The importance of rights and responsibilities

In a column I wrote in 2012, I made a case that citizenship was a critical part of democracy. At that time I said that "citizenship is essential to good government and to virtuous politics." I explained that we have both rights and responsibilities and that our rights, distinct from our freedoms, are listed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I explained the difference this way: "Freedoms are those things that we are free do and we generally understand that the state should not interfere with our freedoms. Among our liberties are included our freedom of speech and religion. We also have legal and moral entitlements and we call these entitlements "rights". For example, we have the right to vote and we have legal rights. Rights mean that the state has a duty to make these privileges available to us. While these rights and freedoms are part of our expectations as citizens in a democracy, we spend very little time talking about our obligations to the democracy. And yet our obligations are just as important. Our obligations as citizens are the building blocks of civil society. It may seem that our individual actions may amount to little but in fact each act of citizenship is at the heart of the most critical part of a successful democracy because active citizenship creates trust."

I was reminded of the importance of both rights and responsibilities when I read that the Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander would be introducing new legislation to change or reform the rules for becoming a Canadian citizen. The Globe and Mail reported that Alexander said: "Canadian citizenship is uniquely valuable in the world, a weighty privilege that involves both duty and rights, opportunity and responsibility...adding: "As a government, we are confident these changes reflect what Canadians want."

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The legislation is framed through the conservative lens. And by this I mean, that conservatives are likely to approach immigration and citizenship as issues of security rather than issues of diversity or social justice. They tend to frame policy as though that state's role is as "night watchmen." The new law strengthens the residency requirements and the law allows for the stripping of citizenship from those who are convicted of serious crimes outside Canada including acts of terrorism. It also attaches much higher penalties to citizenship fraud. This is a natural way for the Conservative Party to frame legislation because their approach to governing includes a strong inclination to safety and security as the core task of the state's responsibility.

The Liberals and the NDP will also express concern about safety issues but it is likely that their reaction will focus on the issues of social justice and the process by which immigrants become citizens. One of the core issues that has already arisen is worry over the backlog of applications. As we hear more about the Bill, it is likely that we will see the differences in ideology emerge.

The new legislation certainly does make it more difficult to become a Canadian citizen but I often think about the requirements that already exist. Sometimes I ask my students to look at the questions on the Canadian citizenship test. They can be found at the Government of Canada, Discover Canada website. Here are just 10 of the questions found on the site that prospective citizens are expected to know:

Name two key documents that contain our rights and freedoms.

Identify four (4) rights that Canadians enjoy.

Name four (4) fundamental freedoms that Canadians enjoy.

What is meant by the term "responsible government"?

What does it mean to say that Canada is a constitutional monarchy?

What are the three branches of government?

What is the difference between the role of the Queen and that of the Prime Minister?

Who is your member of Parliament?

What are the three levels of government?

What is the role of the courts in Canada?

The new legislation will require that the knowledge test be taken by an expanded number of applicants in wider age range from 14-64 (formerly 18-54). It is interesting to note that we require that our new citizens live up to their obligations and responsibility for knowing how our governing institutions work. One might wonder how many Canadian citizens can themselves answer these questions.

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