Becoming a Canadian citizen is about to get a little harder after the government served notice it plans to require that applicants pass a language test as well as the existing citizenship test.
In a notice published Saturday in the Canada Gazette requesting comments, the Citizenship and Immigration department says applicants between the ages of 18 and 54 will have to submit proof that they can mastered English or French to at least the Canadian Language Benchmark Level 4.
However, unlike recent changes to the immigration rules which came under fire for requiring those whose first languages were English or French to pay for language tests, the proposed citizenship rules will allow candidates to submit alternative evidence such as proof they completed their secondary or post-secondary education in English or French.
The proposed changes also spell out that the testing include listening and speaking skills.
Currently, the government uses the citizenship test and the candidates’ interaction with government officials to judge whether they speak English or French well enough to meet the language requirements for citizenship.
Announcing the plan, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the move is intended to improve the ability of new citizens to settle and integrate into Canadian society.
“The ability to communicate effectively in either French or English is key to the success of new citizens in Canada,” Kenney said in a statement. “This change will encourage applicants to ensure that they can speak English or French when they apply for citizenship, thereby improving the integrity and effectiveness of the citizenship program for Canada and for new Canadians alike.”
Government officials say the move is a popular one with citizenship court judges and will allow the judges to focus their attention on assessing other areas of an application, rather than try to determine whether candidates can communicate well enough in English or French. The move is expected to affect an estimated 134,000 a year.
Cathryn Sawicki, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, says the move will primarily affect refugees, family class immigrants and those allowed to immigrate to Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Under recent rule changes, most classes of immigrants already have to pass a language test before being allowed to come to Canada in the first place, she pointed out.
Sawicki said it means it will be harder for some people to become Canadian citizens.
“Sometime you have individuals who are illiterate. So they may not do very well on the written test but perhaps their ability in spoken English is much better so when they go to the hearing they do better there. It may not be Canadian Language Benchmark 4 but that does not mean that they should not be given this privilege.”
Sawicki said the language testing also creates two classes of newcomers to Canada.
“It’s creating a divide in society between the individuals who are highly educated. Those who have had the privilege of education and the luxury of being able to learn to read and write versus refugees or family class individuals who may not have had the same privilege but still contribute to society.” Winnipeg lawyer David Matas says the move transfers the cost of language assessment, currently born by the government, to applicants. While it benefits the bureaucracy, it can cost hundreds of dollars to get language testing done, he pointed out.
Those who want to comment on the proposal, will have 30 days to do so before the government moves to change the current regulations.