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1With a most recent rate of 86% in 2016, [1] Canada remains a world champion in naturalization (Saurer, 2017: 44-47). However, between 2009 and 2018 Canada’s citizenship test pass rate fell from 96% to 86%. While this is not concerning as such, it is worrisome that this decline is linked to the failure of immigrants who joined Canada through non-economic streams, such as the family and refugee classes, to obtain citizenship (see section 3 for details). A related concern is the decline in the number of citizenship applications: as Canadian organizations involved in the settlement of immigrants have noted, significant numbers of permanent residents between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four are not applying for citizenship and are instead opting to wait until they have reached the age (fifty-five) at which they are exempted from undergoing the citizenship test. [2]

2In what follows, we strive to identify some of the reasons behind these troubling developments. We discuss to what extent it can be said that Canada’s tightened naturalization regime over the past decade falls within the civic integration paradigm. Specifically, we find that Canada’s current naturalization regime is characterized by: 1) language and knowledge requirements that exceed what is needed to function in Canadian society; 2) a waiver process for language and knowledge requirements which is only attainable to those who can demonstrate a recognized medical condition whereas more important social forms of impairment like low literacy, learning challenges in language acquisition, previous psychological and physical trauma are ignored; and 3) high citizenship fees. Drawing on a wide range of data — such as legal texts, publicly available statistics, information received from Government Departments through research partnership arrangements and access to information requests, and the wealth of knowledge accumulated by legal practitioners — we also show that the aforementioned requirements of Canada’s current naturalization regime impose unduly high barriers for individuals who joined Canada through non-economic immigration streams.

3In this paper, we regard citizenship as a state regulated mechanism of in- and exclusion (Brubaker, 1992) and contend that the acquisition of citizenship brings important benefits to both individuals and society at large (Hainmueller et al., 2018). As recognized by Canada’s Federal Court, citizenship is “at the core of what it means to have membership in a political community”. [3] Citizenship provides societal benefits by encouraging greater participation in political life and by inspiring loyalty and attachment to society (Bloemraad, 2006; Pendakur and Bevelander, 2014). While legal citizenship status alone is insufficient to provide individuals with equal rights, socio-political participation and social inclusion (Marshall, 1964), it remains a necessary condition to achieve the latter and to enable democracy (Bosniak, 2006). A decline in naturalizations for a country that receives more than three-quarters of its population growth through international (im)migration is therefore highly problematic. [4]

4To proceed, we first locate our study of Canada’s naturalization regime within the relevant literature pertaining to the civic integration paradigm. We then explain what Canada’s naturalization requirements are and why it is much harder now to pass the citizenship test, which evaluates language skills and knowledge of Canada. In this section, we also highlight the sharp increase in citizenship application fees and how this can act as a deterrent for citizenship applicants. This is followed by a discussion of why and how tightened language and knowledge requirements disproportionally impact immigrants from the non-economic streams. We conclude our paper by discussing the long-term effects of our findings for Canadian society and suggest how access to citizenship may be improved for candidates from non-economic immigration streams.

Canada’s Naturalization Regime and the Civic Integration Paradigm

5As Western nation-states adapt to the challenges posed by globalization and migration, adjusting immigration and citizenship criteria have been prominent responses adopted by governments across the political spectrum. In the academic literature, these developments have been identified as part of the “civic integration paradigm”, which combines increased emphasis on selection and control of immigrants with measures that insist on their “integration” before (and as a condition of) citizenship acquisition (Borevi et al., 2017). The causes and consequences of “civic integration” policies are discussed extensively and controversially in the academic literature (see special issues edited by Borevi et al., 2017 and Mouritsen et al., 2019). Here, we content ourselves with identifying four dominant — albeit conflicting — positions within that literature, and by explaining to what extent they apply to Canada’s naturalization regime.

6First, the liberalization thesis contends that citizenship policies have gradually converged towards more liberal regimes under the new paradigm (Joppke, 2010). Put differently, there seems to be a shift from national identity based on ethnic sameness to a new state identity accentuating civic togetherness (Goodman, 2014). Second, and in stark contrast, civic integration policies are found to involve an increasing culturalization of citizenship, targeting those who are alleged to be unwilling or unable to adapt to “our” Western values (Duyvendak et al., 2016). Third, this trend is accompanied by a backlash against multiculturalism wherein individual cultural capital replaces social justice concerns for minority group members (Faist, 2009). Fourth, scholars observe the increasing neoliberalization of citizenship, where the desirability of citizens corresponds to their market value and rank in the human-capital hierarchy (van Houdt and Schinkel, 2013). Citizenship tests are an essential part of the civic integration paradigm. For some authors, standardized tests eliminate bureaucratic discretion and potentially racist or culturalist treatment of applicants (Joppke, 2010). Others criticize the (mono-)cultural content of citizenship tests (Blake, 2013). According to others, tests have been (re)designed with the objective to responsibilize and discipline immigrants so that they avoid becoming a “burden” — financially or culturally — to the receiving society (Löwenheim and Gazit, 2009).

7How do these four positions map onto the Canadian case? Let us start by acknowledging that Canada is an outlier insofar as its period of liberalization of immigrant and citizenship policies took place in the late 1960s, hence much earlier than the early 2000s, which is considered the time period of the civic integration paradigm. For a long time, “Canada’s immigration system was unabashedly racist” (Satzewich, 2015: 240), but the so-called point system implemented in 1967 removed “national [read: racial] preference.” This was shortly followed by the announcement of multiculturalism as an official state policy in 1971. Economic selection through the point system became flanked by two non-economic streams of immigrant intake (the family class and humanitarian class), a fairly generous welfare state regime, and high citizenship pass rates (up to 96% prior to 2010). [5] Indeed, immigrants entering Canada through these streams were considered citizens in waiting, with naturalization seen as a normal and quasi-natural consequence of immigration and permanent residency.

