This Election Has Not Been A Time to Discuss Serious Issues: The Very Unserious Issue of Dual Citizenship


The media revealed earlier this week that Andrew Scheer is a natural-born citizen of both Canada and the United States. He inherited the American citizenship through his father. This piece of information has generated some considerable controversy, not least because in 2005 Scheer subtly criticised Governor General Michaelle Jean for holding French citizenship (which she later renounced), and because he stood silent while Prime Minister Harper attacked Stephane Dion and Thomas Mulcair for holding both Canadian and French citizenships. Scheer’s coy retort on why he had somehow forgotten to mention his US citizenship – “No one ever asked” – comes across as a failed attempt to channel a certain devil-may-care Trudeauian bravado that he cannot quite pull off.  The remainder of Scheer’s bumbling, Joe Clark-like response that he has not gotten around to renouncing his American citizenship because he “was focused on other things” will not serve him well either. Scheer now looks like he had something to hide. The national identity of English-speaking Canada, by definition, depends upon a repudiation of the United States of America, and this sort of October Surprise, as our American friends would call it, might just have secured the Liberals another parliamentary majority. Anti-Americanism remains an acceptable prejudice in Canada, and it’s practically encouraged when an unpopular president occupies the White House.

From a political standpoint, Scheer should have taken the Ted Cruz Approach and openly acknowledged his American citizenship when he won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017, and he should have announced his intentions clearly then, whether to renounce or retain it. But in principle and in general, I have found the furore surrounding dual citizenship utterly ridiculous and unfounded.

The Creation of Canadian Citizenship

Canadian citizenship as such did not exist until 1 January 1947, when the Citizenship Act, 1946 entered into force. Prior to, we were Canadian nationals, British subjects living in Canada. More importantly, we shared a wider British subjecthood in common with our compatriots in the United Kingdom, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.

Our ghastly occultist Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, trotted over to the Supreme Court on 3 January 1947 to receive the first “Certificate of Canadian Citizenship” and gave a speech overflowing with Liberal cant extolling Canada’s internationalist credentials to mark the occasion. The CBC has even retroactively adopted this French revolutionary, and factually incorrect, moniker, declaring King “Canada’s First Citizen.” In reality, most the millions of British subjects in Canada simultaneously became Canadian citizens on 1 January 1947 when the Citizenship Act, 1946 entered into force. (But unfortunately, not all of them did, or some later lost the citizenship). Citizen King said:

“Without citizenship, much else is meaningless. There is no country in the world of which its citizens have greater reason to be proud than Canada. There are older countries. There are larger countries. But no country today holds a higher place in the esteem of other nations. To be a citizen of Canada is to hold a passport which will be honoured everywhere. […]

Our unity and our strength will be increased by the deeper significance now given to our common citizenship ”

Were our older passports, which said “British Passport: Canada” on them not recognised everywhere? And that phrase “common citizenship” ironically illustrates that Canadian neo-nationalism in the mid-20th century made Canada small-minded and inward-looking: in fact, the King government decided to tear asunder the common Imperial citizenship unilaterally, not forge a new “common citizenship.” English and French in Canada already shared a citizenship in common across the Commonwealth. In any event, listening to King’s old Canadian Accent provides some fodder for historical linguistics.

Perhaps on the eve of this sham ceremony, the occultist King had communed with his late grandfather for whom he was named, that failed revolutionary William Lyon Mackenzie who briefly established the unrecognised Republic of Canada on Liberty Island in 1837, and asked him how best to undermine the Commonwealth in the 1940s. Unilaterally destroying the common Imperial citizenship which Canadians shared with Britons, West Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Indians in that great Imperial family to which we all belonged, and for which we just fought in the Second World War without coordinating with the other Commonwealth Realms, must have seemed like a good start.  The grandson certainly outdid his traitorous ancestor because he understood that true revolution can only begin after you’ve already taken power.

