If citizenship is a right, why can it be taken away?

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I firmly believe our ideas, including political ideas like who we vote for, arise from actual experiences, from which we generalize as if the ideas arose on their own, out of nowhere, or from some theoretical stratosphere. So ...

I'm sitting in Thornhill two weeks ago, in an impressive, recently built Islamic complex. Thornhill is the most Jewish riding in Canada (33 per cent of the population). It's a Sunday during the High Holidays. Outside religious Jews are holding a procession for which police helpfully clear traffic.

Inside the complex a roomful of Muslims, with a smattering of others, like me, are discussing "religio-phobia," by which they mean Islamophobia. Many migrated from South Asia to East Africa and from there, 40 or 50 years ago, under religious or ethnic persecution, to Canada, where they thrived.

A woman in her 50s says, We came here back then and became citizens and worked hard. Now suddenly, we don't belong. How did this happen?

The only answer I can think of is: Your number came up. There always seems to be someone who's the target of fear and hate: communists, foreigners, terrorists, youth, Jews. Following the Cold War, especially after 9/11, her number came up. But it is heart-rending to think how her secure state of mind has collapsed. Her Canadian citizenship is no longer reassuring, even more so this week, after the first case of a Muslim being stripped of it.

Citizenship is weird. It is not one of those "Canadian values," about which party leaders love to debate. It is rather the precondition for participating in those debates. In other words, citizenship is a right.

As a right, you either have it or you don't. If you have it, it can't be taken away by someone with power, just because you don't accept their notion of Canadian values -- as you might remove it from them, if you had the power, because they didn't conform to your values chart.

Rights always hinge on cases of disagreement. There's no stress in giving rights to people you agree with, or mildly disagree with. But it's not a right if you can lift it from those you differ with; it's merely a gift you can reverse.

I'm stunned that this has turned into an election about citizenship, in other words, about a basic right. What happened to the economy? But that's the nature of rights: they tend to hide, we take them for granted, until we can't.

The main time you notice your rights is when someone in power acts as if you don't have them. This can happen if you're a middle-class citizen penned in and arrested for an act of lawful protest -- as many were during the G20. Or more frequently if you're a young Black man stopped without cause and interrogated. Then you realize you have rights until "they" decide you don't. Or a politician says: You were a citizen yesterday, today you're not. Take your rights and get out. It requires something abnormal, like an election plus a deport order.

There's another experience I want to invoke re: citizenship, though it's not mine. It concerns a young man of 18, from Syria, who reached Turkey and was trying to move onward. "I want to become somebody," he said. Don't we all? That could be the motto of modern history, where tens of millions left, fled or were driven from home with only that goal. But to become somebody in the real world -- not just in your head -- you must be a citizen of a real place, with the rights it guarantees. The rest -- what you become -- is up to you. Without citizenship, you scramble forever to merely pry open the chance to become somebody. It's everyone's indispensable foundation. But immigrants and refugees know it. Most of the time, the rest of us are oblivious.

No one, pre-Stephen Harper, not even war criminals, ever lost Canadian citizenship for anything they did or thought -- but only for lying on their applications. The right has been considered that solemn. Now many, including people born here like me, are vulnerable to being stripped for merely having another possible citizenship. (My dad was born in the U.K., in transit from Russia.) A country that gets so careless and/or confused about its most basic right -- citizenship -- probably deserves to have an election about it.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Vik Approved/flickr

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