Canada is much more than a hotel – globe essay – Canada is much more than a hotel
TOM KENT, April 25, 2008 at 11:09 PM EDT

It was in 1947 that “Canadian citizen” replaced “British subject” as the legal description of a voting participant in this democratic society. One might think that by now the transition would be complete, the concept of our citizenship mature. It is not. It has not kept up with changes in the world around us. Canadian law on citizenship and immigration is in need of another radical revision.

Most of us are proud to belong to a nation welcoming diverse peoples and accepting many cultures. But present law permits, even encourages, confusion of loyalties and plurality of citizenship. The sense of a Canadian identity is increasingly diluted. It need not be.

In the beginning, in the 1867 escape from colonies to nation, what it meant to be Canadian was plain. It was to be different from American. As the United States emerged from its bloody civil war, and found purpose in the manifest destiny of rolling west and potentially north, determination to have no part of it was equally strong in the British and the French.

The BNA Act was soon supported by the National Policy of tariffs and the railroad. That was not enough, however, to build an economy from sea to sea. Farmers from a cold climate were needed to break the Prairie sod. It was immigration from central Europe that made it possible for Quebec and the old British colonies to grow into a nation state. We remained a dynamic economy. In the mid-twentieth century, particularly, remarkable and diversified growth called for many new workers. At first they came from Britain and Europe, but prosperity there soon diminished those sources. The temper of the 1960s in any case called for openness to all peoples, who have since come especially from south and east Asia.

It is, however, a new imperative that calls for them. Canadians have become much less productive of offspring. Our fertility rate is barely two-thirds of the population replacement level. We are, of course, far from unique in that respect. But our population is already slight in relation to our resources. Smaller numbers would damagingly increase the burden of infrastructure overheads imposed by our geography. They would reduce the economies of scale possible for an economy whose manufacturing and service sectors are already challenged by growth elsewhere. Much as the world as a whole will eventually benefit from lower birth rates, it will be a long time before both economic and social pressures cease to call for migration to Canada, migration substantial in relation to our otherwise declining population.


Our national problem is to reconcile this need with the basic political fact that no democracy can thrive without some widely shared sense of community, of some things done differently because they are done together. We are a North American society, sharing many characteristics with our neighbour. But we have combined them with a stronger sense of community concerns. One aspect of this was brought home to me long ago by Prime Minister Pearson. When we were reminiscing together over an after-work Scotch, he said that in all his international dealings, and unilingual though he was, the people with whom he felt most at home were neither American nor British, but northern Europeans.

That was close to fifty years ago, in a different world. But the essential point remains. While Canada takes second place to none in the value it places on individual freedom and enterprise, we strive to do so within an equitable and equable society that combats inequalities of opportunity. Such is the community spirit of French Canadians as much as British, of most newer as well as earlier immigrants. It is the spirit that has guided our sometimes significant contribution to world affairs. We want immigrants who will in their diversity contribute to the development of that Canadianism. We do not want immigrants who dilute it by leaving their hearts elsewhere.

Citizenship can neither be bred by preaching nor be enforced by law. It can be encouraged or not. At present it is not. Canada’s national interest requires, first, a major change in the legal terms on which migrants come. After three years as residents they may, if they wish and satisfy a minimal test, become citizens. But if not, their permission to reside and work here continues. So does access to the hospitality of our multiculturalism. Legally, we minimize the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship. We give substance to the jibe that, by making so light of being Canadian, we are the hotel among countries: a place to which you come and go at your convenience, in escape from the obligations of a household.


We used to think of immigrants as people who have identified themselves with a new land. A rather different reality was illustrated during the sudden war in Lebanon two years ago. The danger overwhelmed our embassy with a rush of thousands of people living in Lebanon but expecting to be rescued at Canadian taxpayers’ expense. Contemporary communication tempts recent comers, whether residents or legally citizens, to remain more emotionally identified with relatives and friends whence they came, with that country’s politics and conflicts, than with the people and affairs of Canada. A Canadian passport may be little more than a flag of convenience.

The primary way to give meaning to citizenship is to set a term to residence without it. In effect, the present provision would be reversed. Immigration should depend on the intent to become Canadian. It would give the right to live here for three years. Within that time, the immigrant could either become a citizen or leave. A review panel would have final authority to determine whether the modest language and knowledge requirements were satisfied. There would be no provision either for making exceptions by ministerial permit or for appeals. The rare immigrant who after three years could not meet the requirements would have to leave voluntarily or be deported.

