Dual Citizenship Remains a Contentious Issue

The recent crisis in the Middle East has once again brought to the forefront – in Canada at least — an issue of controversy here and elsewhere: Dual citizenship. When Israel retaliated for the kidnapping and killing of its soldiers by the terrorist group Hezbollah with the bombing of Hezbollah locations in southern Lebanon, Canada and other governments around the world acted quickly to evacuate their citizens from the area.

In the case of Canada, many of our citizens living in Lebanon are actually Lebanese citizens as well. Many of them immigrated to Canada years ago, became Canadian citizens and then eventually resumed part-time or full-time residence in their country of origin.

Some Canadians are wondering why the federal government is taking emergency measures to assist in the removal of people who are actually residents and citizens of the country they are seeking to flee.

Dual citizenship has always been a contentious concept and it remains one that is far from universally accepted. For example, Canada and the United States both allow their citizens to be citizens of other countries as well. Friends of mine have both Canadian and U.S citizenship. Some were born in the U.S. to Canadian parents. Others married American spouses. They are able to travel back and forth across our shared border as a matter of right. On the way down to the States they are able to correctly answer “American” to the question: What is your citizenship? And on the way back their answer can be “Canadian”.

But countries like the People’s Republic of China and Japan do not recognize dual citizenship and do not allow their citizens to take on other nationalities. India is just now introducing a limited form of dual citizenship; they are calling it “Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI)”. As dual citizenship is not allowed under the Indian Constitution, the Indian government found it necessary to create a new legal category that essentially accomplishes the same thing.

The ability to hold more than one citizenship obviously creates opportunities for individuals who travel and work internationally. Almost anyone who has immigrated to a new country seems to be in favour of it as their preference is usually to retain their original citizenship as well as take on a new one.

However, the concept, both from a legal and philosophical point of view, is difficult for many people to accept. For example, by holding citizenship in a country it is generally thought one is owed their allegiance to that country. Can a single person hold allegiances to more than one state? What if the two countries enter into in a state of conflict or war? Would a draft-age individual have the ability or right to choose which of the two countries to fight for?

But it doesn’t take a war for dual citizenship to raise complicated questions. In a democracy, one of the major rights associated with citizenship is the ability to determine the course of your government. The rights to vote and hold elective office are important rights of citizenship in Canada and many other countries. Should Canadian citizens living overseas have the ability to vote and help determine the course of Canadian politics while also possibly doing the same in the country they reside in (assuming they are citizens there too)?

Obviously, no self-respecting democracy would allow someone to hold elective office in more than one country at the same time. But could a dual citizen get elected as a Member of Parliament in Canada, for example, and later run for office in another country, using the governing experience they gained here to their advantage overseas?

There are no easy answers to these and the many other questions the concept of dual nationality raises. But what is clear is that it is likely that more and more countries will be adopting a policy of recognizing dual citizenship in the future. As I noted above, India, a country with many millions of its former citizens residing overseas, has finally relented in allowing a limited form a dual citizenship. One wonders if China, another country with a large contingent of overseas nationals, will some day take up the issue as well.

The advantages, both for individuals living abroad seeking to retain their original citizenship, and for the country as a whole, are numerous. A policy of dual citizenship ultimately makes people more willing to emigrate and, eventually, adopt another nationality. A country with thousands or even millions of its citizens living abroad can expect to benefit from increased global contacts and commercial trade as well as a willingness of those citizens to promote the interests of their country of origin through their goodwill and other demonstrations of continued loyalty.

For the Canadian citizens residing abroad in Lebanon the benefit they enjoyed was tangible and immediate: they were granted all the protections accorded Canadian passport holders in a time of extreme crisis and danger. Having Canadian citizenship may have actually saved their lives in some cases. No doubt they now understand — if they didn’t already — how lucky they are to be Canadians.