8Following the successive dismantling of the welfare state in the late 1970s and 1980s (Banting and Myles, 2013), in the 1990s, the Federal Government’s cuts to social services combined with an increasingly econocentric immigration system placed more onus on immigrants to generate economic benefits of diversity. Abu-Laban and Gabriel (2002) observe a redefinition of “good citizenship” in neoliberal terms (individual self-reliance, economic self-sufficiency, investment in one’s cultural capital and marketable skills) under the leadership of Jean Chrétien’s Liberal Party of Canada (1993-2003). What remained absent was the emphasis on “control” and the increasing culturalization and moralization of citizenship policies (Borevi et al., 2017), however, this quickly changed in the new century. Maintaining and even reinforcing an econocentric approach to immigration, [6] the Harper Conservatives (2006-2015) added the second dimension of the civic integration paradigm: state involvement in the “testing” of integration (e.g. language exams and mandatory physical presence in the country). Admittedly, multiculturalism in Canada was never openly attacked by any of the governing parties. However, while multiculturalism used to be informed by considerations of social justice, it became diluted by the increasing commodification and individualization of cultural rights under the Liberals in the 1990s (Abu-Laban and Gabriel, 2002), and further undermined “by stealth” through eliminated programs and unspent funds under the Conservatives in the 2000s (Abu-Laban, 2014; Winter, 2015). [7]

9The seemingly heartless “Bad Canada” of the Harper Conservatives — which dismissed immigration wait lists, favoured the immigration of high-skilled workers with a job offer, denied entry to grandparents and family members, curtailed the resettlement of refugees, revoked the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals and made the revocation of citizenship far broader etc. (Carver, 2016) — was supposed to be overcome when Justin Trudeau’s liberal federal government took power in 2015. Yet, while the Trudeau Liberals kept many of their electoral promises associated with a more caring “sunny ways” approach to immigration and citizenship, scholars argue that neoliberal econocentrism continues to dominate this policy field (Dobrowolsky, 2017; Braedley et al., 2019). For example, while the Trudeau Liberals reversed Conservative legislation on veiled citizenship uptake and citizenship revocation (Winter and Previsic, 2019), they so far failed to replace the citizenship study guide introduced by the Conservatives in 2009, which continues to advise immigrants against bringing “barbaric cultural practices” [8] from their home countries (Harris, 2019). Additionally, the Liberals have failed to reduce prohibitive citizenship fees and to adjust the language and knowledge requirements in naturalization procedures (these points are discussed below).

10In short, the econocentric tendencies that have long dominated Canada’s immigration regime are now also prevalent in the naturalization process. Today, naturalization is no longer viewed as an important stepping stone on the long road to integration, but as the “first prize” for “successful” integration (Blake, 2013; Dobrowolsky and Ramos, 2014; Winter, 2018; Dobrowolsky, 2017). For that reason, several scholars argue that the tightening of naturalization requirements in Canada parallels the culturalization of citizenship that took root in the European context (Blake, 2013; Winter and Sauvageau, 2012).

Tightened Knowledge and Language Requirements and Higher Citizenship Fees

11The fundamental objectives of Canadian immigration and refugee policy are listed in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act[9] and include: the pursuit of Canada’s “maximum social, cultural and economic benefits of immigration” (s. 3(1)(a)); the “enrichment” and “strengthening” of “Canadian society’s “social and cultural fabric”(s. 3(1)(b)); the “development of a strong and prosperous Canadian economy”(s. 3(1)(c)); the reunification of families (s. 3(1)(d)) and the fulfillment of Canada’s international legal obligations with respect to refugees” (s. 3(2)(b)). To that end, Canada’s immigration (or permanent resident) program is divided in three distinct classes through which immigrants (or permanent residents) can acquire Canadian citizenship: 1) the Economic Class, for which applicants are selected on the basis of their ability to become economically established in Canada; 2) the Family Class and 3) the Humanitarian Class, for which applicants are selected on the basis of family-reunification and social/humanitarian objectives (e.g., refugees). Each class has several categories, which cannot be detailed here.

12Permanent residents who want to become Canadian citizens by means of naturalization must meet a number of specific requirements, outlined in subsection 5 (1) of the Citizenship Act. [10] Thus, to be eligible for a grant of Canadian citizenship, all applicants must:
- have been physically present in Canada as a permanent resident for at least 1,095 days (three years) in the five years preceding the application;
- have filed personal income taxes for at least three years within the five-year period; [11]
- not be under a removal order and not be inadmissible or prohibited on criminal or security grounds.

13In addition, all applicants 18-54 years of age must, through the administration of a citizenship test:
- demonstrate adequate knowledge of English or French;
- demonstrate, in one of the two official languages, sufficient knowledge of Canada and of the responsibilities and privileges that accompany citizenship.

14In what follows, we pay specific attention to the current legal provisions pertaining to the language and knowledge requirements, and we show why passing the citizenship test has become much more difficult than before.

