Is Bill C-24 strengthening Canadian citizenship?
When I first met Deepan Budlakoti in October 2013 he was clearly exhausted. He had just come off an 18-hour shift as a tow-truck driver. He had been working 90 to 100 hours a week, in part to help pay the legal expenses for his court challenge against the Canadian government, now totalling $50,000.
While Deepan was serving three years in prison for drug and firearms charges, a racial-profiling prison guard brought him to the attention of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The CBSA then determined he should be deported to India, a country he has never been to. The Harper government is hoping to make banishment a more regular activity now that their Bill C-24″Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act” has become law. The bill raises the bar for acquiring citizenship and allows it to be revoked by a parliamentary minister, with no possible appeal in court.
Deepan currently lives under house arrest while the government plan his deportation to a country that understandably refuses to accept him because he has never lived there. Since we met in October, he also lost his job and today lives solely from the support of others.
The injustice here is that Deepan has served the time for the crimes he committed so is being subjected to double-punishment. In fact, he came out of prison with university courses under his belt and a college diploma. This is especially impressive given the facilities he resided in are, by many accounts, in a state of “crisis” from over-crowding due to new mandatory sentencing laws.
To manage over-crowding, administrators keep prisoners on lock-down for weeks at a time and have increased the use of segregation (solitary confinement). This year the federal prison guard union even came out in protest against these conditions, which they say makes their job more dangerous because tensions are higher among inmates.
In spite of his time-served, the Canadian media continue to portray Deepan as a “criminal“. More accurate language given the theoretical underpinnings of our legal system is that he is an “ex-offender”, “former-prisoner” or at least the colloquial “ex-con”. More accurate language given the reality of the prison system is that he is a survivor.
Government spokesperson, Alexis Pavlich, Press Secretary for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, argues that Deepan “should not have chosen a life of crime if he did not want to be deported from Canada”. There are two problems with this. The first is that he has served the punishment for the crime as determined in a court of law. Secondly, it avoids the issue of how Deepan arrived at this “life of crime”.
The facts of Deepan’s life make it impossible to ignore the complicity of the Canadian state and society in forming his path. That is because he was, technically, their child. Deepan was born in Ottawa to new immigrants who had arrived as domestic staff for the Indian ambassador before taking work for a Canadian physician. The government claims he cannot be Canadian because his parents were not technically employed in Canada – something Deepan denies (He was issued a provincial birth certificate and later a Canadian passport).
Having run away from home at the age of 12, Deepan got into trouble with the law and was taken in as a ward of the state by 13. The state therefore became his formal guardian. From there he moved through juvenile detention centres, foster care and the public school system. In this process, he experienced various forms of racism and believes he was streamed into the worst schools for forsaken students.
Deepan does not offer many details of the challenges he faced at home as a child. However, the reality for new immigrants then and now is that they face racism, poverty and insufficient social support systems. In these circumstances, people commonly feel isolated, which increases stresses within the home. Nostalgia and fear of losing connection with one’s past can sometimes lead immigrant parents to be stern, perhaps as they hope to protect their children from a rapidly changing world. Children also often feel stronger pressures to excel in school.
These are some of the factors that led Deepan to flee home at a young age. He soon found himself in group-homes with 7-10 other children who had few prospects in life. Crime was all around him and he eventually got pulled in. In hindsight, he says he was not thinking of the broader picture, but was simply trying to survive on a daily basis. Unfortunately he was also growing up at a time when tough-on-crime politics were on the rise with conservative provincial and federal governments pushing a prison privatisation agenda.
Strengthening Canadian citizenship?
Deepan believes the Canadian government is abdicating its responsibility by trying to push him off to India. As he says, “they made me who I am.” It is the Canadian state that turned him into a criminal – or at least created the conditions for it to happen.
Some suggest this case, along with Bill C-24, actually weakens Canadian citizenship. Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association suggests, “This bill turns the whole idea of being Canadian upside-down, so that the Canadian citizenship of some people will be worth less than the Canadian citizenship of others”.
While these are important points of critique, they appeal to a nationalist sentiment that sees Canada as a kinder and gentler capitalist nation – one that has embraced diversity and multi-culturalism. Yet this narrative fails to account for the fact that the creation of Canada is entwined with processes of exclusion.
In the words of eminent historical geographer, Cole Harris, conquest involved the “making of native space” (i.e. reserves). Lynn Gehl has provided a concise list and comment on key aspects of this history of exclusion here.
Citizenship in Canada has always relied on the state powers of exclusion while naturalising European settlement (itself stratified, with an Anglo-Scottish elite on top).
Thus today when the Harper government claims it is “strengthening Canadian citizenship” they are actually reasserting an image of Canada that is white, just as they are continually reasserting the country’s relationship with the British Mkonarchy. It is a discourse that also justifies what a Federal Court Judge Anne Mactavish has called “cruel and unusual treatment” against refugees by denying them healthcare.
However the Harperites argue a little cruelty is necessary to “vigorously defend (s) the interests of Canadian taxpayers” against supposedly “fraudulent refugees”. They would be more honest if they replaced the term “tax payers” with “white power”.
The tragedy of this cruelty is that it comes as greater numbers of people than ever before are having their livelihoods destroyed amid war and economic deprivation – much of it serving Canadian business interests, whether it be in Gaza, Latin America, or acting as the Empire’s Ally in the war on terror. Today there are about 231.5 million international migrants in the world – three percent of the global population. Bill C-24 sends the message they should go somewhere else.
Deepan’s case, however, provides the first opportunity for decent Canadians to challenge the cruel logic behind bill C-24 and in turn push back against the hardening of state walls and the far-right agenda that prevails in Canada.
Toby Moorsom teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa and is an editor of Nokoko Journal of African Studies.
Follow him on Twitter: @tobymoorsom
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.