The federal government says it is weighing its options about whether to discontinue virtual citizenship ceremonies, as it faces criticism from well-known Canadians who have presided over the classic, in-person sessions for years, as well as more than 1,500 people who have signed a petition to Parliament urging Ottawa to pull the plug.
Critics say the virtual ceremonies undermine the significance of the citizenship oath
Raffy Boudjikanian · CBC News
The federal immigration minister says the government is weighing its options on virtual citizenship ceremonies after a petition signed by more than 1,500 Canadians called on Ottawa to pull the plug.
“Doing your citizenship ceremony in public, in front of all your family and with people that are becoming new Canadians, is a moment to remember in people’s lives. It is the absolute preferred option,” Immigration Minister Marc Miller said last week.
“”But […] I’ve been asked to take this department in the 21st century, ” he added.
“We need options that are flexible, especially in rural regions. And we’ve certainly heard from rural colleagues and from people that don’t want to move 100 or 200 kilometres to do an in-person citizenship ceremony.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) began holding virtual ceremonies during the COVID-19 pandemic to overcome a rising backlog and challenges posed by public health measures like social distancing.
The department said the option has taken off in popularity: less than 10 per cent of new Canadians availed themselves of in-person ceremonies in the last six months of 2022.
But opposition to the virtual option has been gathering momentum as well.
“Citizenship ceremonies mark the end of an often-lengthy and difficult immigration journey, and provide a unique celebratory moment for new and existing Canadians,” says a petition to Parliament launched by Andrew Griffith, a former director general at IRCC.
The petition argues the “stated cost and time savings […] are unlikely to be realized and are minimal in relation to total processing time and overall cost of the citizenship program.”
‘A bonding experience’
The petition has gathered some famous signatures — including that of former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, who arrived in Canada herself as a refugee in 1941.
“Those ceremonies aren’t just a matter of administrative ability to get a paper that says, ‘I’m a Canadian citizen, I can vote.’ They are a bonding experience of us as a nation,” Clarkson told CBC News.
She presided over many citizenship ceremonies as governor general and said she believes Canada is a leader in holding in-person ceremonies.
“In France, they send [your citizenship certificate] to you by registered mail. Citizenship is not just about administration,” she said, adding that former German president Johannes Rau once told her he admired the Canadian in-person tradition.
“He saw, as a good politician, that it is a bonding experience for people when they see each other,” she said.
The non-profit Institute for Canadian Citizenship, founded by Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul, says employers should provide new Canadians with a paid day or half-day off to allow them to attend in-person ceremonies.
A son of immigrants himself, former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi also opposes virtual ceremonies. He said some of his most meaningful days in office involved presiding over citizenship ceremonies.
Because “the vast majority of immigrants go to cities in Canada,” he said, the argument about long-distance travel doesn’t really apply.
“Helping people come to Canada and interact with Canada … helps them become better community members and helps them build their life as Canadians,” he said.
But not all Canadians think the online option lacks meaning.
Kimberly Simon, who was born in Zimbabwe, received her citizenship online in 2021 in Toronto, where she lives. At the time, the pandemic had eliminated the option of an in-person ceremony.
“I cried, actually, when [the citizenship judge] said … ‘Canada is your home now, you belong to Canada and Canada belongs to you,'” she said. “Everybody online cried.”
Simon recalled how several families participating in the online ceremony had decorated their homes for the day.
“It wasn’t about us being in a room. We still got that connection. We still felt that belonging,” she said.
“I do everything online … I work from home, so I’m able to have my meetings, clothes, business, everything, online. So why … should this be any different?”
In August, the IRCC said it had reduced its citizenship backlog by 21 per cent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.