Third reading of Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act, as amended—Motion in AmendmentPublished on 11 April 2017 Hansard and Statements by Senator Mobina Jaffer
Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer:
Honourable senators, I rise today in support of Senator Oh’s amendment to Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act.
First of all, I would like to thank Senator Oh for the tremendous amount of work he has done on this issue. It has been an absolute privilege to work with him on the rights of vulnerable children.
Senator Oh, it has been a pleasure to work with you on this issue. We have first-hand seen the pain of children fighting to belong to our great country, and I want to once again thank you for the great work you have done.
I want to share with you the reality of one vulnerable child. Sixteen years ago, a young boy named John arrived in Canada with his single mother when he was just five months old. John’s mother had mental illness and, as a result, ran into trouble with the law. John was not able to gain his citizenship because of his mother’s actions.
Under our current citizenship laws, minors who want to become citizens must apply under section 5(2) of the Citizenship Act. In other words, their application must be tied to that of their parent. John had to apply with his single mother, who was still ineligible because of her criminal record. Therefore, John could not become a citizen.
John had a brother who was born in Canada. John often said — I have heard him say this — that he wanted to be a Canadian just like his younger brother. This weighed very heavily on his mind.
Honourable senators, John has been waiting for a long time, working with his lawyer, to get the waiver. Apparently, he has been waiting for four years.
This is the kind of case that Senator Oh’s amendment deals with. Senator Oh’s amendment is meant to offer opportunities for children who are barred from citizenship under our current laws. As I mentioned, our citizenship laws do not allow for children to apply independently of their parents when they seek citizenship. They must link their case to that of their parent.
In most cases, thank God, it is not a problem as the parent would have fulfilled the same requirements as the child. However, if a parent’s application fails or, sadly, if there is no parent to apply for them, the child cannot get Canadian citizenship.
As a result, many children are left without their citizenship by section 5(2) of the Citizenship Act, even if they fulfill all the requirements. This can cover a wide variety of different cases, each of which faces difficulties as they attempt to become citizens here in Canada.
The first category includes children who have no parents with them here in Canada, or they are orphans. Senators, in the last year we have welcomed many Syrians. Some of the Syrians we have welcomed have been young children who have lost their parents. Are we, after three years, going to say, “No, you cannot apply for citizenship as you came here as an orphan.”
This category of unaccompanied children by a parent arrives on our shores.
These children are just as deserving of Canadian citizenship as other children. These children may have been brought to Canada through smuggling or human trafficking or other vulnerable circumstances. Our laws forbid children from becoming Canadian because they have no adult to apply on their behalf.
This category also includes orphans. For example, they may have come to Canada with their parents, and due to tragic events that took place, they have lost their parents, in Canada.
The second category includes children who have parents but are still barred from earning citizenship due to their family circumstances. For example, their parents could be barred from citizenship due to criminality.
Children in these families have done nothing wrong, but are barred from becoming citizens because their parents cannot become citizens.
Finally, there are minors whose parents cannot meet the requirements for citizenship. We heard at length in the Senate about how hard it could be for some people to learn one of our official languages, especially when it comes to older applicants. Children pick up our languages quickly as they attend our schools and integrate with other Canadians. Even though their parents may have difficulty learning French or English, the children can often learn far more easily. Should we punish children when their parents cannot meet the citizenship requirements? The only way these children can gain citizenship without linking their case to that of a parent or guardian is by applying for a waiver from the minister on compassionate grounds.
However, while debating Bill C-6, we have already learned that this can only accommodate the most extreme cases. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in past court rulings confirm that compassionate grounds that only apply for those circumstances would make it implausible to meet requirements for citizenship. This includes waiving language testing requirements for the deaf and mute or similar requirements for people suffering from physical and mental disabilities.
The truth is that compassionate grounds are based primarily on medical cases rather than circumstances of the applicant. Even if the vulnerable child has grounds to apply through this process, applying for a waiver on compassionate grounds can take up to four years. I have spoken to many young people who have said to me that they turned 18 before they were granted a waiver.
Honourable senators, it is equally unacceptable to deny these children their citizenship because of circumstances that are beyond the child’s control. For these children, citizenship means so much more than being able to vote when they become adults. Citizenship means that these children belong among their fellow Canadians. That is what John said. He wanted to belong to Canada, just like his brother belonged to Canada. Rather than being an outsider who lives in this country, citizenship lets a child feel that he truly is a Canadian.
Avvy Yao-Yao Go told the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology that citizenship is very important to a child, that it could have deep psychological effects on immigrants. Citizenship also means that these children are more secure in Canada. When vulnerable children fulfil all the requirements of citizenship, they deserve our protection, as Canadian children are our responsibility.
Our obligation to provide children with an opportunity to become citizens can be traced in our Constitution. Under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is unconstitutional to discriminate on the basis of age. When we forbid children from earning our citizenship despite fulfilling all the conditions that other individuals have to fulfil, we are discriminating against them on the basis of age. Further, our commitments under international law state that we must provide these children with citizenship. Under article 7 of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have a right to nationality.
