Starting as soon as June, new Canadian citizens could take the oath on their own — without the need for a citizenship judge.
The proposed change is an attempt by immigration officials to reduce processing time and backlogs.
However, critics warn the move would drastically change the decades-old ritual for generations of newcomers and with a click on the keyboard, further dilute the meaning of Canadian citizenship.
“This just further cheapens the significance of becoming a Canadian citizen. It’s just as easy to click terms and conditions to become a citizen as it is to create a Facebook or a TikTok account,” said Daniel Bernhard, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
“That’s really a shame.”
The change, as part of the modernization and digitalization of immigration processing, is expected to reduce the current citizenship processing time by three months to 21 months, according to the plan published in the Canada Gazette over the weekend.
Swearing an oath has been a legal requirement of becoming a citizen in this country since 1947. It’s a solemn vow taken by citizenship applicants to follow the laws of Canada and fulfil their duties as citizens.
Citizenship is not only a milestone for new immigrants toward their belonging and commitment to Canada, it also comes with the benefits of a passport, voting rights and the ability to run for elected office.
Under the proposed change, the immigration minister would have broad discretion to allow citizenship applicants to take the oath by other means and not necessarily before an authorized individual.
Currently, new citizens swear or affirm the oath before a citizenship judge at virtual or in-person ceremonies, which are mainly scheduled on weekdays, during working hours, although ceremonies are occasionally scheduled on Saturdays.
“Many clients have to take time off work to attend citizenship ceremonies, and this time off is not necessarily paid by employers,” the immigration department said in the Gazette.
“The flexibility would allow the Department to implement options aimed at improving client service and reducing processing times of citizenship applications.”
The proposed change came in the wake of new data indicating a nosedive in citizenship uptake over 20 years.
The 2021 census found that just 45.7 per cent of permanent residents became citizens within 10 years, down from 60 per cent in 2016 and 75.1 per cent in 2001.
“Citizenship does take a long time, and they’re working on the process,” said Bernhard, whose organization obtained the data. “But the actual problem is not how long it takes to get the citizenship. The actual problem is the desirability of Canadian citizenship itself.”
During the pandemic, citizenship processing time has doubled from the prior 12-month service standard, even though the number of citizenship applications granted annually has risen significantly to 243,000 from 113,000 over the last five years.
With Canada moving toward bringing in half a million new permanent residents a year by 2025, the inventory of citizenship applications — standing at 358,000 — is expected to grow.
Citizenship applicants must go through a stringent screening process to ensure they meet all requirements, including three out of five years of physical presence in Canada at the time of applying. Those between ages 18 and 54 must also show proficiency in either official language and pass a citizenship exam before they are scheduled for a citizenship ceremony.
Due to COVID, officials have brought in virtual citizenship ceremonies as of April 2020. Since then, 15,290 of the 15,457 ceremonies have been held online in front of an authorized official, generally a citizenship judge.
The “self-administration” of the oath-taking would now allow new citizens to sign a written attestation online without a witness to complete the obligations of citizenship, and applicants would still have the option to do it before a citizenship judge, the immigration department told the Star in an email Monday.
Officials said the measure could result in savings as fewer ceremonies are expected to be hosted.
For Andrew Griffith, a former director general at the immigration department, the change marks another diversion of the federal government in its approach to immigration and citizenship.
“I just look at all of our immigration policies,” said Griffith, now an Environics Institute fellow. “It’s basically the more, the merrier. It’s not about the ability to integrate. It’s just increasing numbers. I can see the logic in terms of you just want to push people through but I always thought that immigration and citizenship was more than that.
“We’re just really further diminishing the value of citizenship.”