizens across all OECD countries is just 2.2 percent. In Canada, it’s 4 percent – nearly twice as high. While the OECD also notes Canada’s citizenship rate has fallen significantly in recent years, this global perspective does not reveal any grave threat to Canada’s way of life or its ability to attract immigrants. Among the top five immigrant-accepting countries (Spain and the United Kingdom complete the set), all have substantially larger populations than Canada; our status as a generous, welcoming and desirable country appears solid.

The Horror Stories We Tell Ourselves

The evident decline in Canada’s citizenship rates may say more about the attitudes and habits of existing Canadians than those of newly-arriving immigrants. The federal bureaucracy’s failure to meet its own published service standards is certainly a self-inflicted wound. As is the proposal to solve this problem by eliminating much-loved citizenship ceremonies. The effect of both situations is to debase the perceived status of Canadian citizenship by emphasizing the transactional over the transformational. Then there’s the Roxham Road debacle, which offers migrants the opportunity to illegally sneak into our country via a dead-end road rather than at a regular border crossing and still be recognized as refugee claimants, with all the official support and standing this entails. If Canadian citizenship is supposed to be so valuable, it seems foolish to further cheapen the reputation of the entire immigration system in this way.

Beneath these obvious failures of governance and policy, however, lurks an even deeper and more insidious problem. As Bernhard explains, becoming a citizen is akin to joining a team with all other Canadians. A “club,” so to speak, that is exclusive to those who wish to be identified as Canadian and who intend to participate in its promotion and maintenance by voting and performing other civic duties. If we accept such an analogy, then it clearly matters how we advertise and promote this club to new members. So what sort of stories do Canadians tell about their own country these days? And do they amount to an effective marketing strategy?

 “The story of Canada that our major institutions tell has increasingly become one that focuses on only the most negative aspects of our country, such as oppression, racism, discrimination and dispossession,” observes Christopher Dummitt, an historian at Trent University’s School for the Study of Canada in Peterborough, Ontario. Common examples of this new tendency are factually-dubious claims, often from officially sanctioned sources, that Canada has committed and continues to commit genocide against the Indigenous population, is systemically racist towards black people, was once a slave country, and on and on. “It is a deliberate distortion of our actual history,” says Dummitt in an interview.

This sense of national self-loathing has become so encompassing that official multiculturalism, once billed as an unquestionable Canadian value, is now considered evidence of an “unjust society premised on white supremacy,” as two University of Calgary education professors absurdly argued last year. Even professed supporters of Canadian identity, such as ICC co-founder Ralston Saul, now casually declare that “Canada has failed on many fronts.” As for how such a perspective might work as a branding exercise, Dummitt says, “If the story about Canada is that it was an institutionally corrupt nation beset by the original sin of colonialism, then why would anyone want to become a citizen of that?”

Dummitt has been pushing back against the now-pervasive narrative that Canada is, at its core, morally bankrupt. In 2021 he organized a rebuttal signed by many eminent Canadian historians condemning the Canadian Historical Association’s (CHA) unilateral declaration that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples was “genocidal.” In making such a claim, Dummitt’s rebuttal stated, the CHA was “insulting the basic standards of good scholarly conduct.” He has also spoken out against the practice of tearing down statues honouring Canada’s founding fathers, and is currently fighting Toronto’s plans to scrub the name of 18th century British parliamentarian Henry Dundas from its streets and public squares on the (entirely bogus) assertion that he was an ally to the slave trade. “We need to call out these nonsensical claims,” Dummitt states determinedly. “And we need politicians who are willing to celebrate the Canadian nation in diverse ways.”

If there is a piquant irony to how Canadian history is currently being told by and to Canadians, it’s that new immigrants are actually more likely to receive a fair, balanced and generally uplifting vision of their new country than native-born residents. That’s because immigrants must still study for their citizenship test using a guidebook written by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper before our current historical miasma took effect.

Discover Canada, unveiled in 2011 by former Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney, was widely recognized for its nuanced treatment of Canada’s history, governance and culture. It explicitly acknowledges the low points in our past – including the Indian Residential School system and racist policies towards Chinese immigrants – but never claims such events represent the totality of the Canadian experience. The overall (and entirely honest) message is that Canada has always been a remarkably tolerant and welcoming country with a proud heritage of accommodation, democracy and the opportunity to achieve prosperity for all. As a result, Dummitt observes, immigrants who read the guidebook may actually have a better understanding of the true nature of Canada than Canadian students who’ve been force-fed a litany of horror stories about our past in high school and university classrooms.

Precisely because of the guidebook’s even-handedness and generally upbeat tone, however, many groups are demanding it be replaced with something grimmer and much less complimentary about Canada and its past. When the CBC tried to foment outrage over the continuing existence of the Harper-era citizenship guide in 2019, Janet Dench, then-executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, called the situation “incomprehensible” and demanded a new version that “acknowledges the problems in Canadian and current reality, and how that affects Indigenous and racialized people.” In other words, Dench wanted Ottawa to tell newcomers a much more negative – and almost certainly much less accurate – story about the country they were coming to. With this sort of self-hatred being expressed by current citizens, is it any wonder immigrants are having second thoughts about joining Club Canada?

If we want to make Canadian citizenship more attractive to newcomers, the first order of business should be to project a more uplifting story about what Canada means. And to do that, says Dummitt, “we need to stop telling lies about our past.”

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