Rethinking the rules of citizenship

TheStar.com – Opinion – Rethinking the rules of citizenship
May 19, 2009.   Martin Regg Cohn

We Canadians don’t wear our patriotism on our sleeve. Instead, we quietly stick the maple leaf on our luggage when travelling abroad – not as a badge of honour, but to avoid being mistaken as Americans.

Nationalism is not our thing. But our disdain for jingoism shouldn’t stop us from rethinking citizenship in today’s world: what it means to aspiring Canadians, and what we want it to mean.

We need not take a vow of silence about the oath of citizenship.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been raising eyebrows with his public musings about rewriting the rules of citizenship, by tweaking the test new citizens take. He asks ethnic audiences whether we are all on the same wavelength, or even speak the same (official) language, when it comes to citizenship.

“We want to make sure that people have a basic knowledge of our political institutions, our democratic traditions, our values, what some people call civic literacy,” Kenney said recently.

It’s hardly surprising he’s making waves a mari usque ad mare. We live in hyper-politicized times and Kenney is a fierce partisan whose motives are often suspect. Are the Conservatives upsetting our multicultural apple cart by playing wedge politics?

Interestingly, there’s been no evident backlash from the ethnic audiences that Kenney meets. Possibly, many of the new Canadians who hear him out, and who are fiercely proud of their chosen citizenship, don’t want it taken for granted by newcomers.

Many Canadians romanticize the traditional story of immigrants who arrive with a few dollars in their pockets, soon find jobs, build businesses and bolster the economy. We tend to gloss over what novelist Yann Martel dubbed the Canadian hotel – a place where citizens of the world check in and check out without putting down roots.

Against that backdrop, Kenney is raising good questions. He points out that lacking basic English or French makes it that much harder to function in today’s knowledge economy. New citizens are supposed to have basic proficiency in English or French (children and anyone older than 54 are exempted). He wants citizenship judges to stop turning a blind eye to applicants who don’t meet the language standard, and laments that only about one-quarter of newcomers enrol in available classes.

And Kenney wants to stress equality of the sexes – the implication being that some immigrants are oblivious to it. If we can proclaim such truisms in our Charter of Rights, what’s wrong with posing the equality question in our citizenship exams?

Future citizens should also know more about our past. The current study booklet devotes generous space to recycling, but says little about Canada’s military history, Kenney argues.

Getting Canadians – English or French – to agree on shared values (and distinct societies) has tripped up many a politician. So Kenney should tread carefully. Politicians in Australia, Britain and even the Netherlands who tried to restate their national values in a post-9/11 world only seemed to stoke suspicion of “outsiders.”

The Dutch famously came up with an orientation video for migrants that showed two gay men kissing and a topless woman on the beach – a thinly veiled attempt to poke conservative Muslim immigrants in the eye.

The experience of Australia’s former right-wing government offers a cautionary tale for Kenney. Their new citizenship test included gratuitous references to “mateship” and sportsmanship, asking applicants to name one of the country’s cricket stars. The new Labour government has promised to fix the tests – but not drop them entirely. Interestingly, Labour has opted to retain a controversial “Australian Values Statement” that all migrants must sign.

Kenney will no doubt be mindful of those missteps Down Under as he attempts to define – or redefine – the True North. Sticky wickets are best avoided in both cricket matches and citizenship tests.

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