The financial barriers to becoming new Canadians
In the first nine months of 2016, immigrants hoping to become Canadian citizens submitted over 56,000 citizenship applications. The number may seem high, but is far lower than the nearly 112,000 applications submitted in the same period the year before – a nearly 50 per cent drop.
Why the decline? It’s hard to say exactly but former Immigration and Citizenship director general Andrew Griffith points to the rise in processing fees for citizenship applications, which jumped from $100 to $530 in 2014-2015. Add to that a “right of citizenship” fee, this increase tripled the price for immigrants wishing to process a citizenship application.
While the increase in processing fees for citizenship applications applies across the board, it mostly hurts those already struggling to make ends meet and the most disenfranchised members of society. According to Toronto lawyer Avvy Go, it is “people from racialized communities, women and the disabled, who are bearing the consequences” of increased costs, making understanding the impact of steep fees even more essential.
Those choosing not to apply for citizenship may take the view that the difference between a permanent resident and a Canadian citizen does not justify the considerable cost (and hassle) of applying for citizenship. After all, permanent residents in Canada have many of the same rights and privileges as citizens – including health coverage, the ability to work or study throughout Canada, the protection of Canadian laws, and (most) of the protections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Having said that, there are limitations. Section 3 of the Charter only applies to full citizens. Permanent residents cannot vote or become candidates in federal elections. Those who are still citizens of another country cannot apply for a passport. They must also be careful about the length of time they spend in and out of the country, as failing to meet residency requirements could lead to loss of permanent resident status.
All that is proof enough that the rights reserved for citizens are among the most fundamental privileges in Canadian society. Voting rights, in particular, hold significant weight, especially for those coming to Canada from countries led by dictators or autocratic regimes. Such basic and fundamental rights should be available to all would-be citizens, and not just those above a certain financial threshold.
Aside from these legal distinctions, and perhaps more importantly, becoming a citizen carries with it a symbolic importance – an affirmation of belonging. To become a citizen is to be included: it is to be part of a recognized nation with a particular set of values and political ideals. On a practical level, this symbolic recognition is the one that truly matters to new Canadians: in a 2012 survey, one-quarter of surveyed citizens born outside Canada stated they wanted to become Canadian citizens to “confirm that they belong in Canada.”
Becoming a citizen is not just about voting and carrying a passport, but about belonging in Canadian society – one that prides itself on providing equal opportunities regardless of social or financial situation. It’s why we must remain alert to the challenges facing would-be applicants for citizenship and that we strive to ease the burden of those who face financial difficulties in achieving this goal.
Photo licensed under Creative Commons by theharv58
Erika Schneidereit is a JD candidate at the University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law and an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. The author's views are her own.