Terrorism and Citizenship – What’s to be Done with Canada’s Dual Citizens?

Another citizenship debate is raging in Canada after the government announced its desire to strip terrorists of Canadian citizenship.

Remember this story from 2006? After the Second Lebanon War exploded, the Canadian government launched an operation to rescue thousands of Canadian citizens trapped by the violence. You may also remember the debate concerning the roughly 40,000 Canadian citizens in Lebanon – mostly permanent residents with dual citizenship.  Through my wife’s family I know of a Lebanese couple who moved to Canada a decade ago. While here they constantly criticized Canada and looked forward to returning home. After just a few years the couple obtained Canadian citizenship and moved back to Lebanon. They are unlikely to ever return to Canada, but they are Canadians.

Recent reports suggest that terrorists with Canadian citizenship were involved in attacks in Bulgaria and Algeria.

“Declining to release the Canadian suspect’s name, Mr. Kenney described him as a citizen by virtue of his passport only. “He came to Canada as a child,” he said. “I think about the age of 8 with his mother, settled into Vancouver, became a citizen about three or four years later, and then returned to Lebanon at the age of 12.”

The Conservative government has responded by suggesting that Canada should begin stripping dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship if they are engaged in terrorism abroad. Unlike in the United States, Canadian citizenship cannot be revoked except in instances of citizenship fraud. Thus, a major debate is emerging.

Guaranteeing citizenship to anyone who happens to have lived here long enough to complete the process has its own set of risks. According to a recent Globe and Mail report, Canadian links to terrorism may taint our passport and citizenship.

The link of two Westerners – a Canadian and an Australian – to a fatal attack in Bulgaria has heightened the fear that Hezbollah and other terrorist groups are deliberately using dual-citizen operatives with the so-called “clean” passports of unassuming, supposedly “low-risk” nations.

Foreign intelligence services don’t yet view Canada suspiciously as a source-country for terrorists, Mr. Boisvert said, but he noted that CSIS said last year that 50 to 60 Canadians had left the country to train as terror operatives. “That’s not onesies or twosies. Secondly, we’ve had two back-to-back,” Mr. Boisvert said.

“When you come in with your real identity, the risk that you will be exposed prior to your attack is much smaller,” Dr. Ganor said. That makes someone with a Canadian passport a useful operative. “It would be easier to move from state to state, from border to border, with the Canadian passport, than for example, a Peruvian passport.”

One measure expected to start next year, exit controls – so that there’s a record when Canadians leave the country – will help investigators trace people they view as threats, and perhaps prevent the departures of people plotting to commit an act of terror abroad, Mr. Boisvert said. There aren’t simple prescriptions, he said, but Canada does have to worry that its “reputation is taking a bit of a hit.”

Like my cousin-in-law, these suspected terrorists are Canadian according to the Citizenship Act. Selectively revoking Canadian citizenship risks destroying a single Canadian identity – including rights and responsibilities – by creating first and second-class citizens. Conversely, ignoring this issue leaves dual citizenship open to exploitation by terrorist groups around the world. Minister Kenney noted that imposing stricter restrictions on dual citizenship isn’t feasible, but the government must find an appropriate solution.

Canadians who commit crimes are supposed to be deterred and punished by our criminal justice system. While this system works well for Canadian residents, it is woefully unable to hold dual citizens living abroad accountable. In the eyes of the government and other nations, these dual citizens are Canadians. Perhaps it is time to re-examine what it means to be a Canadian?

My cousin-in-law and her husband left Canada in the mid-2000s and have no plans to return. They would self-identify as Christians and Lebanese Arabs rather than Canadians. However, our government will forever consider them citizens, despite the fact that they lived here for just a few years and have no emotional, financial, or familial loyalty to Canada. We cannot label all dual citizens living abroad as less Canadian than those living within our borders, but is it reasonable for a terrorist who lived in Canada for four years as a child to maintain guaranteed citizenship? These are the types of questions and issues that are driving this emerging debate.

It is clear that there are no easy answers. The problem is complex and almost any action or inaction will have unfortunate consequences. How the Conservative government and the Canadian public respond to this challenge will be very interesting to watch.

Have your say below.

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