Canada’s first official citizen, Prime Minister William Lyon
Mackenzie King, did not become “Canadian” until 1947 when he was
72 years-old. Between 1867 and 1946, there was no such thing as
Canadian citizenship. By law, Canadians were British subjects
who lived in Canada.
It was only after the Second World War, an event that made
Canadians more conscious than ever of their country’s
independent identity in the world, that Mackenzie King
initiated, and saw through, the implementation of the Canadian
The Citizenship Act has undergone two notable revisions since
then. In 1977, amendments to the act eliminated any reference to
Canadians as British subjects. The language of the new
legislation was also meant to change popular understandings of
what citizenship meant. The authors of the original act viewed
Canadian citizenship as a privilege, available to a select group
of men and women. Thirty years later, citizenship became the
right of anyone who was considered qualified. The federal
government’s decision that Canada should be among the first
countries to formally recognize the legitimacy of dual
citizenship — the idea that a person could be a citizen of
Canada and another nation at the same time — was a product of
this new understanding.
In 2009, the Citizenship Act was revised again. The most
noteworthy change this time was a decision to limit the
transferability of citizenship to foreign-born grandchildren of
foreign-born Canadians. In other words, the government implied
that becoming a Canadian was more than just a right that could
be taken for granted. Also in 2009, Citizenship and Immigration
Canada introduced dramatic changes to the citizenship guide —
the booklet that new Canadians study in advance of their
citizenship test — further emphasizing the idea that citizenship
in Canada involved both rights and responsibilities.
Mackenzie King, who took his oath of citizenship on January 3,
1947, is now one of the 6.5 million people who have become
citizens over the last 63 years. All of them have repeated the
words that King first said:
I swear (or affirm)
That I will be faithful
And bear true allegiance
To her majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second
Queen of Canada
Her heirs and successors
And that I will faithfully observe
The laws of Canada
And fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen
In spite of the gradual decrease in ties between Canada and the
monarchy, as the oath makes clear, the impact of Canada’s
British roots remains in contemporary discussions of
The most recent controversy began in 1999. When the prominent
Canadian, Conrad Black, was named to Britain’s House of Lords,
Canada’s prime minister, Jean Chrétien, who was no friend of
Black’s, invoked an obscure House of Commons resolution which
called on foreign governments not to grant Canadian citizens
titles of honour.
Black, a dual citizen of Canada and Great Britain, was told that
he had a choice: forego the title or renounce his Canadian
citizenship. Lord Black chose to no longer be Canadian.
Issues of dual citizenship re-entered the public eye in 2005
when Prime Minister Paul Martin selected Michaëlle Jean to be
governor general. Jean had become a dual citizen — Canadian and
French — after she married the French-born Jean-Pierre Lafond.
Although France did not object to her new role, many Canadians
expressed concern that it was wrong to allow the governor
general — the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces — to
declare allegiance to another country. Jean’s decision to
renounce her French citizenship was taken as an affirmation of
her loyalty to this country.
It is worth noting that there were no objections to John
Turner’s dual citizenship (Canadian and British) when he was
briefly prime minister in 1984, although former Liberal Party
leader Stéphane Dion felt pressure to renounce his French
citizenship 20 years later.
By far the most controversial debate over dual citizenship took
place in the summer of 2006 when, in the midst of a violent
conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, the Canadian
government evacuated approximately 15,000 Lebanese-Canadians.
Many had lived in Lebanon for years and close to half returned
there when the conflict ended.
The cost of the evacuation, believed to have been between $50
million and $100 million, created a backlash among Canadians who
were astounded to discover that individuals who lived (and paid
taxes) elsewhere could demand that Ottawa treat them as well as
it would any other citizen.
Whether Canadians will ever lose their right to dual citizenship
is unclear. For now, however, Canadian citizenship remains a
mark of pride and privilege. In 2006, 85 percent of eligible
immigrants became citizens of Canada, and there is no sign that
this pattern of commitment will end any time soon.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Discover Canada: The Rights
and Responsibilities of Citizenship
Bureaucratic Nightmares: The Public Service and the Future of
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