Why Dual Citizenship Doesn’t Mean The Best Of Both Worlds

Why dual citizenship doesn't mean the best of both worlds

People who call more than one country home can find themselves facing a host of problems that Canada can't solve, writes Don Butler.

Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2006

As Canada struggles to extract 50,000 citizens caught in the crosshairs of conflict in Lebanon, the practice of allowing Canadians to retain citizenship in other countries has suddenly become a hot topic of debate.

While nobody knows how many of the stranded Canadians hold Lebanese passports, 2001 census figures suggest it could be a substantial number.

More than 550,000 citizens resident in Canada have a second — or even a third, or a fourth — nationality. An unknown number of others are permanent residents in their countries of origin, but have retained their Canadian citizenship.

Not everyone thinks this is a positive development.

“Certainly in my view, it adds to divided loyalties,” says Martin Collacott, a former Canadian ambassador to Syria and Lebanon who argued in a recent paper that Canada should expect newcomers to fully commit to their adopted country. “When someone emigrates here, I think we have a right to expect a firm commitment from them.”

Until 30 years ago, dual citizenship was all but impossible in Canada. But in 1977, changes to the Citizenship Act permitted Canadians to acquire a foreign nationality without automatically losing their citizenship.

Since then, some form of dual citizenship has been endorsed by an expanding number of countries. While reliable numbers are elusive, at least half of all nations now allow some form of multiple citizenship, and some estimates place the number as high as 150.

“Most countries are moving to an acceptance of dual nationality based on the fact that a prohibition is unenforceable,” says Gar Pardy, former head of consular services in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In Canada, dual citizens have the same rights and responsibilities as any other Canadian. “There aren't two classes of Canadian citizenship,” Mr. Pardy says. “The mantra is, a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

But outside Canada's borders, their status is far murkier. In fact, says Mr. Pardy, dual nationality is effectively not covered by international law.

The 1930 Hague Convention on the conflict of nationalities provides some rules. One is that countries cannot offer consular services to citizens while they are in a second country in which they also hold citizenship. “That was contrary to the policy we had in Canada,” says Mr. Pardy, “so we denounced that treaty in 1996.”

Beyond that, there is nothing. Even the 1963 Vienna Convention on consular relations is silent about dual nationals.

At one time, Canada would not intervene on behalf of dual nationals if they lived permanently or habitually in the country of their other nationality. But that was changed in the early 1990s, says Mr. Pardy.

Now, Canada will try to come to the aid of any citizen in peril, even those who retire back to Lebanon. “If they want to be on one of the ships,” says Mr. Pardy, “they'll be on one of the ships.”

Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who had responsibility for consular emergencies in the Martin government, acknowledges that dual citizenship can cause problems for governments. “It limits our ability to make interventions when another country doesn't recognize our claim of citizenship.”

According to Mr. Pardy, the Liberal government mused out loud about prohibiting dual citizenship during the 1990s. “I think they took one look at it, and checked with their constituents in places like Vancouver and Toronto, and said 'no bloody way,'” he says. “There is a large community of people out there who like the current system.”

Mr. Collacott isn't one of them. He views dual citizenship as a sweet deal for immigrants who want to have their cake and eat it too.

“They can say, 'now we've got all these benefits, let's go back and live in the old country, and we'll call on Canada when we need it.' There seems to be an endless sense of entitlement that we've helped to create.”

But dual citizenship also carries risks. For example, those with second nationalities may be conscripted into military service in their country of origin, or taxed for services received, including educational costs. These demands may be asserted even if the dual national is in Canada.

And if they choose to travel on their second passport, Canadian officials may be unable to help them if they encounter trouble abroad, especially in countries that don't recognize dual nationality.