Some measures — raising residence requirement to four years and age exemption of the citizenship test to 65 — won’t come into force for another year.
Residents in a working-class Rexdale neighbourhood slowly stream into a community centre, many with English-speaking teenage children in tow, or baby strollers. Each of these future-but-not-yet citizens looks anxious and confused.
“How many of you have heard of Bill C-24, the new Citizenship Act?” asks community legal worker Aytaj Aliyeva, drawing blank looks and silence as a settlement worker translates the question into Arabic amid whispers in other languages.
“We are here to talk about the changes that are about to take effect. We are advising you to file your application as soon as possible if you are already eligible.”
This free citizenship workshop, offered by the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, is one of many being presented by legal clinics in the GTA to explain to immigrants what recent changes to the citizenship law mean to them.
When Ottawa enacted the new law in June, many, including frontline immigrant settlement workers, assumed it would take effect immediately and that little could be done to beat its more restrictive criteria.
In fact, some of the most controversial changes — requiring citizenship applicants to be present in Canada for four years out of six (rather than three years out of four), and raising the age of exemption from language and citizenship tests to 65, from 55 — won’t come into force until next June, immigration officials confirmed to the Star.
“We want to tell people it’s not too late, and they should take advantage of the old rules,” said Ann McRae, executive director of the Rexdale legal clinic, a member of the Inter-Clinic Immigration Working Group.
At the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, staff have reached out to community groups to deliver workshops and help clients file citizenship applications.
“All the changes were rushed through so quickly that people are confused,” said clinic lawyer Karin Baqi. “Those who are eligible today may not be eligible tomorrow. We have to get the word out.”
Remon Kirkor came here from Iraq with his wife and three daughters in 2007. The family met the three-year residence requirement in 2010. Yet, Kirkor, 44, hasn’t applied for citizenship, because he knows that as a high school dropout he would have a tough time passing the language test or the citizenship knowledge exam offered only in English and French.
“I work 20 hours a day to support my family. By day, I am a window installer. At night, I work as a dishwasher,” Kirkor, a former truck driver for UNICEF, said through his daughter, Mariam. “I have no time to sleep. I have no time to study English.”
Immigrants and refugees without a lot of education or language proficiency are most likely to be disenfranchised by the new law, said Avvy Go of the Metro Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. The clinic runs an ongoing citizenship clinic and has had more than 70 clients since the end of June.
“Many people have lived here for a long time. They have jobs, families and are well-integrated in the community but must wait till they turn 55 to apply for citizenship because they know their English is not good enough to pass the test,” said Go.
“Starting in June, they will have to wait another 10 years before they can become full citizens without having to take the exam. If they came as refugees, that means they can’t get a passport and travel. So many things could happen and people could lose their permanent resident status while waiting.”
Chinese immigrant Xiao Gang Yin, who turns 55 in August, has lived in Toronto since 1999 and said he had planned to wait a few more years before applying.
“I work in construction and I don’t have time to take English lessons or citizenship classes. As soon as I heard they were going to change the age requirement to 65, I decided to apply right away before they’d change the law again,” he said.
Imed Iziz, an auto mechanic from Iraq who turns 55 in January, said he felt like he’d won the lottery when he learned from Aliyeva he still has time to qualify for the citizenship test exemption under the old rules.
“All these changes worry me. Who knows when they would change everything again?” Iziz, who came here in May 2011, said through a translator. “It is really important for me to get my Canadian citizenship. This is my home now. My life is here.”
Citizenship by the numbers
New citizens156,356143,680181,421113,148 128,996
Source: Government of Canada
~ by Nicholas Keung Immigration reporter