This election will be won on citizenship issues. To our shame.

From expat voting rights to deporting terrorists and rejecting niqabs, this campaign has focused on the surprising question of who gets to be a citizen

A young woman looks at her official citizenship document that she received at a Vancouver ceremnoy on Oct 6th, 2015. (Photograph by Brian Howell)

A young woman looks at her official citizenship document that she received at a Vancouver ceremnoy on Oct 6th, 2015. (Photograph by Brian Howell)

This may be remembered as the “citizenship election.” For the first time since the Second World War, we are seeing the conspicuous use of identity politics by mainstream parties on a national level. This type of campaigning haunted the 19th and early 20th century, and we thought it was gone. But, in this election, that grave has been dug up, to our shame. And the preposterous idea that some citizens are more Canadian than others is being rattled in our faces like old bones.

When the election began, I expected NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s French passport to be the campaign’s citizenship issue. A federal politician’s dual allegiance is not necessarily problematic, but it is worth debating. It has been barely mentioned. Instead, the question of citizenship entered the race when Donald Sutherland angrily denounced the law that denies voting rights to Canadians who have lived abroad for the last five years. Other expat celebrities joined in to condemn Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for nefariously devaluing their citizenship, and one suspects he welcomed it. In Canadian politics, what offends those lined up at the Toronto International Film Festival may very well delight those lined up at the Tim Hortons in Lethbridge, Alta.

A few weeks later, the question of citizenship returned to the front pages with the refugee crisis. The debate over how many we should accept was actually about how safe our country might be, and how it would change socially and economically, if we allowed an embarrassingly small number of Syrians to become Canadians. In short, are they worthy of citizenship the same way the Kosovars or Vietnamese were?

Sadly, our national attention span is short, so our eyes soon wandered away from 60 million refugees and settled on two women who wanted to wear niqabs at their citizenship ceremony. On the surface, this seemed to be about security (how do we know it’s really them?) and women’s rights (they are being enslaved by their scarves). But, like the refugee crisis, this debate was really about citizenship: How far should we accommodate new citizens, and do we even want people like that?

Related: Maclean’s in-depth primer on where the parties stand on the niqab

Then we scuffled over stripping convicted terrorists of their citizenship. This seems reasonable, in theory. If we can revoke the citizenship of war criminals, then why not those who plot or commit mass murder? But, in practice, this is both impractical and counterproductive. Only very few convicted terrorists have dual citizenship, and even fewer nations would be willing to take them back. Ironically, if we do manage to send them overseas, our security forces will have a far harder time de-radicalizing, tracking, or stopping the terrorists than if they had remained in Canada.

And then, this week, we moved on to “barbaric cultural practices” and the Conservative promise to establish an RCMP hotline to report polygamy, child marriage and honour killings. Setting aside the fact that we already have a national hotline for these crimes (911), this also seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But, like all of the other examples I’ve listed, the Conservative party pushed this issue for less respectable reasons.

You can be sure that Immigration Minister Chris Alexander does not actually think a new tip line is an effective safeguard to prevent honour killings. Similarly, no one in Harper’s circle genuinely believes that two women in niqabs pose any threat to our social fabric, nor our security. Likewise, Harper doesn’t really worry that accepting 10,000 refugees (1/30th of one per cent of our population) over the course of two months, versus two years, will harm our country in any way. And his security experts have never suggested that the most expedient additional measure to safeguard Canadians from terrorist attacks is to strip a dozen criminals of their citizenship.

What the Conservatives do believe, however, is that encouraging one group of Canadians to fear another group of Canadians is an exceptionally effective way to get out the vote. When written so bluntly, it sounds preposterous. But that’s what identity politics is: a conscious effort to divide the body politic, and set it against itself. In this election, the CPC politicians have talked about citizenship almost constantly and, every time, it involved Muslim Canadians. Every time, it was so they could pit Canadians against Canadians.

The free-trade election of 1988 settled the question: “Are Canadians brave enough to enter the global economy?” The citizenship election of 2015 will decide if Canadians are brave enough to trust each other in the face of fear-mongering and bigot-baiting.


This election will be won on citizenship issues. To our shame.

  1. The answer is “no”. A political party that singles out an ethnic group for derision and fear is what gets parties elected. Is it a shame? Yes. Is it effective? Most definitely.

    • Yeah, it’s how every dictatorship starts……..by pushing hatred and fear of some ‘others’

      In this case it’s women in scarves we’re afraind o.

