Speech the value of Canadian citizenship

The day someone becomes a Canadian citizen is a memorable one. Many of you who are here today came to Canada as immigrants yourselves and became Canadian citizens, so you know what I mean.

As Minister of Citizenship, I have had the honour of attending many citizenship ceremonies, and I find each one just as moving as the first one I attended. They are, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my work.

Most new Canadians tell me that even decades later, they still remember the day they became citizens. The day is special for several reasons, but the most important one is that they take the oath of citizenship. Taking the oath is a fundamental step in the life of a new Canadian. It’s really the moment when the person makes a commitment to the Canadian family, promises to obey the laws of our country, to respect our traditions, and to be loyal to our head of state and to our country.

Our story is truly remarkable. It’s a story that began in 1534, when Jacques Cartier made three voyages across the Atlantic, claiming the land for King Francis I of France. The story continued in 1604, when the first European settlement north of Florida was established by French explorers Pierre de Monts and Samuel de Champlain, first on St. Croix Island, then at Port-Royal. In 1608, Champlain built a fortress at what is now Quebec City.

Over the next four centuries, we built a society that is considered a model around the world. Every new Canadian owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to all those Canadians who came before.

Brave men and women have sacrificed their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom today. They fought fascism and communism in the First and Second World Wars, and they also fought to defend our freedom here at home. They built a country where individuals can forge their own paths, by giving them opportunities through freedom and equality under the law.

When new Canadians take the oath of citizenship, they join this tradition. Our story becomes their story. That’s why we place such a high value on Canadian citizenship and why there are four requirements to become a Canadian citizen: first, to have a basic knowledge of Canada; second, to have a capacity to speak one of our two official languages; third, to have been a permanent resident in Canada for at least three years out of four; and fourth and finally, to take the oath of citizenship.

When I became Minister of Citizenship three years ago, I was very concerned when I found out that some people had not met the requirements of citizenship and did not really value their Canadian citizenship. Obviously, I’m referring to a small minority—not to the vast majority who respect our laws and meet the requirements of citizenship.

I was concerned when I met new citizens who couldn’t speak either English or French. I was concerned when I found out that 98% of citizenship applicants passed the test but that schemes had been set up by crooked consultants to cheat the system on the knowledge portion of the test. I was concerned to hear that there were rumours of residency fraud right here in Montréal, which we just addressed last week.

That is why I launched our action plan for Canadian citizenship, which includes a new test, raises the score needed to pass the knowledge test from 60% to 75%, and includes the new study guide Discover Canada, which goes much more deeply into our history, shared values, institutions and symbols.

Second, I announced that we are going to implement a process to have the language ability of citizenship applicants assessed by a third party to ensure that new Canadians have sufficient capacity in English or French to be successful. Third, we launched an investigation into residency fraud in citizenship programs, which identified 6,500 individuals  who did not really live in Canada but who had hired crooked consultants to obtain fraudulent proof of their residency in Canada, including 2,100 who had obtained Canadian citizenship. Obviously, we are taking action against these individuals.

Finally, I just learned recently that some individuals who have taken the oath have not done so openly. All we ask of you is to fulfil the requirements of citizenship and that you swear an oath before your fellow citizens that you will be loyal to our traditions that go back centuries.

This common pledge is the bedrock on which Canadian society rests. That is why, starting today, my department will require that all those taking the oath do so openly. Effective today, everyone will be required to show their face when swearing the oath.

I have received complaints recently from members of Parliament, from citizenship judges and from participants in citizenship ceremonies themselves that it is hard to ensure that individuals whose faces are covered are actually reciting the oath. Requiring that all candidates show their face while reciting the oath enables judges—and everyone present—to share in the ceremony and to ensure that all citizenship candidates are in fact reciting the oath as required by law.

This is not simply a technical or practical measure—far from it. It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality. The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family, and it must be taken freely and openly—not with faces hidden.

To segregate one group of Canadians or allow them to hide their faces, to hide their identity from us precisely when they are joining our community is contrary to Canada’s commitment to openness and to social cohesion. All I ask of new Canadians is that when you take the oath, you stand before your fellow citizens openly and on an equal footing.

I ask that all new Canadians participate in this ceremony in the same way that you made the solemn commitment to participate actively in our Canadian community. If Canada is to be true to our history and to our highest ideals, we cannot tolerate two classes of citizens. We cannot have two classes of citizenship ceremonies.

Canadian citizenship is not simply about the right to carry a passport or to vote. It defines who we are as Canadians, including our mutual responsibilities to one another and a shared commitment to values that are rooted in our history. At its best, a citizenship ceremony captures the profound nature of this shared commitment, and we believe that this new rule is the best way to honour it.

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