15As per s. 5(1)(d) of the Citizenship Act and s. 14 of the Citizenship Regulations[12] applicants aged 18-54 must demonstrate an ability to speak and understand English or French as part of their application for citizenship, including understanding instructions, holding routine conversations and using basic grammar and vocabulary to communicate orally. However, in July 2012, regulatory amendments raised the language requirements for the citizenship test from a Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) Level 3 to a Level 4. [13] Although CLB 4 is officially categorized as basic language ability or proficiency, it is in fact, according to observers, more equivalent to an intermediate to advanced level of one of the two official languages (Burkholder and Filion, 2014). Moreover, while an applicant’s language ability was previously assessed through interactions with staff from the federal ministry in charge of immigration (called Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, IRCC) [14] and results of the citizenship test, following another regulatory change in November 2012, [15] applicants are now required to submit “objective evidence” that they have adequate knowledge of English or French. Three types of documents are accepted in support of their submission: 1) results from an IRCC-approved third-party test showing a result equal to a CLB 4 or higher in speaking and listening; 2) proof of completion of a government-funded language training program at CLB 4 or higher; or 3) proof of completion or attendance of secondary or post-secondary education in English or French, in Canada or abroad. [16] This clearly represents an increase in control of citizenship requirements in favour of candidates with higher education and/or higher levels of human capital.

16As per s. 5(1)(e) of the Citizenship Act, applicants aged 18-54 must also show that they have “an adequate knowledge of Canada and of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.” The criteria for determining “adequate knowledge” in these areas are outlined in s. 15 of the Citizenship Regulations[17] and form the basis of questions found in the mandatory citizenship test. To prepare for the test, applicants study a guide published by IRCC, upon which all of the test questions are based. As previously mentioned, in 2009, under Conservative leadership the IRCC launched a new citizenship guide, [18] which includes new topics on, for example, gender equality, the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal people, historical conflicts and pop culture. Winter writes about this guide:


“Not only is the new guide, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, longer than its precursor, but it also contains much more prescriptive and normative language. It insists on the importance of respecting “Canadian values” and denounces “barbaric cultural practices” such as honour killings, female genital mutilation and forced marriage […]. It also places greater emphasis on Canadian history generally, and specifically on military history and the place of the British monarchy in Canada.” (Winter, 2014: 7)

18Previously, a single exam measured applicants’ familiarity with Canada: it was assumed that if applicants could answer some key cultural questions on Canada, they proved they had both an “adequate knowledge of Canada and of the rights and privileges of citizenship.” With the launch of the new citizenship study guide, the citizenship test was broken into two parts: one determining adequate knowledge of Canada and another determining awareness of the privileges of citizenship. [19] This test is much harder than the previous one. First, the number of testable subjects has been expanded. While previous potential citizens only had to understand the voting system and one other characteristic of Canadian history to pass the citizenship test, they are now expected to know all the topics contained in the guide as well as a plethora of new subjects, such as “Canada’s values, symbols, history and military achievements”. [20] Second, the score required to pass the test was raised from 60 to 75%. [21] Finally, following the adoption of Bill C-24 in June 2014, s. 5(1)(e) of the Citizenship Act was replaced by a requirement that an applicant for citizenship take the knowledge test in one of Canada’s official languages, whereas this test could previously be taken in one’s first language. Interpreters are no longer permitted in the testing room. [22] These changes were justified by claiming that the reform would “strengthen the integration of newcomers […] and encourag[e] their full participation”. [23] This heavy involvement of the state in administrating and assessing the depths of citizenship candidates’ integration is a central feature of the civic integration paradigm (Mouritsen et al., 2019).

19Applicants who fail the citizenship test are given a chance to rewrite it, however, those who fail a second time must complete an oral knowledge hearing with a citizenship officer. Waiting times for this hearing are very long, [24] creating a lot stress on applicants.

20An additional barrier to the acquisition of citizenship is cost, due to a steep increase in citizenship application fees. In particular, applications received after February 6, 2014 were subject to a tripling of the adult citizenship processing fee (from $100 to $300), while the processing fee for applications received after January 1, 2015 were almost doubled, reaching $530 per applicant. [25] With the $100 “right of citizenship” fee, this makes the true cost of citizenship at $630. As research illustrates (Hainmueller et al., 2018), high application fees act as a serious deterrent to naturalization for those who cannot afford it, and thus constitute an additional barrier for low-income immigrants. To illustrate, for a single person on social assistance in Ontario receiving about $721 per month, the citizenship fee amounts to 87% of their monthly income. [26]

21Hence, we conclude that there is an increased emphasis on selection and control in Canada’s naturalization regime, which is indicative of the civic integration paradigm. To pass the citizenship test, candidates need both capital and human capital, which (as we discuss now) disadvantages individuals accepted through non-economic streams, most notably refugees and family class members.

A Disproportionate Impact on Citizenship Candidates from Non-Economic Immigration Streams

22The citizenship test is the biggest barrier to acquiring citizenship. According to data obtained through an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request to IRCC, approximately 55,000 citizenship applications were refused between 2007 and 2016 due to a failure to meet the language or knowledge requirements: this constitutes approximatively 75% of all citizenship refusals during that period. As the following table reveals, numbers spiked from 2011 onwards.

Table 1: Number of Citizenship Application Refusals, 2007-2016

Figure 0

Table 1: Number of Citizenship Application Refusals, 2007-2016

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Information Request made by Neighbourhood Legal Services (requestor nA-2016-41315); Data Protocol Unit reference no 13423397.

