Bill C-24 would undermine rights to citizenship

ByAbbas Kassam |  Toronto Star, June 16, 2014

As Canadian citizens, we have a right to justice, equality and fairness under the law. No one is above the law, including those elected to formulate it. Bill C-24, ironically named the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, changes these basic assumptions in important ways, most critically by removing decision-making powers from independent courts and replacing it with the entirely subjective discretion of the immigration minister.

Under current immigration laws, naturalized Canadians can lose their citizenship only if they acquired it by fraud or through misrepresentation. If the immigration minister decides to revoke someone’s citizenship, the person then has the right to a hearing before the Federal Court. The Federal Court is independent of the immigration minister and offers a fair procedure to determine the veracity of the minister’s claim.

Bill C-24, in its current form, significantly expands the immigration minister’s discretion to revoke citizenship to individuals involved in armed combat with Canada and those convicted of certain criminal offences including treason, spying and terrorism either in Canada or on foreign soil. While some may argue that these are not unreasonable reasons for revoking citizenship, this is particularly troublesome from a rule of law perspective.

Once citizenship is obtained it becomes a right, not a privilege. There is no question that the offences listed in Bill C-24 are serious crimes. However, these crimes are appropriately punished by the criminal justice system. Handing the immigration minister the authority to unilaterally punish persons by revoking citizenship, also known as banishment, is unfair and discriminatory.

Instead of having a court review the facts to determine whether a person’s citizenship should be revoked, the revocation power is at the full discretion of the Immigration Minister. It is the type of power more common in dictatorships, not in a democracy built upon the rule of law.

Moreover, this kind of discretion can be used in ways that are political, and potentially prejudicial. Allegations and convictions for treason, spying and terrorism are commonly used to silence dissent. Essentially, anyone who disagrees with the government can be accused of treason, spying or terrorism, with the threat of having her or his citizenship revoked.

As a corollary, it is also very plausible that certain minority communities, who have been disproportionately targeted by security measures post 9-11, would equally be the disproportionate subjects of the immigration minister’s discretion.

Further and no less troublesome, under the proposed bill, only certain citizens will be liable to have their citizenship revoked; namely dual citizens, or those who the immigration minister believes to be dual citizens. Recall that Canada has chosen to accept dual citizenship and our government recognizes that it is not always a choice.

Bill C-24 puts the onus on persons whom the immigration minister believes to have another nationality to prove that they do not have another nationality. This is particularly unfair as Bill C-24 is asking a person to prove a negative to a party that already believes they are being untruthful.

Moreover, the reliance on convictions outside of Canada further exacerbates the issue. Take for example the case of the award-winning Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who is on trial in what is widely recognized to be a kangaroo court in Egypt on allegations of spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group. If convicted in Egypt, Fahmy could face revocation of his Canadian citizenship under Bill C-24. Of course, Egypt is not known for the fairness of its legal system. Neither will Canada if laws like Bill C-24 take effect.

Several prominent organizations and individuals have already spoken out against the bill, including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. This prompted Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to criticize the opposition of Bill C-24, shaming and writing them off as activist lawyers trying to seize every opportunity to criticize government, and drum up business for themselves.

Rocco Galati, the lawyer who successfully challenged the government’s appointment of Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court, has warned Parliament that if the bill passes he will immediately challenge its constitutionality.

These are not activist lawyers trying to criticize government and drum up business. They are concerned citizens who want the federal government to maintain a commitment to the rule of law, and not lead us down a path towards authoritarian-style leadership.

Ultimately, if Bill C-24 is found to be unconstitutional, then it is the immigration minister who deserves the shame of passing legislation that does not comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, when he was clearly forewarned.

Abbas Kassam is part of the Human Rights Committee at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).