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It’s medieval times, thanks to the Stephen Harper government’s new citizenship bill—and not the fun one where guys in costumes beat each other up, either. This one involves exile.
Bill C-24 promises to shred the passports of Canadians whom the minister of immigration deems terrorists—and deport them to countries they may have never seen before.
“It’s so wrong it isn’t funny,” says immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman. “Exile and banishment—those went out in the Middle Ages.”
The bill, known by its euphemistic title of the “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,” gives the minister of citizenship and immigration the right to strip any Canadians of citizenship for a host of reasons, so long as they have a connection to a foreign country.
Canada’s legal community says the bill is flatly unconstitutional. NGOs have widely called for the bill to be pulled, or substantially amended—to remove just about every controversial part of the legislation. However, a House of Commons committee passed the bill last night without amendment. It will likely become law before Parliament breaks for the summer.
This bill is so broad, critics say, it could allow the government to strip the citizenship of someone as ostensibly innocuous as an environmental activist, or an individual as internationally feared as an al Qaeda operative. That is, any undesirable who falls under the broad categories laid out in the bill—whether they born in Moose Jaw or Karachi. If the minister of immigration decides that the citizen is un-Canadian, he's outta here.
It’s so loosely worded that honorary citizens, such as the late Nelson Mandela, might get caught in the net. That’s because the bill would put those charged with international crimes, like Mandela himself, in a state of precarious citizenship. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, however, says this bill wasn’t intended to go after the Nelson Mandelas of the world: “A conviction in a country that is totalitarian or doesn't have the rule of law is not a democracy; a conviction that was political in nature would not be grounds for refusing citizenship in Canada. We would have the ability to make that determination,” he said in the House of Commons.
While the government maintains that it would never deport someone based on trumped-up charges by an autocratic or corrupt regime, it admits that there are no safeguards in place to stop future governments from doing so.
Here’s the catch. To get the Napoleon-goes-to-Saint-Helena treatment, you need only be convicted of one of a list of crimes: treason, high treason, espionage, or terrorism. The minister can also revoke your citizenship if he believes you served in an army, or an armed group, that “engaged in an armed conflict with Canada,” whatever that means.
For most of the offenses, like espionage and treason, you need to be sentenced to life in prison in order to qualify for getting the boot. For terrorism, however, you need only to be convicted of something resembling a terrorism charge and be sentenced to five years—anywhere in the world. You know, like Gandhi. The government says the foreign definition of "terrorism" has to match up with the charges found in the Canadian criminal code—that's something the federal court has already established. But the streamlined system won't leave much room for a judge's watchful eyes. While being shown the door, a prospective ex-Canadian can apply for a judicial review, but if a judge doesn't intervene right away, he'll be whisked onto a plane in no time at all.
Those who qualify for this special status of tenuous citizenship need to either have citizenship in another country or have access to foreign citizenship. While the bill promises that it will leave nobody stateless, it’s unclear how Canada can force someone to obtain citizenship in a foreign country before deporting them.
The process is relatively quaint: to strip a Canadian’s citizenship under the new rules, the minister must send a letter, informing that person that his citizenship is under review and offer him a chance to submit a reply. If the individual doesn't respond, the minister can terminate his citizenship. If he does reply, the minister can consider it, then terminate his citizenship.
A hearing is not required, and the soon-to-be-ex-Canadian will never go before a judge.
“The fact that they’re going to a letter-writing process to take away something as fundamental as citizenship when you can get a hearing in court on a traffic ticket shows that they are very dismissive of citizenship rights,” says Jackman.
Canada is not pulling this out of thin air. The law mirrors a 2002 bill adopted by the English Parliament. For the last 12 years, secretive courts can quickly deport any citizen of the UK for an array of issues—sometimes on suspicion alone. It has happened 27 times since the bill passed.
That includes Mohamed Sakr, the London-born twentysomething who had his citizenship revoked while out of the country for reasons that remain unclear—what is known is that the English counterterrorism unit was monitoring him for several trips to the Middle East. Trips that, his parents maintain, were innocent in nature.
He was killed by an American drone strike while in Somalia, in February 2012. Another man met the same end after being exiled by 24 Downing Street.
There’s also enormous concern that banishing radicalized youth to war-torn failed states might not be the best way to promote stability. But it’s not just suspected terrorists who may be at risk.
People like Ehab Lotayef may well be prime candidates.
The Cairo-born, Montreal-based engineer has been a Canadian citizen for more than two decades. He also founded the Canada Boat to Gaza organization, which has been trying to sail through the Israeli blockade of Gaza, inspired by the initial Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010.
Lotayef was arrested by the Israelis when soldiers boarded the ship during the group’s second try, in 2011.
The group maintains that its goal is to bring aid and supplies to Palestinian civilians. The American and Israeli Governments have charged that the flotilla’s funders and participants have ties to Hamas.
Hamas is, of course, a terrorist organization under Canadian law. They are also the government of the Gaza Strip.
“They would probably claim that by aiding a group that they claim to be terrorists… we could be considered terrorists as well,” Lotayef told us.
Lotayef says the group doesn’t actually work with Hamas, for the record. He says the group works civilian-to-civilian and deals with governments only when absolutely necessary.
He caught the attention of CSIS, however, when the group first launched. He basically told the spies to amscray, but has no doubt been the subject of some surveillance since.
Certainly, if Lotayef or one of his cohorts faced charges in Israel or elsewhere—for just about anything from piracy to supporting a terrorist organization—Ottawa could revoke his citizenship.
Lotayef says the group is currently trying to orchestrate a reverse flotilla; they’re funnellng money to activists within Gaza, helping them build their own boats. The idea is to provide ship-building jobs within the occupied territory and sail through the blockade as an act of defiance.
I asked Lotayef whether he’s worried about the new citizenship bill could put his Canadian passport in jeopardy.
"No," he says. “I think that would be a farce.”
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