Born Equal: Citizenship by Birth is Canada’s Valuable Legacy

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This week, the Toronto Star reported on a proposal to eliminate citizenship by birth on Canadian soil (also known as jus soli citizenship, or citizenship “by soil”). Proposals to eliminate jus soli citizenship are often presented as responses to purported problems relating to “birth tourism”, as evidenced by a recent column in Toronto Life magazine.

Below is the full version of a letter responding to the commentary in Toronto Life, written by BCCLA Senior Counsel Carmen Cheung and Professor Audrey Macklin of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, who serves on the Executive Committee of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL). This letter points out that elimination of jus soli citizenship is a costly response, one that is out of proportion to any actual “problem”. This is a view echoed by the government’s own report, which notes that “eliminating birth on soil … would have significant cost implications”, and that “the potential costs of … enforcing this provision, the potential challenges with children being born stateless in Canada and the uncertainty of their status may outweigh the benefits linked to limiting citizenship by birth on soil.”  

Shocked-babyJus Soli v. Jus Sanguinis

Since 2009, the Canadian government has been waging a campaign to make citizenship harder to get and easier to lose. There are three ways to get citizenship:  (1) birth on Canadian soil (known by the Latin legal term jus soli, translating tolaw of the soil”), (2) birth to a Canadian citizen who is abroad (jus sanguinis, or “law of the blood”) and (3) naturalization, which is when a newcomer to Canada applies for and is granted Canadian citizenship.  In 2009, the government made it harder to pass Canadian citizenship by descent from parent to child (jus sanguinis). This year, bill C-24 and its citizenship-stripping provisions targeted those who obtain citizenship by naturalization as well as dual citizens. Having weakened citizenship by naturalization and by descent, the government has also let it be known that citizenship by birth on Canadian soil (jus soli) will be next on its list.

Immigration-restriction rhetoric relies heavily on fear, and those who would argue against jus soli citizenship typically conjure up the spectre of “birth tourism” – pregnant women who come to Canadian hospitals, use Canadian medical resources, and take advantage of Canada’s birthright citizenship to have Canadian babies. After giving birth, mother and child return to the country of origin, taking the child’s Canadian birth certificate home as a kind of citizenship souvenir. According to some, this ‘gaming of the system’ by pregnant women makes us a nation of suckers.

We Don’t Have a ‘Birth Tourism’ Problem

But how serious an issue is birth tourism? While the government does not publish statistics on actual cases of birth tourism, Statistics Canada reports that of the 377,913 live births recorded in Canada for 2011, only 277 of those were by mothers who lived outside of Canada. The numbers were slightly higher in 2010 – 305 babies born to non-resident mothers out of 377,518 live births. That is less than one tenth of one percent of all births in Canada.

A recent article in Toronto Life magazine proposed another metric for measuring birth tourism, by collecting the number of uninsured mothers giving birth in Toronto-area hospitals over a five year period. Based on those numbers, we’re still looking at less than one percent of all live births in the city of Toronto. Using the number of uninsured mothers as a proxy also likely overstates the problem. Provincial health cards are only issued after a minimum period of residency in the province – this is the case whether an individual has arrived from another country as a landed immigrant, or has just moved from British Columbia to Ontario. There are also foreign nationals who are excluded from provincial health care schemes, such as students, temporary foreign workers and diplomats. Particularly vulnerable Canadian citizens – such as the homeless or transient – may also not be able to prove their eligibility for provincial health insurance because of lost documentation. By any measure, the number of babies born to non-resident non-Canadian mothers is negligible.

What of the money that Canada spends on health care, public education, or subsidized university tuition for babies born to birth tourists? These particular benefits of citizenship, however, are only available to individuals who live in Canada. Non-resident parents don’t get to stay in Canada simply because their babies are citizens – when they leave Canada, voluntarily or otherwise, they take their Canadian children with them.

Anchor Babies + Their Families?!

It’s also unclear to what extent these children do eventually return to Canada. The invented story is that those who do return will simply reap all the advantages of citizenship without making any corresponding contribution. There’s no evidence in support of this hypothesis. Advocates for limiting jus soli citizenship heap more speculation upon conjecture by claiming that these children will continue this cycle of freeloading once they reach the age of 18 and are eligible to sponsor the rest of their family for permanent residency, and ultimately, citizenship. But the Canadian government demands that sponsors demonstrate tangible contribution to Canadian society through living and working in Canada, participating in Canadian life, paying Canadian taxes – in short, being a model citizen. And in any event, Canadians cannot sponsor siblings from abroad, and recent changes to immigration law have made it virtually impossible to sponsor parents.

