Terrorism and citizenship

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 3, 2018.

What is a citizen?  Well it depends.  The concept appears to date back to city states in ancient Greece, but in the modern era each state decides what the rules are.  For the average person citizenship is determined by the particular country in which you were born.  There are, however, exceptions.  Some nations recognise anyone born on their soil – so-called jus soli –   so that if a woman gives birth while in transit on a flight that child can receive that country’s citizenship.  Others do not.

During the recent Conservative convention in Halifax a resolution was passed calling for the government to stop granting citizenship to anyone born on Canadian soil but instead to require at least one parent to be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.  The motion was spurred by a belief that pregnant non-Canadian women were flying to Canada for the sole purpose of giving birth, although there are no indications that this is a significant problem  in our country.  The Conservative position has already led to reactions that it is not necessary.

Two cases in our country have arisen that lead to interesting dilemmas.  In the first, two children born in Canada to Russians here illegally as spies were at once seen as citizens.  The Supreme Court is currently weighing in on a lower court decision that removed their citizenship.  I imagine that most Canadians would not want to see the offspring of Russian spies receive the privileges our country has to offer, even if the fact they were born here was not their ‘fault’.

So what about terrorists?  The Harper government tried to enact legislation that would strip those convicted of terrorist offences in Canada of their citizenship.  The case of Zakaria Amara, one of the leaders of the 2005-6 Toronto 18 terrorist cell, was the test case.  His citizenship was revoked but re-granted after the Liberals took power.

Like the case of the children of the Russian ‘illegals’ I would wager that most Canadians would have little to no problem with taking away the benefit of being one of us from someone who sought to blow us up.  If an immigrant to whom we granted citizenship goes and becomes a terrorist and plans to kill his fellow Canadians, does he deserve to be one of us?  Great question.

There are of course limitations on when a state can take citizenship away. No state can – or rather no state should – render a person stateless.  Hence an individual with status in only one country can not have that status taken away: that act can only be applied to those who can fall back on a secondary citizenship.  Mr. Amara had dual Jordanian-Canadian citizenship and had temporarily lost the latter.

As I argued in Western Foreign Fighters, however, the decision to take away citizenship does not solve one significant issue: those who come to our land as children and become terrorists (note that I wrote ‘become’ and not ‘were born as’) do so within our society.  In other words, the process of radicalisation occurs here, not elsewhere.  Even if we were to remove such people who pose a threat to us through their terrorist plots by stripping them of their Canadian citizenship and deporting them, this does little to disrupt the incidence of radicalisation here (aside of course from removing one radicalising influence who can affect others).

This is an important detail.  Contrary to public wisdom, radicalisation to violence is a Canadian problem: it does not appear on our shores via the immigration system.  We thus have to learn to deal with it and the government has started a new centre to help coordinate those efforts.

I fully understand the anger that Canadians feel towards those of us who choose to embrace terrorism (note that I wrote ‘chose’ and not ‘were duped into’): I share that anger.  Perhaps steps to yank citizenship will act as a deterrent for others: perhaps not (I lean towards the latter).  Which ever way the government goes it does not eliminate the need to develop a better understanding of why Canadians radicalise to violence and either travel abroad to join terrorist groups or plan acts here.  And ways to prevent it or at least mitigate its effects.  One thing we cannot do is deport our way out of this problem.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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