Terrorism and citizenship revocation

One of the more controversial laws enacted by the former Conservative government was C-24, a provision of which was the ability to revoke Canadian citizenship for those who are dual citizens (i.e. they hold documentation from another country: under international law you cannot be rendered stateless) and who have been convicted of terrorism, espionage or treason.  Other countries such as France have talked of similar legislation.

During the election campaign, the Liberals promised to repeal that measure.  It now looks like they are going to act on that promise (see story here).  So the question remains: was the tool desirable, fair, effective or even constitutional?  Let us look at each in turn – except the question regarding constitutionality since I am no lawyer and any speculation on my part will likely be wrong.

There is no doubt that for many Canadians, those found guilty of some of the most serious crimes against the State – terrorism, espionage and treason – should pay a high price.  These offences threaten the very foundations of a government and society and should be accorded serious punishment.  When it comes to those not born in Canada, the ones to whom the legislation applies, I understand fully the anger and disgust some feel towards people we brought in and welcomed as neighbours but who decide to engage in activities that undermine and threaten who we are.  These individuals do not deserve citizenship in a great country like ours.  The argument goes something like this: we gave you every opportunity to be a success in Canada and you elected to throw our offer back at us and act against our interests.  As a result you don’t belong here and we are kicking you out (NB it never was clear what the government could actually have done with those who had their citizenship removed).  This is a very emotional issue and rage over these crimes is not unwarranted.

Is the measure fair?  Clearly not, as it only applies to a part of the population, those with dual citizenship. I suppose there might be other laws that are used with subsets of Canadian society (I can’t think of any offhand), but normally Western secular liberal democracies operate on the principle that one law is used for all, no exceptions.  This law is clearly not in that vein.

Perhaps most important is the question surrounding effectiveness.  In a way we will never know if laws of this ilk work for terrorism since it was never used (attempts to remove citizenship in a few cases were immediately challenged by those affected so no case was ever moved through the legal system).  But we can speculate that it would have been useless on at least two levels.  Obviously people with only one citizenship status would not have been intimidated by the threat of revocation since in their case it could not have been done.  I am Canadian and you can’t take that away, they would say.  Secondly, it is far from certain that a dual citizen potential terrorist would have thought twice about whether or not to plant a bomb for fear s/he would be punted from the bosom of Canadian society.  In my experience potential penalties of any kind do not serve as deterrents.  Citizenship revocation thus does not appear to be any more or less effective than any other tool we already have.

The issue will undoubtedly remain a hot one and other countries will see themselves mired  in the same debate we slogged through.  In the end, the minuses probably outweighed the pluses insofar as taking away citizenship goes.  Revising C-24 is not so much the removal of a Conservative idea as the junking of a tool that would have had little effect.  In the wake of this move, however, it is now incumbent on the Liberal government to come up with other ideas to deal with terrorism in Canada.


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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