Eliminating citizenship by birth on Canadian soil would be a hysterical response to a handful of cases that, in statistical terms, amount to a rounding error. It is also a costly response, both in terms of government expenditures and what it means for Canadian values.

Expensive Hysteria

Eliminating birthright citizenship would impose enormous and perpetual public expense that will be borne by all of us. Currently, a Canadian birth certificate serves as proof of citizenship for birthright citizens, whether for obtaining a passport, or registering as a voter. But if being born in Canada does not automatically confer citizenship, then the provinces and federal government will eventually have to come up with another system for verifying citizenship. A passport proves citizenship, but the government makes us pay for them and about a third of Canadians don’t possess one. Whatever the verification system, it will be staggeringly expensive to develop and maintain. By way of example, a national identification card system – which is itself fraught with privacy and surveillance concerns – has been estimated to cost between $3 billion to $5 billion just to implement. Talk about a sledgehammer to deal with a flea.

Born Equal: A Valuable Legacy

Protecting citizenship by birth on Canadian soil makes economic and practical sense. It is also true to our identity as a nation dedicated to freedom and equality. Canada’s First Nations were once denied citizenship unless they surrendered their Indian status. Less than a century ago, Canada had explicitly racist anti-Chinese restrictions on entry, citizenship and the vote. Immigrants have always worried about whether they are recognized as full citizens. But since 1946, every child born in Canada is born equal: a full citizen, no matter what race, ethnicity or ancestry. That is a legacy to be proud of, and we would be suckers to squander it.

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31 thoughts on “Born Equal: Citizenship by Birth is Canada’s Valuable Legacy

  1. Prime Minister Stephen Harper: We hereby revoke YOUR citizenship. #DeportHarper

  2. Canada is already fighting a staggering generational problem, with the baby boomers never to be replaced. The work force, taxable income, and all the pension you and I have been saving on, might just go off in a jiffy if the Government starts to play with high-impact variables so carelessly. Canadians are Canadians as soon as they are born or as soon as the court provides Citizenship. These are long established laws, and are commonplace in many parts of the world. Do we really want to lose our future workforce and stub the future of Canada?

  3. Citizenship entails certain rights that give the citizen the power to speak out, stand up and be counted without the threat of state recrimination. But this is less the case today than it once was, and the rights-of-citizenship are being eroded, as well as the right-to-
    citizenship, as in this case.

  4. I was born in beautiful country Yugoslavia, my parents from different provinces – Serbia and Croatia. That did not matter, we were all Yugoslavian. Then the war torn Yugoslavia apart and Provinces become countries – Serbia and Croatia. I become a foreigner to both – I was born in Serbia but did not have citizenship because my father was Croatian. I was not good enough Croatian because my mother was Serbian and I was born there. I was not good enough citizen anywhere. Until I came to Canada. I live here 20 years. I love Canada I am proud to be Canadian. Is it going to happen again? Am I one more time going to become “not good enough citizen”? Is that what Canada is going to be proud of?

    • There are some whites her for centuries who do not speak french and are treated as second class citizens to minorities in hiring in the big cities. I am one of these people. It is very hard to find a job if you are white and only speak english and educated due to affirmative action programs everywhere..

  5. The federal government policy babies born in Canada to immigrant mothers
    as not Canadian citizens is racist and discriminatory. Not able to bring
    your parents over is racist to join their family. Canadians who have
    suspected of being terrorist should not be allowed to become Canadian
    citizens but you need proof.

  6. It is a disgraced for Canada to be so racial. We are born equal and nobody can change that

  7. The idea of receiving citizenship where you are borne is a time honoured institution. If there is a concern, then when a woman arrives at a borderpoint and she is pregnanct, then, there could be a law or regulation to determine her eligibility to enter. Once she enters, any new borne child is a citizen of Canada. To change this then is on the slope of saying, the Canadian Parents of a new borne might have to apply for citizenship. This is unexceptable.

  8. This news piece is a sane and articulate response to sad smallminded poorly thoughtout legislation which unfortunately is flourishing under this present Federal Government.I only hope that Canadians are watching.