23Refusals due to failure to meet the knowledge requirement were significantly higher (41,071) than for failure to meet the language requirement (14,779). This finding is highly gendered, as women were refused citizenship for language or knowledge reasons at almost twice the rate of men. Further, another ATIP request [27] (“New Citizens by Former Immigration Category at Landing”) reveals that during that period those who immigrated under the Family Class and Refugee Class were down by 19% and 24.9% [28] respectively, ostensibly due to the changes in the language and knowledge requirements. This corroborates data on citizenship pass rates in 2016 (for first time takers): overall, refugees had the lowest pass rate (58.5% for resettled refugees and 74.8% for refugee claimants who obtained refugee status in Canada), while applicants of the Economic Immigration class had higher pass rates (88.5% or above [29]) than those of the Family Class (81.2%). While women in each category had lower test pass rates than men, the discrepancy in failure rates between male and female applicants was particularly significant in the Refugee Class (68.8% for men vs 59% for women). In this class, the gender gaps in favour of men were much larger for privately-sponsored refugees and government-assisted refugees, at 15.5% and 9.5% respectively. About half of the female resettled refugees who wrote their first test in 2016 failed (Xu, 2018: 7).

24Paralleling this trend is the dramatic increase since 2012 in demand for assistance with citizenship applications at community legal aid clinics. These clinics regularly represent clients who are unable to learn English or French to the requisite level of proficiency and/or to pass the citizenship exam. This situation is particularly troubling because the great majority of these clinics’ clients “came to Canada under the family class or humanitarian/refugee class, none of which requires language proficiency as a prerequisite to immigrate to Canada”. [30] If we consider that many of these persons do not even apply for citizenship because of the exorbitant cost and a common belief that they will not pass the test, the vulnerability they experience is much greater than what is reflected by the observed test pass rates. Below, we analyze these statistics and explain why the current citizenship test disproportionally impacts immigrants from the family and humanitarian classes. We show, in particular, that converging factors affecting the citizenship test success-rate are highly problematic because there is no accommodation in law for these disadvantaged immigrants.

25Prior to the introduction of the Discover Canada study guide, citizenship test pass rates were approximately 96%. In 2011, the rate dropped sharply to 83.5%, rising gradually to 85.8% in 2016, but remains lower than the rate before the introduction of Discover Canada (Xu, 2018: 3). Clearly, changes introduced in the last decade to the citizenship program have negatively impacted the performance of most applicants, but groups of immigrants from family and refugee classes have been more affected than others (Xu, 2018: 3;19). The reasons for this, which are complex and interrelated, are briefly discussed in the following lines.

26In Canada, every applicant under the Economic Immigration Class must prove their capability in one of Canada’s official languages as this is considered key to finding employment and ensuring a smooth transition into Canadian life. For permanent residents admitted under the Family Class or Refugee Class, however, language proficiency does not constitute a selection criterion. Thus, many immigrants arrive via these channels with little to no knowledge of either official language and face challenges in acquiring this literacy, particularly as adult learners. [31] As Hou and Beiser’s (2006) study of English acquisition by South-East Asian refugees in Canada shows, there are two important determinants of language acquisition by newcomers to Canada: 1) pre-migration education and literacy, and 2) post-migration personal investment and opportunities provided to immigrants.

27Regarding pre-migration factors, immigrants with low formal education levels as secondary level or less (Hou and Beiser, 2000; Finn, 2010; Watkins et al., 2012; Burkholder and Filion, 2014) and with no or low literacy in their own language (Lake and Watt, 2004; Tarone and Bigelow, 2007; van Tubergen, 2010; Young-Scholten, 2013) are particularly disadvantaged when trying to acquire knowledge of English or French. Practitioners are seeing many cases of people — often refugees and family class members — who have had no formal schooling and who spend years unable to progress beyond the most basic level, let alone acquire enough English or French to meet the citizenship requirements. [32] Reflected in this is the under-education of girls worldwide, [33] which explains the greater difficulty women have acquiring English or French in adulthood (Hou and Beiser, 2006; Watkins et al., 2012). For example, some adult refugee women do not even know how to hold a pencil before attending language classes in Canada (Schulman, 2019). Not surprisingly, the 2016 citizenship pass rates in Canada reveal that the largest gender gaps are observed for women born in Ethiopia and Somalia, two countries with the world’s lowest enrolment rates for primary-school-age girl children (Cline, 2018; Gillispie, 2018), with pass rates of women “lag[ging] behind that of men by about 20 percentage points” (Xu, 2018: 13).

28Post-migration barriers to learning English or French intersect with and compound the pre-existing obstacles faced by many immigrants from the refugee and family classes. Waiting times to attend government-funded language classes are very long and dissuade immigrants from enrolling in the first place (Derwing and Waugh, 2012; Lambert, 2014). In addition, working people are unable to attend government-funded classes as they are held during the day. Private language classes are expensive and unaffordable for many including the working poor. [34] Women with children are often unable to attend language classes due to childcare responsibilities. Certain courses do provide on-site childcare during class; however, limited spots and long waiting times discourage women that rely on these services from attending (Kilbride et al., 2009; Duguay, 2012; Burkholder and Filion, 2014). Even when women successfully enroll in a course, their regular attendance and completion of the course can be halted if the family situation changes (need for supplementary income, changes in childcare provisions, a family member becomes ill, etc.) because the responsibility to make compromises for the family’s well-being typically falls on women (Kouritzin, 2000; Hou and Beiser, 2000; Hou and Beiser, 2006).

29The ability to learn a new language is also affected by the experience of displacement. A significant body of knowledge pertains to trauma’s negative effect on learning in the context of refugee newcomers to Canada (Somach, 1995; Adkins et al., 1999; Finn, 2010; Wilbur, 2016) and more specifically, trauma’s effect on adult women who have been victims of violence (Horsman, 1998; Horsman, 2006; Wolpow and Askov, 1998). This research underscores the fact that refugees often continue to experience the effects of psychological and physical trauma, which interfere with their concentration, memory and focus, making sitting in a classroom and learning English or French very difficult.

