The Canadian government has been on a crusade to strip the citizenship of convicted terrorists who also hold citizenship from another country — a move that has thrust the question of what it really means to be a Canadian onto the ongoing federal election campaign trail, and raises concerns about how Canada is tackling radicalization at home.
Last week, the government successfully revoked the citizenship of the terrorist at the centre of a foiled 2006 bomb plot by members of the so-called Toronto 18, and is doing the same to at least nine other people convicted of terrorist offenses in Canada.
As first reported Wednesday by Maclean's, immigration officials are going after Canadian-born Saad Gaya, convicted of terrorism offenses in 2009 for his involvement with the Toronto 18. If the government is successful, he would be the first person born in Canada to have their citizenship taken away.
The government argues that any Canadian who commits terrorism renounces their right to keep their citizenship.
The recently implemented, and widely condemned, "Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act," also known as Bill C-24, allows the government to revoke Canadian citizenship from convicted terrorists, spies, enemy combatants, and those who have lied on their immigration applications. The law specifically applies to "dual citizens". The Conservatives appear to be interpreting that to include someone who does not have, but could apply for citizenship in another country, for example where their parents or grandparents were born.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave critics more fodder when he insinuated in a radio interview that he would look into ways to revoke citizenship from criminals convicted of non-terrorism offenses such as rape and murder if he gets re-elected. A spokesperson for the Conservative Party sent VICE News an email denying that would be the case, insisting it has "no intention of expanding revocation measures beyond these crimes. On this, the law is clear."
But civil libertarians and immigration experts say the government's new powers create a second class of citizens. Gaya, whose parents were born in Pakistan, has launched a charter challenge against the the law, arguing that the government's move to revoke his citizenship and deport him to a country he's never even been to amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment." In August, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) launched a charter challenge of the law in federal court. This week, an Ottawa man convicted of terrorism launched another lawsuit to stop the government from revoking his Canadian citizenship.
"This law turns what it means to be Canadian upside down," Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), told VICE News. In August, the BCCLA launched a charter challenge of the law in federal court. "Canadians are supposed to be equal regardless of where they're from, the color of their skin, or where their grandparents were born. And now this law bakes in discrimination and inequality. It fundamentally undermines what Canadian citizenship is all about."
Both opposition leaders, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, have promised to get rid of the law if they win the election and made their opposition to the law clear in this week's federal leaders' debate on foreign policy. Trudeau was especially critical, telling Harper: "You devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for anyone."
Craig Forcese, associate law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches anti-terrorism legislation, told VICE News that revoking citizenship as a way to deal with terrorism deflects from the work that needs to be done at home in order to address what's creating and perpetuating radicalization in the first place. For Forcese, the fact that Canada lacks a strategy to disengage terrorists in prisons is especially concerning.
"The government has favored short-term, high-profile measures that can be viewed as symbolic anti-terrorism," he said, adding that the citizenship law will likely lead to a lengthy cycle of legal battles. "The removal process can be seen as a shortcut and will deter the government from taking seriously the prospect that we might be stuck with these guys. And that would be entirely consistent with the short-term thinking that has animated the government on anti-terrorism."
Forcese adds that revoking and deporting convicted terrorists is inconsistent and "exports risk" to other countries. "We have put a lot of resources and effort into stopping people from leaving Canada and going overseas and fighting in terrorist causes, and yet we turn around with this policy that amounts to deportation so that people can take up arms overseas," he said. "You displace the risk, that risk goes overseas, and then you have no further control over it."
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