  9. A family I know came here to have their baby about 30 years ago. The baby was then taken home to her own country and when she became a teen she moved back here to make her home. She is working, married and has one child.Both her and her husband have full time jobs and are paying taxes etc.
    Another friend went to the U. S. A. to have her last two children. They have been taken back home for now but still have their passports for access to return. As a Canadian senior I personally know of three children who were brought here to obtain citizenship. If I know three I imagine there are many others. If all of us know 3 each, maybe it’s happening way more than your numbers indicate. I personally love these two families but still feel we were duped by their parents.
    What is the reason that they can’t obtain automatic birth certificates from their own countries when they get home, based on Mom’s citizenship?

  10. this is a hideous piece of legislation which is draconian and the act of a mean spirited politician

  11. Thanks for the work in challenging the C-24, We´ll keep supporting you.
    Best wishes

    MOrena Vancouver

  12. For a protest to be effective, you have to stop traffic. You have to stop traffic.

    Naomi Wolf talks about the barriers to authentic protest and what it takes for a real protest to succeed:

    OK. So what kind of mass protest? The kind of mass protest that always works is illegal just about everywhere in the United States today. Why is that?

    What keeps you from getting a permit in the United States? Stepping a foot into the street.

    Now why do you have to stop traffic? Because for a protest to do anything, it has to disrupt business as usual. I don’t mean violence. (Whoever’s tape-recording this to take it back to, you know, Quantico or whatever, I don’t mean violence. I mean dissent.)

    Martin Luther King, who wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” because he marched without a permit, said sometimes it is important for the tension to rise up for people to see all is not well. And that you do that by stopping traffic. That’s how citizens indicate, you know, business as usual is not acceptable.

    It’s an exercise in stifling debate and blurring the line between legitimate protest and terrorism. They want people to be afraid of those who speak out against government policies. Then they can throw dissidents into all of those jails they want to build.


  13. I see from moves like these, that Canada has changed from being a land that is hospitable to it’s own citizens, and by extension, their family who may be from other lands. When we make these distinctions, we also lose our tradition of being hospitable. Canada has immigrants that swell our cities and country. These same people have offered their labour, intelligence, and diversity to make of Canada a country that looks like a United Nations. Now we will start to treat Immigrants and others like they are suspect? Nunavut and Yellowknife and so much of the north, utilizes the skill of these immigrants, in all areas of work… and if they are just to be treated as though they offer skill..without reward and privilege, and rights, we are making this country tiered, and racist also. Shame … This is intolerable.

  14. Thank you for taking this on, and for helping to combat not only the government’s terrible policy, but also the wider issues of immigration hysteria and hatred that underlie this issue.

    Leaving aside the fact that immigration is part of Canada’s history, the continued functioning of the country today depends on both immigration and a culture of diversity. When I grew up in Ontario, we were taught about multiculturalism, the idea of the cultural mosaic, and the promise of Canadian citizenship. I believed then, as now, that these concepts form a large part of our national identity, and I have always been deeply proud of them. I am proud that Canada is a beacon of opportunity, a defender of human rights, and a source of hope for people all around the world. I am also proud that Canada acts on these principles, not just through peacekeeping or foreign aid, but by inviting people to live here and partake of the same opportunities and rights that we enjoy every day. I think that this, more than anything else we do as a nation, creates positive changes in people’s lives, and sets an example for the rest of the world.

    On a more personal note, as a child and grandchild of immigrants, and as a person with many personal connections to immigrants through my family and friends, these measures scare the hell out of me. The idea that any of these people are less full citizens than I am is revolting, and demeans the dedication and hard work that brought them here, as well as their contributions to our economy, our society and our culture. The idea that their citizenship may be revokable, or conditional in any way, is completely unacceptable. I think that Canada should stand by its citizens, whether native or naturalized.

    I am deeply saddened and very angry that the Federal Government is waging this war against immigration, and I think that it is both contrary to Canadian principles, and potentially contrary to both Canadian and global law (since it may violate Canada’s role as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness). Not to mention that these laws are just bad policy, and are not based on any evidence of abuse, as you note above. This government needs to be taken to task for its tendency to make policy based on political opportunism and ideology instead of evidence.

    Thank you again for continuing to fight this fundamental injustice. I will be donating to the BCCLA specifically because of this issue, and I wish you all the best of luck.

  15. being born in canada is a privelege and a right
    please do not take that away from the born children
    who are so inocent that would be cruel.

  16. Shame! Shame! Stephen Harper is changing the face of Canada from a kind, empathetic society where people are in solidarity with each other, to a fascist, individualistic state, where everyone is out for himself/herself.

