PASSPORTS OF CONVENIENCE by Robin Higham (Article)


Robin Higham

We need to reflect on the implications of Canada’s legendary easy-access citizenship policies and the suggestion that our passport is becoming the world’s “passport of convenience”, comparable to the Liberian shipping flag-of-convenience – i.e., the flag flown by expatriate and tramp tankers and freighters with dubious credentials to exercise their operations in international waters.

The July 2006 attack on Lebanon, which precipitated yet another exodus from that troubled region, exposed for the general public in Canada, one of the practical consequences of decades of relaxed government attitude toward granting of Canadian citizenship and of allowing an apparent imbalance of rights (full access) and responsibilities (minimal) to develop in the minds of residents abroad holding Canadian passports and citizenship, usually as dual nationals.

Behind closed doors and sheltered from the scrutiny of the “political-correctness police”, Canada’s professional foreign service officers will confirm that this question is not new. For years, they have been observing and reporting, via classified communications to their Ottawa headquarters, on three matters of concern in relation to this phenomenon.

The Lebanon episode should provide an occasion to reflect on these important issues:

  1. Why do so many foreigners want to acquire a Canadian passport and citizenship if they do not intend to live in Canada?
  2. What are the processes for acquiring Canadian Citizenship and is there disconnect between those mechanisms and the legitimate immigration objectives pursued by Canada?
  3. What are the implications for Canadians of their government’s willingness to recognize the Canadian citizenship of foreign nationals who have no intention of establishing themselves in Canada, nor of contributing to the Canadian economy and society or its tax base, nor of ever shouldering the responsibilities that resident Canadians may be called upon to accept as a counterbalance for the considerable benefits of being a Canadian citizen.

The Lebanon episode as revelateur

It is unlikely that Canadian diplomats serving abroad shared the surprise of the media or of fellow Canadians back home who, during the assisted exodus from Lebanon in July 2006, learned that their taxpayers were suddenly on call to pick up the tab for funding the “homecoming” of as many as an estimated 50,000 passport carrying dual nationals who were resident in, or “just visiting” Lebanon when the war began.

As it turned out, only about 14,000 exercized their option for repatriation but the rescue operation mobilized considerable logistical and financial resources of a large number of federal agencies: Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT), Department of National Defence (DND), Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), not to mention the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and its entourage. There is little use speculating on the final dollar and opportunity costs associated with that evacuation, but it would be safe to assume that it was a very expensive operation.

The ‘passport of convenience’ phenomenon

But the Lebanon episode provoked reflection beyond the problem of public expenditures. Public concern was also and more importantly about the very notion of Canadian citizenship for persons who have every intention to remain living and working abroad, most often in their country of origin, and the extent to which they may legitimately expect to have access-on-demand to the many of the important benefits and privileges from the Canadian government on the basis of their passport of convenience.


The rush to Canadian citizenship by foreign residents living abroad may seem puzzling to Canadians who come by it with no more inconvenience than getting together their birth certificate, a passport photo and shelling out the $100+ fee. For many of us, a passport is just an expensive travel document created by governments to keep track of citizens’ movements at citizen expense. Looking in from outside however, citizenship in this country promises advantages that inspire many foreigners to make significant efforts to join the club.

For residents of many African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, the safe refuge factor is a prominent motivation to seek a Canadian passport: Canada as a place to go when it is no longer safe to stay in one’s country of origin. A second reason is health care. Our no-charge or low-charge health care system is immensely valuable for citizens of so-called emerging democracies and fragile or failed states. Access to free health care (when faced with serious illness and there is no adequate treatment available at home) can be literally a matter of life or death. Access to Canadian universities at the lower and subsidized tuition fees charged Canadian citizens, is another bonus for holders of the Canadian passport of convenience.

A Canadian passport is also valued as a prime facilitator document for international travel: if you carry a Canadian passport and want to travel through Europe or the US, no visa is needed in many cases and even if a visa is required, it is (still) bound to be easier to obtain if you have a maple leaf in your passport.


There have been many effective mechanisms for acquiring a passport of convenience. Here are a few.

Under the family reunification provisions of the regulations, two favourites are through a “marriage of convenience” or by arranging that a resident Canadian citizen sponsors you as a relative.

Canadian consular and immigration officers at home and abroad issue “Sponsored Spouse/Partner Questionnaires”. These are accepted on the strength of signed and sworn statements of the Canadian applicant and the intended spouse, common law partner or conjugal partner. Officers who interview the applicants and see the completed forms, or the earlier “Certificate of Marriage-ability” form, as a matter of daily routine, acknowledge that the profile of the applicants and their about-to-be-acquired foreign spouses, frequently suggest highly dubious love matches. Now that Canada recognizes same-sex marriages, one more constraint on locating a spouse-of-convenience may have been set aside.

Defenders of the process will argue that marrying a Canadian is no guarantee of being granted landed immigrant status, but it is well known that few cases are challenged. Few cases can resist the combined and sustained efforts of immigration consultants and lawyers, ethnic pressure groups, the threat of media coverage or representation to the Minister by a member of parliament.

A second mechanism is citizenship on the strength of being born in Canada (jus soli), even of a foreign mother: it suffices for the newborn to go home a certified Canadian.

If the expectant mother is in Canada on a tourist or student visa, and gives birth to a child in Canada, the child is a Canadian citizen. Once repatriated, the child often not only gains extra points in the local marriage-ability rankings because of its Canadian citizenship advantage, but his/her own children in turn are entitled to citizenship under the Canadians Born Abroad regulations, regardless of the nationality of the other parent.

A third well-known route is to persuade immigration officers that you have the kind of business resources or technical skills that score points in the evaluation process for business immigrants. Once a person is qualified as a landed immigrant, one can be out of the country for six months for each of the following three years required for full citizenship status.

But if one plays one’s cards well, this constraint can be managed too. Following a private-sector immigration advisor’s instructions on how to make it appear in your travel documents that you are physically present in the country for the required minimum six months per year over three years is not always a serious hurdle.



The most obvious financial implications of maintaining an inflated community of expatriate citizens are related to access to health care, and to tertiary education. More recently, the costs associated with “rescuing” whole communities of expatriates when their personal security is under threat, have come to public attention. The Lebanon episode seems to have created a precedent on this front.

The non-financial implications are more difficult to identify and quantify and have to do with how Canadians wish to be perceived internationally. The multiplication of passports of convenience can only lead to an erosion of the esteem associated with the Canadian citizenship and passport. There have already been suggestions that many foreign countries may soon require all Canadian passport holders travelling to Europe for instance to obtain visas, since the passport of convenience is viewed as a passport of choice for terrorist groups or international criminals.



It may be possible to make the case that the advantages of building a large community of Canadian dual nationals abroad outweigh the disadvantages, and that we should rejoice in the rush to Canadian citizenship, even if by stealth. But it is reasonable to insist that the matter be openly and critically discussed.

Tags: Robin Higham