  2. There is no shame “Canadians are brave enough to trust each other in the face of fear-mongering and bigot-baiting.”

    I no longer consider the Conservatives as an option because their party does have what I see as Canadian values. Uncharitable with regard to the refugees. Unforgiving with regard to the “tough on crime”. Intolerant to muslims.

    It is more important that we live in a free and caring society than the marginal tax rate for the wealthy.

  3. President Obama (Nobel Peace Prize winner and “progressive”) executes Americans who are terrorists, and executes them without trial with drone missiles if they are abroad.

    Several countries like Britain and France and Australia, strip the citizenship of convicted terrorists who are dual citizens. We strip war criminals (mass murder in foreign countries) of citizenship. Progressives thought this was a good idea. Why can’t we strip terrorists (mass murder at home)? Why are Canadian victims of mass murderers less entitled to justice than foreign victims of mass murderers? Exile is a more humane punishment than Obama’s drone missile execution of American terrorists without trial.

    The niqab has nothing to do with Islam. Like the white hood is a oppressive symbol of racial hatred, the niqab is an oppressive symbol of misogyny (originating from one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, and who export this misogyny by funding schools in foreign countries). Equality is a charter right also, and women are a designated protected group under the charter provisions. And nobody is saying that women don’t have the right to wear the niqab in their private life, but in citizenship ceremonies, it is reflective of the values of our society, if allowed. And we should not allow such symbols of state hatred of women, oppressive patriarchy, and misogyny in official state ceremonies.

    The niqab is not singling out an ethnic group. It is singling out the export of one of the worst forms of misgyny left in the world from the oppressive patriarchy that exists on the Arabian peninsula, and saying we have no need to tolerate this within our society.

    • The niqab has been around for thousands of years, and has nothing to do with religion…..but even if it did….so what?

      As to men and religion telling women what to wear…..how about the Hutterites, Amish, Mennonites……and nuns.

      Find something important to worry about….and stop being silly.

    • I keep asking you, WHYSHOULDISELLYOURWHEAT, about all the other symbols of patriarchy, like the sheitel that you think should be banned from ‘state ceremonies’. Why won’t you tell us?

      And why do you keep lying about this?:
      ” We strip war criminals (mass murder in foreign countries) of citizenship.”
      You know very well that citizenship is stripped when it is fraudulently obtained, not for the commission of war crimes.
      Do you believe that continually lying about this advances your cause?

      • Dual citizenship terrorists also obtained their citizenship fraudulently.

        That you for agreeing that it is not a double punishment, or an extra punishment for their terrorist crimes.

        1) They get convicted of their crimes of terrorism.
        2) They get stripped of their citizenship for it being fraudulently obtained, when they lied under oath at the citizenship ceremony.

        • “Dual citizenship terrorists also obtained their citizenship fraudulently. ”

          If it were true, there would have been no new legislation needed to strip them of their citizenship. The legislation doesn’t require that an oath was ever uttered by the person being stripped. Children and those born in Canada don’t swear oaths. In fact, the legislation doesn’t even require dual citizenship, only eligibility .
          But you know all that.
          Do you really think lying like this is helping your cause?

          • One IS a dual citizen, or one isn’t. It is sort of like being pregnant.

            If one is thinking about being a terrorist in Canada (or Britain, or France, or Australia) then one should legally renounce one’s foreign citizenships.

            If one is an American thinking about being a terrorist, get a good bomb shelter, and tell everyone else to stay away from you, because Obama is drone happy, and doesn’t care much about due process or trials or collateral damage.

          • Yes, one is or is not a dual citizen, which is irrelevant because, you don’t need to be a dual citizen to have your citizenship stripped.

            If there is some part of that you still don’t get, just let me know.

          • Fun fact: I happened to look at the government website that addresses renunciation of citizenship . . . if you can believe it:

            To be eligible to apply to renounce your Canadian citizenship, you must:

            – be a citizen of a country other than Canada or become a citizen of a country other than Canada if your application to renounce is approved
            – not live in Canada
            – be at least 18 years old
            – not be a threat to Canada’s security or part of a pattern of criminal activity
            – not be prevented from understanding the significance of renouncing your Canadian citizenship by reason of having a mental disability and
            – not be subject to revocation of citizenship proceedings.

            So . .. you can be a terrorist, but can’t choose to renounce your citizenship, but if you are a terrorist . . . the government can choose to revoke it.

        • “Dual citizenship terrorists also obtained their citizenship fraudulently. ”

          As usual, you are making no sense at all, I am starting to wonder if you are really Jason Kenney posting under an alias.