Honourable senators, I submit that we cannot justify denying our children their rightfully earned nationality when they pass all other requirements. I say that they’re our children because when they come to our country, we accept them in our country. Once you open the doors of Canada to any child, I believe that they’re our children.
As legislators, it is our responsibility to ensure that no one, and especially not children, will fall through the gaps in our citizenship laws. I welcome Senator Oh’s amendment because it will introduce a new process that children can use when applying for citizenship.
Honourable senators, there has been a lot of talk that this bill is not supposed to answer everything that’s wrong with the Citizenship Act. I agree. There are many issues that need to be dealt with. But I’ve been around this place for a very long time, and when I was young and naive when I came to this place, when a minister or a government representative would say, “We will deal with it in a few years,” I would sit down like a good little girl and say, “It will happen in a few years.” In my old age, with my walking stick, I have realized “a few years” can mean after I have left the Senate.
I don’t have that many years left in the Senate. I say to you, honourable senators, yes, the bill will be looked at, and I know it will. But we have the power now to say to a young child, “You can be part of our country.” We can do it now. Why would we ask them to wait another 10 years when they don’t need it? They will already be 18, and I will have already left the Senate.
This amendment repeals the 18 years of age requirement in section 5.1 of the Citizenship Act. This will allow for children to apply independently of their parents, allowing them to become citizens of this country, even when their parents cannot. This process accounts for the fact that a child can obviously not consent to a legal process, such as obtaining citizenship on their own. It accomplishes this by stating that an adult will still need to submit the application on their behalf. Further, after the age of 14, the minor will need to sign the application unless he or she is prevented due to mental incapacity, ensuring their consent.
The amendment even introduces an opportunity for children without parents or guardians to submit this application. In these rare cases, the amendment allows the minister to waive the requirement that a minor’s application must be made by an adult.
Honourable senators, this amendment will bring us back in line with many other countries. I have been the envoy for Canada for many years, and one of the tests as a Canadian envoy was to see what like-minded countries are doing. What are countries that we work with doing? Let me tell you which nine countries have accepted children being citizens of their country. There are many others, but the nine countries that we work with are: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Finland and Iceland. There are others, but nine countries that we work very closely with in the United Nations have accepted this. We would be the tenth. We are not a leader on this, but we would be the tenth.
Honourable senators, I say to you let us be the tenth country. There are nine already in the Western world that have accepted this. If we adopt this amendment, Canada will be ensuring that our system is for all minors.
Before I conclude, I would like to present another story that truly drives home how much these unreasonable barriers can harm children. I will speak about Mohammed. He was a young refugee child. His mother and he fled from Somalia. I was born in Uganda, so I know the challenges of Somalia.
It’s a long story, but when he finally arrived here, after many years here, his mother could not apply for citizenship because she did not know English. Mohammed tried very hard to get citizenship. His mother was very traumatized, and she was just not getting the waiver of language. Unfortunately, Mohammed also has to wait until he becomes 18, as he has not been able to obtain a waiver.
Honourable senators, I cannot take credit for this amendment. I didn’t even think about it. When Senator Oh approached me about this amendment, I was nervous at first; I hadn’t thought about it. Then, as some of you know, there’s a small stone in my shoe every day about the rights of children. The small stone is that it really bothers me that we detain refugee children who are 12 years old.
So when our colleague, whom we all respect very much, Senator Harder, speaks about the best interests of the child, I have to say to you that it makes me cringe. On May 30 of last year, I asked Minster Goodale about the detention of children at the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He replied that he would work together with his department — I truly believe he was very serious — and ensure that Canada would turn toward alternatives rather than have children in detention.
In this chamber, I have many times given you examples of children who have been detained.
May I have five more minutes?
Hon. George Baker (The Hon. the Acting Speaker): Five more minutes?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Agreed.
Senator Jaffer: I won’t repeat the circumstances of the children. Over a year has passed; we still detain children in our facilities.
On March 1 of this year, Minster Goodale, through our leader of the Senate, provided an answer to a question that I had once again asked about children in detention. What really made me angry — and you will know this because you’ve heard me say this before. In his answer, he spoke — and I’m still waiting for an explanation on that, and the leader has promised to get it for me — that it’s in the best interests of the child to detain the child. Senators, I have been in protection courts as a lawyer, I have been in youth courts as a lawyer and I’ve been in family courts as a lawyer. I have fought for what’s called “the best interests of the child,” but I never in my wildest dreams thought that a minister of our great country would say that it is in the best interests of the child to detain that child.
That’s why I stand in front of you today and say that we can no longer say, “We will wait for the government to make the changes. We will wait for the overhaul of the Citizenship Act.”
I really respect Senator Oh for bringing this now, because I believe the time is right that as we are sending the other amendments, we should send this amendment. Nine countries we work with in the United Nations have empowered the children in these countries. Why can’t we?