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Ottawa won't say if former Ukrainian prime minister is now a Canadian citizen, as Russian media report

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Arseniy Yatsenyuk

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Happy Canada Day!

Late last week, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada refused to comment on reports that appeared in Russian media last year saying former Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has been granted Canadian citizenship.

"Due to privacy concerns we cannot comment on specific cases without consent," stated IRCC spokesperson Lindsay Wemp in an email.

Reports began to appear in the spring of 2015 on English-language news websites, mostly published in Russia, that Yatsenyuk, prime minister of the troubled Eastern European country from February 27, 2014, to April 14, 2016, had along with members of his family been quietly granted Canadian citizenship in 2015 and issued Canadian passports.

The reports were poorly translated, presumably using computer translation applications, and appeared to be based on a single report from a Russian language site, which in turn quoted sources in the Ukrainian parliament. They seem never to have been investigated or mentioned by mainstream media in Canada.

The English-language stories -- here is a link to a typical example -- all claim Yatsenyuk was granted Canadian citizenship as part of a deal by Western powers to protect him and ensure the safety of his family for his role in the country's affairs after the so-called Euromaidan demonstrations resulted in a change of government in early 2014.

The Ukrainian government led by president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in February 2014 at the climax of the violent Euromaidan upheaval. Yanukovych, who was leaning toward an emphasis on trade with Russia over trade with Western Europe, fled to Russia. He was replaced by President Petro Poroshenko, who appointed Yatsenyuk as prime minister. Poroshenko remains in power.

Since that time, Russian-speaking regions of the country have established their own provisional governments and a state of civil war exists. The degree of support the provisional governments in eastern Ukraine receive from Russia remains the subject of controversy, as does the nature of the change of government in Kiev in 2014, which has been termed a coup by its opponents.

Canada -- then led by prime minister Stephen Harper and other strong supporters of the Poroshenko government like former immigration minister Jason Kenney and then immigration minister Chris Alexander -- was among the first Western countries to formally recognize the post-Euromaidan government.

Given the controversies over immigration issues in Canada over the past few years and in particular Conservative objections to what were often called "Canadians of convenience,” Canadians reading about this for the first time may be surprised and skeptical that a citizenship application could have been processed quickly enough for the reports about Yatsenyuk to be true.

However, according to Calgary immigration lawyer Raj Sharma, it is quite possible.

Under Bill C-24 -- referred to by the Harper Government as the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act and containing such controversial provisions as the ability of the government to revoke the citizenship of some Canadians -- the Citizenship Act was amended to require immigrants to prove a strong attachment to Canada and to spend significant amounts of time in the country over six years before being granted citizenship. The bill was proclaimed into law and given Royal Assent on June 19, 2014.

Under the new Tory provisions, most immigrants must be residents of Canada for four years of the six-year period leading up to their becoming a Canadian citizen, and moreover have had their feet on the ground in Canada for at least 183 days out of those four years.

However, Sharma noted, the act also contained a seldom-discussed provision that left the door wide open to immigrants with the support of the immigration minister. In Section 5, Subsection 4, of the Citizenship Act, a new provision introduced through Bill C-24 says, "Despite any other provision of this Act, the Minister may, in his or her discretion, grant citizenship to any person to alleviate cases of special and unusual hardship or to reward services of an exceptional value to Canada."

Section 5, Subsection 4, existed before the Conservative amendments in 2014, but it was more restrictive, requiring accelerated approvals to have the support of cabinet on the recommendation of the minister.  The procedure was most often used for professional or Olympic sports figures. In an email, IRCC Communications Advisor Jennifer Bourque said the rationale for the change was "to eliminate a step in the process and to improve client service."

The minister in the relevant time frame was Alexander, who served in that role from July 15, 2013 until Nov. 4, 2015, soon after the Oct. 19 federal election that brought the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to power.

According to figures provided by Bourque, there were 53 discretionary grants of citizenship under Section 5, Subsection 4, in 2013, 31 in 2014 and 29 in 2015. In all, approximately 600 people were granted expedited citizenship this way throughout the Harper Government, which called the department Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

In a heated speech to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Toronto on Feb. 22, 2015, Alexander accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "terrorism" in Ukraine and claimed that online Russian TV channels were "preaching poison" to Canadians about what was happening in that country.

Sharma said it is troubling how much power the revised Section 5, Subsection 4, gives the minister alone with no accountability. "The issue here is the discretion afforded to the minister and whether that's been explained."

As for the name of the amending act, Sharma commented, "The tendentious title makes sense if strengthening Canadian citizenship means making it easier to lose, or easier for the minister, with no oversight, to grant it to whomsoever he sees fit."

Trudeau's government has brought forward new legislation to amend the Citizenship Act, Bill C-6, which is now before the Senate. However, that bill retains the ability of the minister to make changes on his or her own on a discretionary basis.

Of course, given IRCC's policy, it cannot yet be confirmed if Yatsenyuk was the beneficiary of Section 4, Subsection 5, of the amended Citizenship Act, or if he or his family members have resided in Canada since President Poroshenko asked him to resign as PM on Feb. 16 this year. Ukraine does not allow dual citizenship.

Yatsenyuk is known to have been in Canada for at least one day -- July 13, 2015, when he and Harper jointly announced the signing of a Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement, which was negotiated between 2010 and 2015.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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