          Kidding aside, if the person obtained Canadian citizenship by being born, then where’s the fraud? If the person went through the citizenship process, in, say, 1999, but subsequent to became radicalized and started to contemplate terrorist activity, how was the citizenship fraudulently obtained? Just saying, it is simply illogical to make such a blanket statement.

          And as Tresus points out in his (or her) reply, if it can be proven the dual citizen fraudulently obtained their citizenship in the first place, there is no need for another law duplicating the measure.

          But I suppose that is in keeping with their approach to ‘Barbaric Cultural Practices’, all of which already are illegal (and to put the icing on the cake, the proposed snitch line would do what 911 already does).

          Why do you accept that government chooses to waste expensive resources in drafting, debating and passing laws, then putting in place measure to enforce them? Then having to deal with the inevitable court challenges? I thought the CPC was dedicated to elimination of ‘ineffective and wasteful’ creations of government.

          Finally, the comments on drones and Obama are truly bizarre; I didn’t see either of the main opposition parties proposing drone strikes against Canadian-citizenship-holding terrorists in their platforms

    • The niqab has nothing to do with Islam.

      How sure are you on that? Are you an expert on Islam? I could just as easily say “rosary beads have nothing to do with Christianity.” They aren’t mentioned in the Bible. Protestant sects don’t use them. But I’ll bet a lot of RCs would be quick to disagree.

      The SCC has said the test of whether something is part of a person’s religious beliefs is whether that person sincerely believes it to be true. Not whether a religious expert says it is or is not.

      But even if it isn’t, it could likely win a Charter challenge on the freedom of expression right also found in s. 2.

      And yes, most agree the niqab is a symbol of misogyny. But if the wearer chooses to wear it, then to deny her that choice is no different than forcing her to wear it. In both instances, you are taking the woman’s choice away from her and forcing upon her your own view.

      Do I think she should wear it? No. I would, if given the opportunity to discuss it with her niqab to face, I would give her a long list of reasons why I think it is wrong-headed. Do I think she should be forced to remove it? No; as long as she is willing to prove her identity in private, that’s enough under the Charter. And as much as I disagree with her doing so, I’ll stand up to her right to do it anyway. Because, once we start taking rights from one group, where does it stop?

  4. Gilmore’s umbrage over the out-of-left-field niqab issue is most amusing. As with other fulminating pundits, all those fantasized columns about pet election conceits won’t be realized, and he’s bitter. Too bad.

    It would be beautiful, of course, if Harper could leverage this into a majority, but even with the parachuted Aussie his electoral brain trust doesn’t appear up to the task, more’s the pity. Why he isn’t hammering Wynnemills and the Ontario Liberal’s execrable record is a mystery.

    • Yes because Identity politics are only ok when used by the media to shame straight white men just for existing and justifying the demand that they “pay up!” to whatever the flavor of the month victim class is. Compensation to be managed by the socially and politically correct organizations of course.

      To be honest I don’t like a lot of the CP policies as I’m a libertarian. I don’t care about the niqab ( but Quebec does apparently) I don’t agree with the tough on crime polices and the definition creep of terrorist is way to easy to abuse.

      But! handing over power to the vapid shiny hood ornament of the desperate for power liberal party or ANY NDP federal government terrifies me.

      • Scott Gilmore is one of the most obnoxiously self righteous white knights working for Macleans.
        Main stream media institutions like Macleans and the CBC hell ALL of the network news stations and most of the news publications in Canada seem to be completely ignorant to just how much contempt my generation (Y) and later have for them. Because they deceive, and spin a narrative, but they don’t have the monopoly on the “news” that they used to.
        Its really the Boomers who are propping them up.
        In a decade some of them might still be around but they sure as hell won’t be relevant.

        • And by some them might still be around I was talking about “old” media institutions not boomers, but I guess my statement could apply to them as well.

      • If you think it’s OK for the government to legislate clothing (or, as you say, “don’t care” if they do), then you’re a pretty lame-ass libertarian.

  5. Asking Canada to accept 10,000 refugees is an ’embarrassingly small’ number of refugees to ask the country to absorb? Has Germany taken 10,000? France? The UK? The US?

    Good thing this comment section is really just a place for partisan bickering. From the looks of things most commentors didn’t read the article.

    Wouldn’t want anyone to challenge the questionable assumptions contained within the piece itself.

    • Well Germany is apparently on its way to taking on a million because the politician are dead set on destroying the country. The police are also actively hiding the massive increase in rapes, assaults and other crimes that take place in the vicinity of the refugee camps and surrounding neighborhoods.

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