30Another problem is that the citizenship exam not only tests knowledge of Canada, it also tests the ability to write and sit an exam, and hence can be seen as a literacy test. Moreover, the requirement introduced in 2014 (see section 2) to take the knowledge test in one of Canada’s official languages amounts into a de facto language test. Yet, “language competency required to pass a knowledge test is significantly different than that required to live and work in Canada.” [35]

31In sum, there are a series of factors negatively impacting the learning ability of immigrants from the refugee and family classes. Despite a growth in research on the interplay between these factors, the current citizenship regime fails to acknowledge that these two groups of immigrants face a serious “cumulative disadvantage” in their ability to meet the language and knowledge requirements for Canada (Purkayastha, 2005). Add to this the fact that their day-to-day (social and linguistic) knowledge of Canadian society is not tested in the citizenship exam, it should not come as a surprise why they are failing in greater numbers.

32Under section 5 (3) of the Citizenship Act, the Minister can make a discretionary decision to waive the language and knowledge requirements on “compassionate grounds”. However, this waiver process contains important weaknesses. To start with, the information is confusing. While IRCC instructions to citizenship officers specify that a waiver can be granted even if the applicant does not have a medical condition or disability, [36] the official citizenship application guide to applicants stipulates that a waiver from the language and knowledge requirements can only be requested in situations where the applicant has a medical condition or disability. The application form asks if the applicant needs accommodation, but the guide does not inform applicants that a broad number of factors could be eligible for an accommodation request — not just a physical or mental disability. [37]

33Also, applicants cannot simply state that they suffer from a medical condition: their claim must be supported by clear and undeniable evidence submitted before or at the time of the hearing — not after the decision on citizenship application has been made. This blanket requirement negatively impacts immigrants who are already marginalized. For example, in Abrar v. Canada, the applicant who was unable to comply with the knowledge of Canada requirement represented herself at the citizenship hearing. She had a full-time job, cared for her five children, and suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. Since “she had not been aware that a request for special relief could be made” (para. 2), she did not present any medical evidence. During her process at the Federal Court to challenge the refusal, she filed medical letters, which highlighted her health problems, but her application for judicial review was dismissed on the ground that evidence of her special circumstances should have been submitted earlier. [38]

34A related concern is that despite the language of IRCC’s operational instructions, which instruct citizenship officers to be as “flexible [as possible] to approve deserving cases not able to meet the citizenship requirements”, [39] the practice of citizenship officials has been to narrow this broad discretion to situations where an applicant has a “serious” medical condition; that is, a medical condition supported by credible evidence that it permanently prevents the applicant from ever satisfying the language and knowledge requirements. Indeed, an analysis of Federal Court decisions reviewing citizenship application refusals reveals that, for the courts, the medical condition is considered as to whether it “prevents” the applicant from trying harder to learn the language. “Prevent” is the word used to determine if something is “permanent” and will not improve. For example, in Arif v. Canada, the citizenship judge’s decision not to recommend a waiver was considered reasonable because it could not be proven that the condition of the applicant (thyroid problems, arthritis and migraines) would “prevent” her from meeting the requirements of the Act permanently. [40]

35In sum, despite the language of “compassion” found within the citizenship legislation, only applicants with a “serious” medical condition supported by substantive medical evidence showing that the condition will never improve can have a chance of getting a waiver. Moreover, every time a waiver is requested, IRCC requires that applicants write the knowledge test — usually twice in written form, and then a third time in oral form — before the waiver request is considered. [41] That applicants “must prove their inability to meet these requirements multiple times, despite strong up-front evidence” is a “humiliating and disheartening” practice. [42] Not surprisingly, compassionate waivers for language or knowledge requirements are very rarely granted by citizenship officers: a waiver rate of 0.1%-0.2% from 2006 to 2015 and of 2.5% in 2016, the last year where data are available.

36Sadly, even when individual cases succeed in proceeding to court, litigation is often ineffective as Canadian courts generally take a “hands-off” approach to the review of citizenship decisions, granting considerable deference to decision makers further to judicial review. Canadian courts tend not to overturn decisions from citizenship officers that waivers are unwarranted, as revealed by our examination of every case decided between 1978 and 2019 by the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal where a refusal of a citizenship application following a negative waiver decision was judicially reviewed. From 1978 to 2000, the court referred the matter back to the citizenship officer for reconsideration (or simply recommended a waiver itself) in around 70% of the cases. However, this proportion dropped drastically to 15% for the years 2001-2019. [43] While the reasons for this shift are complex and beyond the scope of this paper, [44] suffice is to say that the dramatic decline is troubling because many of the cases brought to the courts concern disadvantaged immigrants who present a “non-medicalized” form of disability. [45] In addition, the very few successful cases rendered between 2014 and 2017 are those concerning applicants 55+ years old who are now exempted from the knowledge and language requirements under s. 5(1)(d). [46] We cannot but conclude that the waiver process is fraught with problems and puts undue pressure on specific groups of applicants who are already facing complex and intimidating proceedings, especially if they are not adequately represented by legal counsel.

37In short, the path to Canadian citizenship is particularly uncertain for applicants of refugee and family classes. While legislation provides for the waiving of the citizenship language and knowledge requirements, the process is both substantively and procedurally flawed.


