A more conservative Canada

By Kim Mackrael

New Canadians are welcomed at a citizenship court in the MaRS auditorium in Toronto this summer. Photo courtesy of mars_discovery_district. Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Canada’s new citizenship guide presents a tougher and more Conservative Canada to immigrants.

According to Desmond Morton, a professor of history at McGill University and an advisor on the development of the guide, the new book is part of a federal government effort to put its ideological stamp on Canadian identity.

“The message really is that Canadians have to toughen up,” Morton said. “This is a conservative government, and a conservative country. I think it’s fair to say that this guidebook is devoted to making sure that message gets through uncontaminated.”

Starting in February 2010, new Canadian citizens will be required to take a test based on the updated version of the citizenship guide called Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.

The guide emphasizes Canada’s military history and the importance of citizenship obligations. It’s a little bit longer and sounds a whole lot tougher than the 1997 version. Gone is the two-page spread on sustainable development and any mention of Canada’s multiculturalism act.

While most agree that the guide puts a tougher face on Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada expressed anger at the suggestion that the changes might be a representation of Conservative party ideology.

“That’s a ridiculous charge,” CIC communications director Alykha Velshi wrote in an email. “The overwhelming positive reception for the guide is proof enough of its cross-partisan credibility.”

Velshi added that his office consulted with former Liberal party staffers and received strong endorsements for the revisions. They also contacted a range of academics, notable Canadians and citizenship organizations for input and feedback on drafts of the guide.

One of the organizations consulted was the Historica-Dominion Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to Canadian identity and culture.

“We’re really happy to see more inclusion of Canadian history,” said Jeremy Diamond, the institute’s managing director.

“That’s not just about John A. MacDonald and confederation, but things like our involvement in the first and second world wars, peacekeeping, and all the way up to Afghanistan.”

While the Canadian military hardly made an appearance in the old guide, it occupies several pages in the new version, which even includes a sidebar on how to join the armed forces.

Morton was one of the academics asked to review several different drafts for errors and irregularities. He said that, throughout the process, he “understood what [CIC] were doing”.

“School history is designed to ensure that your parents never want to complain about what’s being taught in [the classroom],” Morton said. “Guidebooks, however, mean you can put your version of history into whatever document you want to publish.”

Morton added that such freedom also allowed the writers to include tough wording that might not be tolerated in textbooks. Along with honouring Canada’s soldiers, the guide addresses less savoury aspects of Canadian history – such as residential schools and wartime internment camps.

“We want to be able to explicit about where multiculturalism starts and the law begins, and that’s probably a good thing,” Morton said.

In a sidebar on equal rights, new Canadians are warned: “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence.”

“You may find [the guide] offensive, you may find it encouraging or you may find it inspiring – I don’t know. But it’s certainly ideological.”

Abdullahi Ali, an immigration settlement officer in the south end of Ottawa,  said the library where he works hasn’t received any copies of the new guide yet, but he looked through the version posted online. He said having a citizenship guide is important because the information on Canada’s history and politics can help new Canadians participate as full citizens.

“You need to know how to exercise the right to vote, and you need to know about the history of the country you’re voting in,” Ali said. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s the Conservatives or the Liberals or anyone else who tells you that.”

The government said it will print 500,000 copies of the 62 page guide.

Additional Resources:
Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship is available online.
Applicants for Canadian citizenship who will be taking their tests before February 2010 should continue to study from the old guide, A Look at Canada, available by clicking here.

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