The immigration minister of the federal government is considering what actions to take regarding virtual citizenship ceremonies, following a petition from over 1,500 Canadians urging Ottawa to cancel them.
Last week, Immigration Minister Marc Miller expressed that having your citizenship ceremony in a public setting, surrounded by your family and fellow new Canadians, is a memorable and highly recommended choice.
“However, I have been tasked with modernizing this department for the current era,” he included.
“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.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) initiated virtual ceremonies as a solution to address an increasing backlog and cope with obstacles caused by public health protocols such as social distancing.
The department stated that the choice has become increasingly popular: less than 10 percent of new Canadians chose to participate in in-person ceremonies during the last half of 2022.
However, there has also been an increasing pushback against the idea of a virtual alternative.
“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 contends that the claimed cost and time savings are unlikely to be achieved and are negligible compared to the overall processing time and cost of the citizenship program.
‘A bonding experience’
The petition has managed to obtain signatures from notable individuals, such as former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, who personally immigrated to Canada 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.
As governor general, she oversaw numerous citizenship ceremonies and expressed her belief that Canada is at the forefront when it comes to conducting 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 recognized, being a skilled politician, that the act of people seeing one another creates a sense of connection,” she stated.
The Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a non-profit organization established by Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul, suggests that employers should grant new Canadians a paid day or half-day off to enable them to participate in in-person ceremonies.
Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, who is the son of immigrants himself, is against virtual ceremonies. He believes that presiding over citizenship ceremonies has been one of the most significant experiences during his time in office.
“The argument about long-distance travel doesn’t really apply,” he stated, as most immigrants tend to settle in Canadian cities.
“He mentioned that assisting individuals in immigrating to Canada and engaging with the country aids in their integration into the community and facilitates their development of a Canadian lifestyle.”
However, not all Canadians believe that the online choice is devoid of significance.
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.
She expressed that tears came to her eyes when the citizenship judge uttered the words, “Canada is now your home, you are a part of Canada and Canada is a part of you.” She mentioned that there was a collective emotional reaction from people on the internet.
Simon remembered that many families who took part in the virtual ceremony had adorned their homes in celebration.
She stated that it was not necessary for us to be physically present in a room. Despite this, we maintained our connection and a sense of belonging.
“I conduct all my activities through the internet… I have the flexibility to work from home, allowing me to attend meetings, manage my business, and even shop for clothes online. Therefore, there is no reason why this particular situation should be an exception.”
In August, the IRCC announced a 21 percent reduction in its citizenship backlog.