I sincerely hope that you support this amendment to give minors a right to apply for Canadian citizenship and the freedom to choose Canada.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act.
Let me start by saying that I support adopting a more generous citizenship regime by making changes to provisions dealing with grants of citizenship by naturalization.
These include reducing the amount of time that a permanent resident must be physically present in Canada to apply for citizenship by one full year, crediting permanent residents for time spent in Canada as a temporary resident or protected person for up to one year, eliminating the half-year physical presence requirement, repealing the intent to reside provision and reinstating the previous age range for language and knowledge requirements.
These changes will allow permanent residents to fully integrate into the social, economic and political life of their communities and our country. However, I want to bring to your attention one very important omission that Bill C-6 does not currently address that requires our immediate attention. Certain provisions in the Citizenship Act prevent some minors who are permanent residents from making an application for citizenship for reasons that are outside their control. Citizenship applications for minors under the age of 18 are normally dealt with under section 5(2) of the Citizenship Act. This means that a minor's application is part of a family application and is, as a result, dependent on the parent or guardian's application, unless the parent or guardian is already a citizen.
Making citizenship applications for minors dependent on the application of an adult has serious implications. It leaves some minors with virtually no option but to wait until they turn 18 to apply for citizenship. This category includes unaccompanied minors, meaning those without a parent or guardian in Canada; minors whose family relationships have disintegrated because of neglect or abuse; minors whose parents cannot afford to pay the fees for citizenship applications; minors whose parents do not meet one or more of the requirements to be eligible for citizenship; minors whose parents or legal guardians fail or refuse to help them apply. This situation may arise if the parents are from a country that does not allow having dual citizenship, such as China, Netherlands, Norway, India and Iran.
In theory, citizenship applications for these minors can also be made under section 5(1) if the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship uses his or her discretionary authority under subparagraph 5(3)(b)(i) to waive the requirement in paragraph 5(1)(b) that the applicant be 18 years on compassionate grounds.
However, this waiver mechanism is not an effective solution. Minors that may benefit from this discretionary decision may not be aware of its existence because it is hidden in the statute.
Those who learn about it need financial resources to obtain specialized legal assistance and then be able to prove that the waiver is needed because of exceptional personal circumstances. Moreover, it can take between three to four years for this request to be processed.
Justice for Children and Youth, a legal clinic that provides services to minors, criticized the waiver mechanism. In a briefing for the House of Commons committee that studied this bill, the clinic said:
. . . this humanitarian exemption poses a generally insurmountable barrier for children wishing to access citizenship and is not a reasonable limitation or a satisfactory solution to issues raised by the age requirement provision.
Colleagues, restricting access to Canadian citizenship to children and youth who otherwise meet all requirements punishes our country's most marginalized groups for circumstances that are beyond their control. Highly marginalized minors with a less secure status risk deportation in their adult lives.
A recent case in the news involved a woman in her thirties who arrived in Canada at 8 years old and was placed in the care of child welfare authorities when she was 11. She suffered from the effects of violence and alcoholism in her home and is a survivor of violent sexual abuse. These circumstances played a factor in her conviction and incarceration in 2014. It was not until she was sent to prison that she learned that her social worker, foster families and biological parents had not applied for citizenship on her behalf. She was placed in immigration detention for removal proceedings because her criminal record made her ineligible for permanent residence status.
After months of living in uncertainty and anguish, the former Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship intervened in her case to restore her permanent residency status on compassionate grounds.
While this case had a favourable outcome, many do not. These situations should not happen at all. While we cannot go back in time to help adults affected by discrimination on the basis of age in the Citizenship Act, we can ensure that eligible minors are given access to Canadian citizenship.
Numerous witnesses submitted briefs and testified in front of the House of Commons and Senate committees studying this bill. All of them drew attention to the consequences of restricting access to citizenship for vulnerable children and youth. These witnesses include the Canadian Council for Refugees, Justice for Children and Youth, the Quebec Bar and UNICEF Canada.
Two amendments ruled admissible at the committee stage in the House of Commons tried to address the current discrimination on the basis of age in the Citizenship Act but did not receive support from Liberal members of Parliament. These amendments were non-partisan, having been introduced by an NDP MP and a Conservative MP.
At this time, there is nothing in Bill C-6 that addresses discrimination on the basis of age in the act.
Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a signatory, requires that the best interests of the child are given primary consideration in all matters directly affecting children, including legislation.
Colleagues, we have a responsibility to protect and support vulnerable children and youth. We also have an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that this legislation prioritizes the best interests of the child.
I therefore plan to introduce an amendment that will ensure equitable access to citizenship for eligible minors who are discriminated against solely on the basis of their age.
The proposed amendment addresses this issue by making the following changes to the Citizenship Act:
It repeals the 18 years of age requirement in section 5(1).
It specifies that the language and knowledge requirements do not apply to minors as is currently intended by Bill C-6.
It ensures consistency with citizenship applications for minors dealt with under section 5(2). It incorporates the same language used in the Citizenship Regulations No. 2, paragraphs 4(a) and (b) in reference to who can apply for a minor and when an application has to be countersigned by the minors to those that will be made under section 5(1).
Note that the proposed amendment aims to allow minors to make applications for citizenship separate from the applications of a parent or guardian. However, an adult will still need to submit the application on their behalf and after the age of 14 the minor will need to sign the application unless he or she is prevented due to mental incapacity.
Finally, it authorizes the minister to waive the requirement that a minor's application must be made by an adult. Therefore, in exceptional cases, a minor will be able to submit an application for himself or herself.
Situations may arise where a minor has absolutely no one. In Ontario, the age range for child protection is 16 and under. Consequently, an unaccompanied or separated minor in the province over the age of 16 may be left without guidance, support and protection. While this is not a perfect solution, further improvements must also be made to protect minors at the provincial level.
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