A promised overhaul of Canada’s citizenship guide remains a work in progress with just months left in the Liberal government’s mandate.
That leaves newcomers to the country with the existing guide — which is riddled with historical gaps and outdated information — as their primary document for preparing for the citizenship test.
The government is revamping the 68-page Discover Canada document, last updated in 2012, to better reflect diversity and to include more “meaningful content” about the history and rights of Indigenous people and the residential school experience.
With just five months to go before the federal election, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said a launch date still has not been set and offered no specific explanation for the delay.
“We are committed to getting the citizenship guide right, and that includes consulting with as many stakeholders [as possible] on the proposed changes. This work is ongoing,” said Mathieu Genest. “We are listening to experts, stakeholders and community representatives, because what we want to do is take the politics out of the guide.”
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said it’s “incomprehensible” that the guide is taking this long to roll out.
“Our major concern is that newcomers be presented with a fair and balanced picture of Canada that acknowledges the problems in Canadian and current reality, and how that affects Indigenous people and racialized people. When we fail to provide an accurate picture of our country, it’s a disservice to the country as a whole as well as to the newcomers,” she said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had recommended revising information materials for newcomers and the citizenship test to reflect “a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the treaties and the history of residential schools.”
Historical gaps, outdated information
Until the new guide is released, newcomers will have to use the existing guide to study for the citizenship test. It contains limited information on the legacy of residential schools, outdated information on things like population numbers and lyrics to the national anthem that have since been changed by Parliament to make them more gender-neutral.
Calling the delay “astounding,” NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said it’s unacceptable that there’s still incorrect, outdated information in the guide.
“You want our newcomers to know the wording to our national anthem. It’s embarrassing to have in our citizenship guide this kind of misinformation,” she said.
Kwan said she is puzzled by the delay, given that MPs were consulted on it two years ago and an early draft was leaked last year to The Canadian Press.
“I certainly think that with the citizenship guide, we can take the opportunity to ensure that new Canadians, newcomers understand our history, the good, bad and the ugly, and … fully appreciate the history of Canada, most certainly around the issue of Indigenous people,” she said. “To give full recognition to that, I think, is very important.”
Plan was to release guide in 2017
A draft copy of the revised guide obtained by The Canadian Press showed a reference to the illegal practice of female genital mutilation had been dropped. CP also reported that the Liberals hoped to have the new guide in place for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.
Last fall, CBC News reported that the updated citizenship guide would, in fact, include a warning to newcomers about female genital mutilation.
The issue had become politically charged, with Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel repeatedly pressing Hussen on the topic. She also sponsored an e-petition in the House of Commons on the matter.
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Zool Suleman said the government likely thought the updating exercise would be easier than it turned out to be. He said the citizenship guide reflects the priorities and values of the government that writes it, and helps to define how people see the country.
Political tilt on focus
The previous Conservative government tilted the guide’s wording toward military history and rights and the responsibilities of citizenship, while the Liberal government appears to be inclined to explain Indigenous reconciliation and multiculturalism, Suleman said.
“Given that we have an election coming up, there’s probably a calculus about whether it’s worth releasing a new guide, which inevitably will make some people happy and other people unhappy,” he said.
Dory Jade, chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants, said he believes it’s better to take the time to get it right instead of rushing it for political reasons.
“I personally believe the bureaucratic machine requires more time to do such a job and the government did not foresee that in their promise,” he said, noting that the Conservative government also took a long time to finish its update.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the revamp is focused on several key areas:
- Responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for language that better reflects the perspectives and history of Indigenous peoples of Canada.
- Showcasing Canada’s cultural diversity and commitment to official languages.
- Presenting the social evolution of civic rights and freedoms for LGBT, women and people with disabilities.
- Using language that is more accessible for second-language learners and structuring the document so the newcomer can more easily identify the main points of each chapter.
The government has also pledged to update materials for newcomers and to amend the oath of citizenship to reflect respect for Indigenous rights. That change to the citizenship oath was also recommended by the TRC and included in Hussen’s Feb. 1, 2017 mandate letter.
Those initiatives are also still ongoing, according to Hussen’s office.