Speaking in the highly diverse community of Brampton, Ont., just northwest of Toronto, Hussen said the changes undo barriers the former Conservative government put in place.
“Something happened in the last number of years whereby the previous government had deliberately put obstacles, real barriers, to citizenship for permanent residents,” Hussen said.
“Those barriers were unnecessary. They prolonged people’s steps to join the Canadian family, they made it really hard.”
Under the changes that take effect Oct. 11, which Hussen called long-awaited, would-be citizens will have to have been in Canada for three of the last five years before they apply.
“That is really important because it will mean that many permanent residents will be able to apply for citizenship earlier and it will mean their path to citizenship will be eased,” Hussen said.
The government under former prime minister Stephen Harper had tightened the eligibility rules to require permanent residents to have been physically present in Canada for four years out of the last six immediately before applying for citizenship
Another rule, requiring applicants to be in Canada for 183 days each year, has been causing “real hardship” and is being scrapped under implementation of Bill C-6. Permanent residents will now be allowed to go abroad to study, work or for family reasons without losing access to citizenship eligibility.
Another key change also taking effect will be how time spent in Canada before foreigners become permanent residents is counted. Currently, the time people are in the country – studying, working, visiting, or as refugees – does not count as being present for citizenship-eligibility purposes, even if they have been here for years.
Hussen called that “unfortunate.” The new rules, he said, will allow such individuals to count half the time they have spent in Canada to a maximum of one year, meaning that once they become permanent residents, they would only need to be in the country for an additional two years to apply for citizenship.
Also as of Oct. 11, only newcomers aged of 18 to 54 will have to take and pass a citizenship knowledge and language test. Previously, the age range was 14 to 64, a problem Hussen said was particularly acute for those under 18 given their need to study for school exams.
The various changes are part of the same bill that previously scrapped the federal government’s ability to strip citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism – another controversial change implemented under Harper.
The Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said it wants to simplify the process with the ongoing overhaul of the Citizenship Act. The government is also rewriting the citizenship oath to incorporate a reference to treaties with Indigenous Peoples.
Hussen, himself a Somali immigrant who came to Canada in 1993 as a 16-year-old, spoke of the importance of gaining citizenship to newcomers, the final step toward their integration into the “Canadian family.” He recalled “how moving” it was when he took his own oath 15 years ago.
“A lot of permanent residents have been eagerly awaiting these changes,” Hussen said.
At the same time, he said, immigrants are a crucial part of the country’s economy and social fabric, and the changes go a distance toward recognizing those facts.