If this procedure were to be challenged before the Supreme Court, Parliament should use the “notwithstanding” provision of the Constitution to uphold the law against the arrogance of lawyers. Morally, their clients must be considered beside the countless victims of conflict and privation who can never come here. Those who have that opportunity but fail to abide by its terms should be firmly and promptly deported. The cases would be relatively few if the terms of entry and of citizenship were properly defined.

Ottawa could do much more to assist the agencies that are ready and willing to help immigrants improve their language skills, to learn more about their new country, about its history and its public affairs. The result would be a future fairer society. Immediately, the citizenship oath could be modernized. It is well over forty years since we gave ourselves our own flag. Surely we can now do the same with words to express the essence of citizenship for all Canadians.

There will always be need for various kinds of temporary residents, such as students and the occasional person uniquely qualified for a particular task. Most importantly, genuine refugees, unable to return to their homelands, might well be allowed an extended period in which to decide whether to become Canadian, seek another country, or in some cases perforce stay here, even though unable to qualify for citizenship.

Such problems do not, however, affect immigrant status. It should always mean becoming a citizen within three years, or leaving. This legal change would not, of course, apply retroactively to immigrants previously admitted and remaining here. It would, however, apply to any who sought to return to Canada after absenting themselves for a period elsewhere.


There are obligations of citizenship that can be enforced. They include a fundamental obligation that present Canadian law neglects to establish. The duty to pay taxes should be inherent in citizenship. Where the citizen chooses from time to time to live is irrelevant. The obligation is to the state that provides the rights of citizenship. Taxation is the price you pay to have those rights. But not, at present, if you are Canadian. Live in Barbados, or wherever, and you are Canadian free of charge.

We are in that no different from the nationals of most countries. But we are close to unique in the proportion of us who owe to the state the grant of our citizenship; and, unfortunately, in the proportion for whom old loyalties are more present than the new. The legal failure to link citizenship and tax invites the alienation that increasingly weakens our national politics, that among some newcomers encourages indifference to public affairs except those that impinge on their countries of origin.

Making tax the same for citizens in and out of the country will not, of course, in itself work any magic. But it is a crucial reinforcement to the primary reform that makes citizenship, not convenience, the condition for staying here. It will help to give meaning to the rights and obligations of belonging with a true north that matters.

And as legal changes go, it is easy. There is an excellent precedent to hand. American citizens living outside their country do not thereby escape liability for American tax. Canadian law should similarly provide that every citizen, irrespective of where he or she is residing at any time, is required to file a return of income from all sources, and then to pay the assessed Canadian tax. If the country of residence has a tax treaty with Canada, the assessment would of course reflect an appropriate allocation of tax between jurisdictions. But if it is a haven or country of uncertain tax administration, then the liability would be for the full amount of Canadian tax.

An immediate penalty for tax delinquency would be international notice that the offender’s passport has become invalid. That would apply equally to citizens by birth and by naturalization. After a fair notice, this would be followed by cancellation of a citizenship acquired by naturalization. Citizenship by birth cannot be so thrown aside (except, of course, on the initiative of someone who values it less than a foreign rank), but the delinquency is reason to refuse a passport in all cases. A tax offender who nevertheless presented herself or himself for return to Canada would be required to pay what was due, with interest and penalties, or be admitted into detention.

A province can tax only its own residents. The suggested legislation, it should therefore be noted, would relate directly only to federal taxation. However, it should not be difficult to get provincial agreement that, for non-resident citizens, the federal law would add a supplementary tax of about the average level of provincial taxes. The total for an absentee would then be much the same as is paid by a citizen living anywhere in Canada.

Equitable tax reform would not only strengthen the meaning of citizenship and the sense of Canadian identity. It would facilitate an onslaught against the rapidly growing evasion through external havens of both personal and corporate taxation. That international inefficiency is not only an infringement of the fairness on which the stability of informed societies depends. It increasingly impairs the vigour of the older enterprise that is under challenge from emerging economies.

Our special Canadian problem, however, is our identity. The more complex and interdependent the world becomes, the more the bigger nations enlarge their economies and establish their distinctive roles, the more important for smaller nations is the sense of community needed to empower their particular policies. Our diversity and our location combine to make adherence to a place and a purpose in the world especially challenging and of some special importance. To foster Canadian citizenship is part of the way to strengthen our contribution to the global society.

Tom Kent Served as principal assistant to prime minister Lester Pearson. He was an immigrant to Canada in 1954 and in 1966 he was the deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration

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