Language skills the target of Canadian citizenship reform

By Robin Levinson, For National Post – May 24, 2012

Immigrants must provide a diploma to show they have good verbal and written communication skills

People applying for Canadian citizenship must now provide “objective evidence” that they can not only read, but actually communicate in English or French. If they don’t have a diploma from an English or French school, they will have to either pass a language test or take government-approved language classes.

Proving your language skills comes at a high cost for the applicant. One of the only standardized English tests currently accepted by the government, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), costs between $265 and $285 to write.

Overall, the government estimates the program will cost $110-million to implement. While the new policy should save money by reducing costly court hours and improving the language skills of new citizens, there is still a loss of $1.7-million a year.

Joshua Sohn, an immigration lawyer, is worried that this cost outweighs the problem.

“It’s a laudable goal to have clarity in language testing,” Sohn said. “But is it truly addressing a problem?”

Previously, applicants proved their language skills by taking the Discover Canada citizenship knowledge test. This exam measured both the applicant’s familiarity with Canadian history and society, and their language abilities.

It was assumed that if they could understand the cultural questions, they proved they had sufficient language skills. Applicants who did not pass appeared before a judge, who assessed whether they had reasonable language skills.

Immigration lawyer Lainie Appleby said that not only was this process subjective and expensive, but the multiple-choice knowledge test only measured reading skills.

Under the old system, citizenship applicants would answer questions about Canadian society such as:

What is the meaning of the Remembrance Day poppy?

a. To remember our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II.
b. To celebrate Confederation.
c. To honour prime ministers who have died.
d. To remember the sacrifice of Canadians who have served or died in wars up to the present day. (the answer is d.)

Now, anyone applying for Canadian citizenship must provide “objective evidence” of their language skills in English or French — either in the form of an approved language test, a degree from an English or French school, or by passing a government-sponsored language program past a certain skill level.

The new requirements were designed to “enhance the integrity of the citizenship program by making language assessment more objective, while improving language outcomes for newcomers,” the amendments to the regulations read.

On Saturday, the amendments ended their 30-day consultation process, and should come into effect by fall 2012. The amendments do not change the level of language skills required for citizenship, only the process by which applicants would prove their knowledge.

One benefit of the changes to citizenship language assessment may be to encourage immigrants to take government language courses and improve their language skills, Appleby said.

“It will also encourage people to utilize a resource,” she said.

Currently, you must be a permanent resident in order to apply for citizenship. Permanent residents who applied as Skilled Federal Workers or Canadian Experience Class — a skilled worker class for those with job experience in Canada — already took an objective language test, and are likely not affected.

That leaves refugees and protected persons and family-sponsored residents to benefit from the new regulations.

In 2011, 46% of Canadian Citizens came as Federal Skilled Workers. No Canadian Experience Class applicants have become citizens, as the class of resident is relatively new. That means that more than half of new citizens have not had to take a language test before applying for citizenship.

The new policy follows years of immigration reforms initiated by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. During his tenure, Kenney controversially cleared the backlog of applicants under the Federal Skilled Worker Program, overhauled the refugee system and announced initiatives that would funnel foreign workers into labour-strapped locales.

Reforms have specifically singled-out language skills. In 2010, Skilled Federal Worker and Canadian Experience Class permanent residence applicants could no longer prove their language skills with a post-secondary diploma in an official language. All applicants now have to write an independent test proving their language capabilities, even those whose native language is English or French.

Starting July 1, Provincial Nominee Program applicants in semi and low-skilled professions will also be tested for their language proficiency.

Material reprinted with the express permission of: National Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.




Becoming a citizen of Canada may seem far away for someone who has just recently landed or is still contemplating immigration; but what the above National Post story shows even recent newcomers is that the Canadian government (a.k.a. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) is putting much more emphasis on the importance of language.

In addition to proving language ability before becoming a citizen, CIC is adding more language requirements for would-be immigrants, be they skilled trades or professors!

Why this emphasis on language? Recent studies have corroborated what I’ve been saying now for years — learning English (or French in Quebec) is critical for immigrants’ financial and settlement success in Canada.

In the past, it has been simply too easy for an immigrant to arrive in Canada, live in an ethnic enclave, find work with a fellow expat business owner, find friends from their homeland, and never have to use anything but their native tongue.

Is that what Canadian multiculturalism is all about? Or is that something else entirely?

Multiculturalism is supposed to be about respecting and holding onto one’s culture and heritage; but I’m sure Pierre Trudeau never envisioned it to result in a country of isolated cultural pockets.

Multiculturalism can strengthen us as a nation, as long as cross-culturalism is a part of that. We need to maintain a bridge between cultures, and that bridge is a common language — which is English, in most of Canada.

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