What Does It Mean to Be a Canadian Citizen?

The country offers a cautionary tale about democracy and voting rights.

A polling station in Quebec
A polling station in Quebec (Martin Ouellet-Diotte / AFP / Getty)

“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

In the half century since John F. Kennedy said those famous words, the balance has definitely shifted toward asking what your country can do for you. In almost every democracy, citizenship today offers more rights and imposes fewer responsibilities than it did in 1961.

How much should that balance shift? Canadians have been debating that question this winter—and landed in favor of rights, against responsibilities. Canada’s example offers cautionary lessons for others.

The story starts far from Canadian shores, in Lebanon, in the summer of 2006. A cross-border raid by Hezbollah triggered an armed Israeli response. The fighting rapidly escalated into a serious Israeli-Iranian proxy war. Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel. Israeli troops crossed the border to destroy the rocket launchers. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were displaced in the fighting.

At the time, some 50,000 Canadian passport-holders made their homes in Lebanon. Under intense media pressure to do something to protect these Canadian citizens from the Israeli onslaught, the Conservative government  organized the most ambitious seaborne evacuation in Canadian history. The government chartered passenger vessels to ferry Lebanese Canadians to Cyprus and Turkey. In the end, about 14,000 people were evacuated, at a cost estimated (but never officially confirmed) of close to 100 million Canadian dollars. In another break with precedent, the government foisted the entire expense on taxpayers.

Some of the evacuees expressed anger at the discomforts of the trip: long queues at the Beirut waterfront; crowded ships that lacked air-conditioning. A Toronto TV station quoted one man: “It’s a humiliation. Is this because we are of Arab origin? The government said ‘trust us’ and this is the trust I put in them?” It soon became public knowledge—although this, too, was never officially confirmed—that nearly half of the evacuees returned home to Lebanon within the month.

Comments like that did not sit well with many people back in Canada. Some politicians and commentators began to speak of “Canadians of convenience”: people who lived permanently abroad, did not pay Canadian taxes, and remembered their Canadian citizenship only when they needed rescue.

As a partial step to addressing these complaints, the government took steps to tighten rules about expatriate citizenship. It began for the first time to seriously enforce the ban on voting by long-term expatriates, people who had lived outside Canada for five years or longer. As Canada headed into a federal election in 2011 under the new rules, two expatriate Canadians filed a lawsuit to demand restoration of their voting rights. That litigation wended its way through the judicial system. In January 2019, the Supreme Court of Canada pronounced an answer: All Canadian citizens may vote in Canadian elections, no matter how long they have lived outside the country. The text of the decision would seem to apply even to those Canadian citizens who have never lived in Canada at all, or who have acquired nationality in another country.

Even before the decision, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau had moved ahead with legislation. I number among those supposedly benefited by the new legislation. In November 2018, I testified to the Canadian Senate against it.

My advice went unheeded, obviously. Yet it’s still worth thinking together: How is democracy supposed to work in a world of dissolving national boundaries and proliferating dual, triple, and quadruple citizenships?

Perhaps you think of Canada as an immigration magnet, but Canada also exports people in large numbers: perhaps 2.8 million people, or about 9 percent of the country’s population. (In contrast, only about 9 million nonmilitary Americans live abroad, or less than 3 percent of the U.S. population.)

Naturalized Canadians are three times as likely to live outside Canada as native-born Canadians, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. About 24 percent of immigrants from Hong Kong return to the territory after acquiring Canadian citizenship, as do 30 percent of immigrants from Taiwan.

You can see the appeal. Hong Kong’s economy is growing much faster than Canada’s. Its income-tax rates top out at 17 percent. Canada does not tax the foreign-source income of nonresident citizens, in effect creating a geopolitical arbitrage opportunity too attractive to miss: the protections of Canadian nationality at low Hong Kong prices.

True, nonresident citizens of Canada do lose certain benefits as long as they live outside the country, notably enrollment in the country’s health system. It might seem reasonable that voting could be another of those benefits that nonresident citizens lay aside when they depart, and that they can resume if and when they return. The time-honored saying “No taxation without representation” does seem to imply, as a corollary, “No representation without taxation.”

But that rule was too clear and simple for the Supreme Court of Canada, which (as it so often does) preferred a complex balancing-of-all-the-factors approach. The court opined: “While [the five-year rule] seeks to bar people from voting who lack a sufficient connection to Canada, no correlation has been shown between, on the one hand, how long a Canadian citizen has lived abroad and, on the other hand, the extent of his or her subjective commitment to Canada.” The court left open the possibility that a long-term expatriate could be denied voting rights on some more complicated, subjective basis. But the Trudeau government did not bother with that. A new law allows any long-term expatriate with proof of identity to cast a ballot in the last constituency in which they lived in Canada.

I last voted in Canada in the Ontario provincial election of 1995, in the Toronto electoral district of St. Paul’s. Despite holding U.S. citizenship, voting in U.S. elections, and paying U.S. income taxes, I could, under the Trudeau government’s new law, cast a ballot in St. Paul’s again in the federal election of 2019. (Curiously, I could not vote under the new law in the riding of Quinte, where I own a vacation home and pay local property taxes.)

Fortunately for me, I do not have to worry that even the Trump administration would seek to pressure me to use this newly acquired right one way or the other. But I wonder whether I would feel that same way if I were a native of Hong Kong who returned to live under Chinese jurisdiction. China operates an increasingly elaborate surveillance system, which monitors not only political dissent but even such seemingly personal behaviors as school tardiness.

Yet even without intimidation, the new system raises challenging questions. What does it mean to be a citizen? Is citizenship a kind of subscription service, to be suspended and resumed as our needs change? Are countries competing service providers, their terms and conditions subject to the ebbs and flows of consumer preference? Edmund Burke long ago articulated an ambitious vision of society as a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Does any of that still resonate? Or is it a bygone idea of a vanished age, dissolved in a globalized world?