38In Canada, naturalization is considered as essential to provide immigrants with the same set of rights as native-born citizens. There are also long-term benefits to naturalization for immigrants and the communities in which they live, most notably that “citizenship may increase immigrants’ economic success both in its instrumental advantages — improving labor market access, for example, by signaling to employers greater stability or language skills — and in its psychological ones, namely a deeper sense of security, confidence, and attachment to one’s community” (Hainmueller et al., 2018: 934).

39Despite these benefits, immigrants from non-economic immigration streams — particularly refugees and sponsored family members — have more difficulty obtaining citizenship because they fail their citizenship tests in greater numbers than other groups. Many are simply not “able to apply for citizenship because they cannot obtain the required upfront language evidence (due to low official language proficiency) or are impeded by the application fees”, or because of the lack of knowledge regarding rights and privileges associated with the Canadian citizenship” or unfamiliarity regarding the citizenship application procedure (Xu, 2018: 19). Indeed, we find that Canada’s current naturalization regime falls squarely within the civic integration paradigm with its heavy involvement of the state in the selection and control of immigrants, moralization of integration, and implementation of additional hurdles at the citizenship level.

40The moralizing and condescending treatment of those who do not or cannot “shape up” to the demands and neoliberal knowledge economy due to old age, family obligations, lack of education/human capital, bad health and disabilities (often related to trauma, torture, persecution) and/or a combination of the above was certainly worse under the Harper Conservatives, but it continues under the current administration. Admittedly, the Trudeau Liberals made some positive steps regarding non-economic immigration, such as the reduction in waiting times for spousal immigration and increase in Canada’s refugee resettlement efforts. However, the strong class preferences inherent in Canada’s immigration and citizenship laws and policies persist “despite the [current] Canadian state’s more benevolent and compassionate patina” (Dobrowolsky, 2017: 198). Indeed, they go back to the 1990s when the Liberal Party of Canada started to redefine Canadian immigration and multiculturalism in neoliberal terms (Abu-Laban and Gabriel, 2002).

41The exclusion of refugees and sponsored family members from Canadian citizenship is extremely troubling as many of these individuals fully function and work in Canada, contributing to Canadian society in numerous ways, both economically and socially. In fact, it is these members of society who (as dry cleaners, housekeepers, spouses, grandparents, etc.) care for the upbringing of Canada’s next generation of citizens, allowing highly skilled Canadians to succeed in their jobs, and essentially enabling all of society to operate. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that many of them work in frontline industries considered as “essential” during the outbreak, and risk their lives for “us”. Since citizenship status is linked to higher earnings and most permanent residents who are failing or denied citizenship uptake are women and former refugees (who tend to come from African and Asian countries and not from Europe), there is also the danger that lower naturalization rates are creating a feminized, racialized underclass. Neither prospect sits well with Canada’s self-proclaimed identity as a just and egalitarian multicultural society.

42If “strengthening the [civic] integration of newcomers [and] their full participation” [47] is really what the Canadian Government is aiming for, then means must be put in place to avoid failing the most disadvantaged members of Canadian society. [48] The language level requirement should be lowered to a level that aligns with the “adequacy” required by the Act, far below the prohibitive and discriminatory level of “proficiency” required by the current administrative regime. The citizenship exam should revert to its status quo ante[49] and the Government should reintroduce the right for applicants to have an interpreter present at this exam. In addition, citizenship fees should be reduced to $100 for all adults, or there should be a process by which applicants on social assistance or low-wage jobs can seek a fee waiver. In the United States, for example, a recent study found that low-income immigrants who were provided fee vouchers to cover application costs were 41% more likely to apply for citizenship (Hainmueller et al., 2018). Finally, the current waiver system should be fixed. As acknowledged by Mr. Justice Mandamin, “compassion is a vital part of the Canadian makeup that makes Canada the best country in the world”. [50] This calls for a return to the consideration of true compassion in the assessment of citizenship applications that prevailed in the jurisprudence from the Federal Court in the 1990s. Ultimately, citizenship officers’ decisions to waive language and knowledge requirements under the Citizenship Act should be guided by a social model of disability. This model, which is given increased consideration in the area of disability law, recognizes that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. In other words, a social model of disability considers that society itself can disable people from having equal opportunities to be part of the community (Berghs et al., 2016). Implementing these changes would make Canada’s naturalization regime more equitable and accessible and generate long-term benefits for new Canadians, but also for Canadian society at large.

We would like to acknowledge and thank Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for sharing with us several data used in this paper. We extend our sincere thanks to Anthony Delisle, Allesandro Perri, Matthew Hodgson and Mansanga Tanga for their research assistance, and Daniel Sheppard and the Osgoode Test Case Litigation Program for supporting some students who conducted research in support of this paper. We acknowledge Amea Wilbur, Andrew Griffith, Toni Schweitzer, Caroline Lindberg, Geraldine Sadoway, Avvy Go, Janet Dench, Prasanna Balasundaram, Johanna MacDonald, Tenzin Tekan, Asiya Hirji, Anda Wang, Theresa Wall and Martha Bigelow for their guidance and conversations in developing the understanding that led to this paper. Finally, two of the authors acknowledge generous support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and one of the authors is grateful for the financial and institutional support received from Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.


