Strengthening Citizenship

Strengthening citizenship

Globe editorial
From Friday's Globe and Mail
April 17, 2009 at 12:14 AM EDT

A proposal by the federal government to change Canada's citizenship program to place greater emphasis on the country's values, history and institutions has the potential to strengthen the sense of belonging among new Canadians.

The process for acquiring citizenship should not allow for fundamental misunderstandings at the outset, and federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's plan to make sure newcomers have a fuller appreciation of basic Canadian values, such as equality between men and women and liberal democracy, would reduce the risk of confusion. Canadian citizenship confers great privileges, but it should also demand something in return.

Enjoyment of citizenship likewise requires understanding of Canada's history and institutions. The current citizenship booklet includes 21/2 pages on recycling, but just one paragraph on Confederation. While correctly celebrating our international role as peacekeepers, it does not mention the tremendous sacrifice of veterans during times of war, a much greater contribution to the international order. In other words, the current manual tries to make up in earnestness for what it lacks in seriousness. This fails both immigrants and the country. Mr. Kenney says that when people join the Canadian family, they need to understand Canadian history becomes their history, Canadian values become their values.

That is not to say immigrants have to forsake their deep and abiding attachment to their lands of origin, that they have to give up the hyphen. Integration does not mean assimilation. Ultimately, how much people choose to leave at the door is their decision alone. But the Harper government is right to place greater emphasis on the meaning of Canadian citizenship and identity. Those who immigrate to Canada owe more than a perfunctory allegiance to the place where they have chosen to make their lives. Canada is more than a job mart. Most immigrants understand that and will seize on the opportunity to better belong.

The problem has had less to do with the expectations of newcomers, than with government multiculturalism policies dating from the 1970s that tried to encourage differences.

Mr. Kenney, who has already spoken out on the need to strengthen the language skills of newcomers, says the government is committed to addressing the concrete challenges of integration. As he recently told a Calgary Chamber of Commerce audience, We want to make sure that the people who are joining our political community as Canadian citizens have a full appreciation for the values, symbols and institutions that define Canada and which are rooted in our history. To that end, the department is consulting widely with organizations and experts to improve the citizenship program. The move should be welcomed, but should not end there. Immigrants are not the only Canadians needing a civics and history lesson.