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'A Canadian Is a Canadian': Liberals to Repeal Law That Strips Terrorists of Citizenship

The controversial Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, imposed by the previous Conservative regime, allows the government to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals who have been convicted of offenses related to spying, treason or terrorism.

by Natalie Alcoba
Feb 25 2016, 7:35pm

Immigration minister John McCallum (Photo by Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's Liberal government is following through on a promise to repeal aspects of a bill that stripped convicted terrorists of their citizenship — a move that would restore the citizenship of a man involved in one of the country's most infamous bomb plots.

The controversial Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, imposed by the previous Conservative regime, allows the government to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals who have been convicted of offenses related to spying, treason or terrorism.

At a press conference in Ottawa in Thursday, Citizenship and Immigration Minister John McCallum announced that that piece of the Conservative bill would be revoked.

"We believe very strongly that there should be only one class of Canadians," he said. "That all Canadians are equal. That a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, from coast to coast to coast."

McCallum said the Conservative bill created a "slippery slope," raising the question that one day, other crimes could be grounds for revocation. He stressed repeatedly that for him and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it "was a matter of principle." 

If approved by Parliament, the move will restore the citizenship of Zakaria Amara, a Jordanian-Canadian who pleaded guilty to plotting to bomb downtown Toronto as part of a group that came to be known as the "Toronto 18".

Amara was sentenced to life in prison in 2010. He is eligible for parole this year. A number of other dual nationals convicted of terrorism offenses had sued the previous government for trying to take their citizenship away. A spokesperson for the current government said all those revocation attempts have been abandoned. 

McCallum said the government will continue to revoke the citizenship of people who commit fraud and misrepresent themselves in the process — and will actually give citizenship officers new power to seize fraudulent documents that could assist in investigating and deterring such actions. But he drew a distinction between fraud and someone convicted of terrorism.

"That is committing a crime, for which such a person deserves to be punished ... Such a person is likely to go to jail, quite possibly for a long period of time," he said.

"I think it is different in kind if, for example, a Nazi war criminal were to arrive in Canada after the Second World War, professing to be a Roman Catholic priest and obtained his citizenship on those grounds, I for one would have no hesitation to revoke that citizenship, because he came into Canada and became a citizen on false pretenses," he said. "I think that is a different kind of offense than criminality."

The Conservatives seized on the Liberal plans, calling them "very short sighted" and "disappointing."

Michelle Rempel, the Conservative critic on citizenship and immigration, highlighted the the "key beneficiary" of the Liberals first piece of immigration legislation.

"Make no mistake, this bill is a win for Zakaria Amara and not many other Canadians," she said. "I think it should be very concerning for the Canadian public."

Related: 'A Canadian Is a Canadian': Liberal Leader Says Terrorists Should Keep Their Citizenship

During last year's election campaign, Justin Trudeau spoke openly about his intention to repeal the law — a position the Conservatives tried to use against him. They leaked an audio recording that showed him speaking at a town hall in Winnipeg.

"And I'll give you the quote so that you guys can jot it down and put it in an attack ad somewhere, that the Liberal Party believes that terrorists should get to keep their Canadian citizenship," said Trudeau last July. "Because I do. And I'm willing to take on anyone who disagrees with that. Because the question is, as soon as you make citizenship for some Canadians conditional on good behavior, you devalue citizenship for everyone."

Other changes the Liberals will make include reducing the amount of time someone must live in Canada before being eligible for citizenship, from four years to three, and making changes to the books prospective Canadians should study before a citizenship exam.

"They're a little heavy on the War of 1812 and barbaric cultural practices," said McCallum, referring to two issues that the Conservatives had focused on during their tenure. 

Follow Natalie Alcoba on Twitter: @nataliealcoba