  • [1]
    Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC in the following) (2018) Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Departmental Plan 2018-2019, Ottawa, IRCC publications, p. 18.
  • [2]
    Inter-Clinic Immigration Working Group (ICIWG in the following) (2018) Letter to IRCC: Barriers to Canadian Citizenship seen at Legal Aid Clinics in Ontario, p. 2.
  • [3]
    Fisher-Tennant v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2018 FC 151, at para. 29.
  • [4]
    Statistics Canada (2019) Quarterly Demographic Estimates, 33 (1), Tables 91-002-X, [online] last checked on 18/09/2019. URL:
  • [5]
    Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC in the following) (2018) Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Departmental Plan 2018-2019, Ottawa, IRCC publications, p. 3.
  • [6]
    The Conservative Federal Government intensified Canada’s tradition of favouring immigrants with better education, language skills, and income (Banting, 2005; Gibson, 2009; Sweetman and Warman, 2013) by introducing a number of measures giving even more preference to economic immigrant selection (Alboim and Cohl, 2012; Cerna, 2014), while at the same time reducing family reunification and refugee resettlement (Carver, 2016; Paquet and Larios, 2018).
  • [7]
    Anti-multicultural views have been openly expressed by opposition parties, such as the Reform Party and the Peoples Party. The ups and downs of anti-multicultural discourses in Canada align with trends in the United States and Europe (Winter, 2015). Please also note that multiculturalism is not promoted in Quebec which instead advocates for “interculturalism” (Winter, 2015).
  • [8]
    IRCC (2012) Discover Canada: The rights and responsibilities of citizenship, p. 9, [online] last checked on 08/07/2020. URL:
  • [9]
    Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, S.C. 2001, c-27.
  • [10]
    Citizenship Act, R.S.C. 1985, c-29.
  • [11]
    This new requirement brought in by the previous Conservative Government was left unchanged by the current administration.
  • [12]
    Citizenship Regulations, SOR/93-246.
  • [13]
    IRCC (2011a) Notice requesting comments on a proposal to require applicants to furnish upfront evidence of language ability showing achievement of at least Canadian Language Benchmark level 4 in speaking and listening with their citizenship application, [online] last checked on 24/06/2019. URL:
  • [14]
    The IRCC was called Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) prior to rebranding in November 2015.
  • [15]
    See Citizenship Regulations, SOR/2012-178, s. 2.
  • [16]
    See Citizenship Regulations, n° 2, SOR/2015-124, s. 2(1)(g) and IRCC (2019) Application for Canadian citizenship under subsection 5(1) – Adults 18 years of age and older (CIT 0002), [online] last checked on 28/09/2019. URL:
  • [17]
    Citizenship Regulations, SOR/93-246.
  • [18]
    After a heated public debate, the first edition of 2009 was replaced by a new one in 2011, which included a reference to LGBTQ rights (Winter and Sauvageau, 2012) and IRCC (2010a) Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Regulations amending the citizenship regulations: regulatory impact statement, Canada Gazette, 144 (25), pp. 1656-1659.
  • [19]
    IRCC (2010a) op. cit., p. 1657.
  • [20]
    IRCC (2010a) op. cit., p. 1656 and IRCC (2010b) Amendments to the Citizenship Regulations and Updated Guidelines Regarding the Citizenship Test. Operational Bulletin 244 October 13, 2010, [online] last checked on 12/09/2019. URL:
  • [21]
    IRCC (2010b) op. cit.
  • [22]
    See Bill C-24 (2014) An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, 2nd sess., 41st Parl., c. 22 (received Royal Assent on June 19, 2014).
  • [23]
    IRCC (2010a) op. cit., p. 1657 and IRCC (2011a) op. cit.
  • [24]
  • [25]
    IRCC (2014) Regulations Amending the Citizenship Regulations, Canada Gazette, 148 (27), pp. 3479-3487.
  • [26]
    Of note: following successful settlement of litigation in relation to an applicant’s request to waive the citizenship application fee on compassionate grounds and to alleviate the special and unusual hardship she faced as a person with a disability, and further to s. 5(4) of the Citizenship Act, IRCC agreed in February 2019 that applicants for Canadian citizenship can seek a waiver from the fee on a case by case basis. More particularly, IRCC affirmed that s. 5(4) is available to applicants facing “special and unusual hardship” to request an exemption from application and processing fees, and that these requests will be considered and adjudicated. See Tammie Lynn Mayes and Justice for Children and Youth v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, January 22, 2019, Docket T-797-18.
  • [27]
    IRCC Response to Access to Information Request made by Andrew Griffith. Data source: CICEDW (EDW) June 2, 2016; data compiled by OPMB-BRIA (2016-0632).
  • [28]
    By contrasting the citizenship grant rates from 2010-2015 to those of 2005-2009, this is how Andrew Griffith (who made the above Access to information request) interpreted these IRCC data (internal document, on file with authors).
  • [29]
    There is an exception for participants in the live-in caregiver program (LCP). The LCP was a program from the Economic Immigration Class allowing migrant live-in caregivers to access to permanent residency once they had completed twenty-four months of full-time employment within four years of their date of arrival. The program was terminated in November 2014. In 2016, the citizenship pass rate of LCP applicants was 81.7% (Xu, 2018: 7).
  • [30]
    ICIWG (2018) op. cit, p. 2.
  • [31]
    Ibid., p. 3.
  • [32]
    ICIWG (2018) op. cit., p. 3, and McKie (2013).
  • [33]
    United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2018) SDG 4 DATA DIGEST: Data to Nurture Learning, Montreal, UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
  • [34]
    ICIWG (2018) op. cit., p. 3, and Hou and Beiser (2000).
  • [35]
    Canadian Bar Association (2014) Bill C-24, Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, p. 15, [online] last checked on 28/09/2019. URL:,0,450
  • [36]
    IRCC (2017a) Citizenship: Ministerial discretion to waive some of the requirements for a grant of citizenship on compassionate grounds, [online] last checked on 16/01/2019. URL:
  • [37]
    IRCC (2019) op. cit.
  • [38]
    Abrar v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2014 FC 550, at para. 17.
  • [39]