  17. people who have siblings or relatives or cousins should be able to bring
    them to Canada as immigrants and then citizens of Canada. I have a sister in law and a niece and if they want to move to Canada from Australia they should be allowed because their father my brother who is a
    Canadian citizen is dead of a heart attack this year.

  18. This is outrageous! What baffles me the most is how many people still don’t know about it! A lot of my Facebook friends didn’t sign the petition because they didn’t bother reading what I sent them ( and some of them might be affected directly by the fact that Bill c-24 is now law!) People need to wake and start paying attention. It’ not true that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. What you don’t know can and WILL hurt you!

  19. Excellent commentary, Josh. I will keep those statistics in mind in any future debate re: birth citizenship.

    What leaves me nervous is the naturalization aspect as you explained it earlier this summer, with this legislation permitting the government to deport me if they deem me a “terrorist.” As I said at the time, “define terrorism.” Could this mean that if I oppose the tar sands and the transport of its product, I could be deemed a candidate for deportation, if not an inmate in one of the big new prisons on which the government is quietly spending our tax money?

    Let me know if there is anything I can do to help. I read your volunteer options. I don’t qualify for several of them, not being a lawyer or law student. As an English (literature) major, I could offer proof-reading, if not editing services. My French was good enough to be put on the front desk when I worked in the History Dept. at UBC, being the go-to person for communication and typing in French. It is not good enough to translate from English to French, but might be up to translating from French to English. (I also have plenty of volunteer experience as an envelope stuffer for mailings.)

  20. I am from Vancouver and I wanted to say that Canada has been a racist country going back to Prime Minister,John A McDonald who called the French People in Quebec dogs because they supported Louis Riel.It will be up to the working class in Canada to change this.
    In the 1800s the reactionary Thomas Malthus said the economic problems in England and the rest of Europe is because there are to many people in the world.This is not true but the govs.of today still goes along with that policy.All people born in Canada should have the right to citizenship.It is the Canadian gov.that should be condemned not the people.

  21. Thank you for your work protecting us all from the ravage that is this Conservative government.

    My concern around citizenship is that Harper is selling citizenship to the wealthy of the world with the investor immigrant program. Under the Liberals (as I recall) it was $250,000 and you were in, no points for language, profession, etc. needed. Now it’s $800,000, which I’ve read the gov’t is borrowing from these ‘investors’. The interest we pay, if any, wasn’t mentioned in the brief Vancouver Sun article.

    Harper is buying votes with this program; the global one percent is getting a fantastic deal. They can exploit the indigenous nations’ remaining resources while destroying our life-support ecosystems.

    Does your organization have information on this outrage?

  22. “Non-resident mothers” — I wonder how many of them were actually Canadian citizens.

  23. The Harper Conservatives are losing ground among their party ranks, as more and more stranded former “Progressive” Conservatives are forced by this government’s actions to question their habitual support. Past excuses of viewing Harper as the “least worst” candidate appear thinner with the PMO’s every insular, resentful, tone-deaf move.

    To stem that exodus, the Party strategists are taking to inventing threats, whereby fear-based emotion, instead of rational thought, can once again rule prospective departees’ electoral decisions. They invent an impotent, virtually non-existent threat (e.g., birth tourists), swell it via publicly-funded propaganda and policy wonkery (how much is all the studying and consulting in this instance costing us?) to a wholly fictional size and go on to fashion themselves as its lone adversary, the only choice on the ballot for those made in any way anxious by the bogey man they have created.

    They know that, among their strategic targets, there’s a strong loathing for any scent of possible freeloading – a scent in which the subtext of this particular initiative is well drenched. It’s especially useful as a conditioning tool because it is actually a profoundly emotion-driven response (fear of being cheated) hidden by an enabling veneer of reason (theories of fairness and of limited resources) which provides convenient and cathartic intellectual cover for indulging a baser instinct.

    How cynically political and how without regard for the human impact or damage to the public treasury. In other words, the quintessence of the ruling regime.

    • PS: that same subtext’s other scents are xenophobia and racism. Odious enough in the singular; but, in the plural, positively rank.

  24. They’re taking the RIGHT TO VOTE away from people who were born and have probably lived their entire lives in Canada? Not only is this racist, unfair, against everything our country stand for, But it’s downright against the entire IDEA of DEMOCRACY!!! This is not the Canada I know and love. What The he’ll are they doing to this country?