CBC Archives, not surprisingly, downplays the significance of the King government’s decision in this prosaic description: “Canada was the first Commonwealth country to create its own citizenship, separate from Britain.” But Canada’s new policy did not affect Canada alone. In fact, Canada’s unilateral destruction of the common Imperial citizenship reverberated throughout the Commonwealth. Later in 1947, the Prime Ministers of the Realms acknowledged at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHoGM) that, in practical terms, Canada’s unilateral action had forced Australia and New Zealand to follow suit and establish their own citizenships in 1948-1949. Clement Attlee’s Labour government in the United Kingdom also introduced legislation which became the British Nationality Act, 1948 as a direct consequence of Canada’s go-it-alone unilateralism. Worse still, the terms of the Citizenship Act, 1946 also inadvertently deprived many natural-born British subjects within Canada of Canadian citizenship and created a whole class of “Lost Canadians,” some of whom remained stateless for decades in direct contravention of Canada’s treaty obligations under the international Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Misplaced Hysteria Over Multiple Citizenships

Andrew Coyne, usually so urbane and open-minded, put forward an extraordinarily over-wrought and petty-minded argument in his latest column in the National Post under the headline, “You Can’t Be Leader of One Country and Pledge Allegiance to Another.” Perhaps only because I lived in the United States for five years, I take that this phrasing as a mocking allusion to the Pledge of Allegiance that I heard (but never recited, for the record) each morning from 8th grade to 12th grade (or “from grade 8 to grade 12” as I’m told that I’m supposed to say in Canada). In any case, Scheer never “pledged allegiance” to the United States because he is a natural-born US citizen; only a naturalised US citizen — who deliberately sought out and earned US citizenship — would have to pledge allegiance to the US Constitution affirmatively.

Coyne insists that Canadian law should not recognise the possibility of multiple citizenships at all:

It’s not wrong on a personal level: none of these leaders have done anything wrong, nor have their million semi-compatriates. It’s the law that’s wrong. It is wrong that Canada values its citizenship so cheaply that it allows it to be held simultaneously with another (or indeed any number of others: the arguments for dual citizenship apply equally to treble or quadruple citizenship). And it’s more wrong that it cannot bring itself even to ask of those who seek to lead it that, at a minimum, they should renounce all other allegiances. 

Millions of Canadians possess multiple citizenships automatically at birth because the laws of many other countries apply extra-territorially and grant birthright citizenship one or two generations down the line. These Canadians had no say in the matter of multiple natural-born citizenships, and the law should not compel them to renounce other citizenships simply because they become MPs. Furthermore, millions of Canadians (now including Newfoundlanders and Labradorians) were born as British subjects because Canadian citizenship itself did not exist until 1947. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians served in the First and Second World Wars as British subjects under the Red Ensign and Union Flag.

Canadian law should not attempt to interfere with multiple citizenships apart from some exceptional circumstances, like against traitors who have taken up arms against Canada or collaborated with a foreign power to threaten the security of Canada.

I find these extreme attempts to sanctify Canadian citizenship to the absolute exclusion over natural-born multi-nationality melodramatically insecure and fundamentally unserious in a country where one-fifth of the population was born abroad and where millions of its citizens were born as British subjects.

Conclusion: The Nationality of Canada’s Prime Ministers

Sir John A. Macdonald famously demagogued for protectionism and against free trade with the United States (or “reciprocity,” as it was then called) in his last election campaign in 1891: “A British subject I was born, and a British subject I will die!” One wonders if he knew then that he would soon make good on the latter half of that declaration by summarily dying in office on 6 June 1891, a mere six weeks after leading the Conservatives to another parliamentary majority. Perhaps thankfully, Macdonald did not live long enough to see the King government make a liar of him on 1 January 1947. Millions of Canadians were born British subjects but died as Canadian citizens.

Until 1 January 1947, all of Canada’s prime ministers had been British subjects. Perhaps more astonishingly still, all but three of the persons who have ever held the office of prime minister since 1867 – Kim Campbell, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau – were born as British subjects. John Turner, who served an historically unimportant and short tenure as prime minister in 1984, was then and remains now a dual citizen of Canada and the United Kingdom.

Kim Campbell – another inconsequential transitional prime minister who only managed a few months in office – reportedly quipped during the federal general election in 1993 that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.” Since Canadians often do not appreciate or understand satire and irony, her remark played badly. But it has become the most enduring legacy of her short premiership; with this fixation on non-issues like dual citizenship, it seems that this current general election in 2019 has proven Campbell right, in all sincerity.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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2 Responses to This Election Has Not Been A Time to Discuss Serious Issues: The Very Unserious Issue of Dual Citizenship

  1. Thank you for sharingg


  2. ro calvin says:

    Your point about our soldiers in both WWI & WWII is accuratecsnd in a recent trip to Vimy ideas surprised that the flag they fought and died for is NOT flown; surely thus us an insult to them!
    Campbell was correct but I fear that given the shallow press and their need for sensation, there is NO place for serious policy decision.


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