    IRCC (2017a) Citizenship: Ministerial discretion to waive some of the requirements for a grant of citizenship on compassionate grounds, [online] last checked on 16/01/2019. URL:
  • [40]
    Arif v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2007 FC 557. See also Gyatso v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 FC 280. In Gyatso, the Federal Court refused to overturn a decision of a citizenship judge finding that a waiver was not warranted as the applicant had passed a very simple oral knowledge test (through an interpreter) despite the medical evidence stating that he would be unable to pass either language or knowledge. The judge found that since the applicant had passed the knowledge test, the applicant surely had some mental ability to learn some English with the proper training, even after considering the medical and psychological evidence. The applicant in that case was a fifty-one-year-old Tibetan man who had lived a nomadic life before coming to Canada and had had no formal schooling. Justice Strickland of the Federal Court found that this was a reasonable finding.
  • [41]
    IRCC (2017a) op. cit.
  • [42]
    ICIWG (2017) Submission to the Senate of Canada, Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Regarding Bill C-6 - An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act, p. 3.
  • [43]
    This jurisprudential search was conducted in June 2019. The Federal Court’s database was used to search Canadian case law based on the following criteria: 1) cases decided by the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal; 2) cases invoking a combination of specific keywords, such as “waiver”, “citizenship”, “knowledge” and/or “language”; 3) cases rendered between 1978 and 2019. Out of the 106 cases found, seventy were selected (most non-selected cases related to residency requirements under the immigration legislation).
  • [44]
    Two obvious factors can be isolated. First, since a change in Federal Court rules introduced in 1998 (SOR/98-106), “[…] citizenship appeals are no longer trials de novo, but must be determined on the record before the citizenship judge, and no new evidence may be submitted” (Abukar v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2014 FC 528, at para. 10). Thus, jurisprudence from the 1980s and 1990’s recognizes that a multitude of compassionate factors could be considered when determining if a discretionary grant of citizenship should be made. But since the early 2000s, the Federal Court has shown greater deference to the citizenship officer’s findings, and most decisions are briefly analyzed by the court as to whether the citizenship judge’ conclusion is reasonable or not. Second, following changes through Bill C-24 in 2014, there is now a requirement (found at s. 22.1 of the revised Citizenship Act) to obtain leave from the Federal Court to challenge a citizenship refusal. This obliges citizenship applicants to seek permission from the Federal Court so that their claim can be judicially reviewed, which imposes an additional cost as applicants must hire a lawyer to do the leave application.
  • [45]
    It appears that many of the applicants who requested a waiver before the court are people with low-literacy skills (see Amoah v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2009 FC 775 (dismissed) — lack of formal education in her country of origin; Weiss (Re), 1998 F.C.J. n° 123 (allowed) — never attended school in her life; Tam (Re), 1993 F.C.J. n° 1165 (allowed) — only two years of schooling) or women facing multiple challenges (see Abrar v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2014 FC 550 (dismissed) — health problems, five children, full time job; Woldemariam v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2012 FC 621 (dismissed) — three children, the oldest being diagnosed with autism; Ovcina (Re), 1998 F.C.J. n° 1928 (allowed) — grade eleven education, fled the Balkans war, suffers from trauma and chronic back pain, lives off income assistance with three children).
  • [46]
    Following changes made to the citizenship legislation through Bill C-24, applicants between fourteen and sixty-four years had to meet the language and knowledge requirements for citizenship. This change was reversed in 2017 with the enactment of Bill C-6, and now it is only applicants between eighteen and fifty-four who must meet these requirements.
  • [47]
    IRCC (2011a) op. cit., without pagination.
  • [48]
    Our suggestions here draw heavily on the work of the Inter-Clinic Immigration Working Group, which has had significant experience over the years assisting clients with citizenship matters (ICIWG, 2017; ICIWG, 2018, op. cit.).
  • [49]
    Arguably, the citizenship test could be removed entirely. We do not entertain this possibility here for two reasons: 1) it does not seem plausible that the Canadian Government would consider this option; 2) interviews with recently naturalized Canadians suggest that a “fair and reasonable” citizenship test is considered a valuable rite of passage (Winter, 2018).
  • [50]
    Al-Darawish v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2011 FC 984, at para. 32.

With a naturalization rate above 80%, Canada is a world leader in granting citizenship to immigrants and refugees. However, policy changes over the past decade — which we identify as falling within the “civic integration paradigm” — have led to a steady decline in both citizenship applications and attributions. This paper takes a closer look at the reasons for this decline. In particular, we examine who fails in meeting the mandatory citizenship knowledge and language requirements such as members of the family class and refugees. We also show that Canada’s naturalization rules have become highly econocentric.

  • Canada
  • naturalization
  • citizenship test
  • language proficiency
  • waiver
  • family class
  • refugee class


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Delphine Nakache
Associate Professor, University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, 57 Louis-Pasteur Private, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N6N5, Canada;
Jennifer Stone
MSc, JD, Executive Director of Neighbourhood Legal Services ( & Manager of the Health Justice Program (, 163 Queen St. East #101, Toronto, ON M5A 1S1, Canada;
Elke Winter
Full Professor of Sociology, University of Ottawa; 120 University Private (#10059), Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 6N5, Canada;
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