Canadian Citizenship | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Citizenship

Canadian citizenship was first created in 1947 by the Canadian Citizenship Act. Today's version of the law says both Canadian-born and naturalized citizens are equally entitled to the rights of a citizen, and subject to the duties of a citizen. In 2014, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act brought about the first significant amendments to the Citizenship Act since 1977. However, these changes were repealed or amended by legislation passed in 2017.

First official citizenship ceremony in Ottawa, 1947.
(l to r) Naif Hanna Azar from Palestine, Jerzy Wladyslaw Meier from Poland, Louis Edmon Brodbeck from Switzerland, Joachim Heinrich Hellmen from Germany, Jacko Hrushkowsky from Russia, and Anton Justinik from Yugoslavia. (Back row: l.-r.:) Zigurd Larsen from Norway, Sgt. Maurice Labrosse from Canada, Joseph Litvinchuk, Roumania, Mrs. Labrosse from Scotland, Nestor Rakowitza from Roumania and Yousuf Karsh from Armenia with Mrs. Helen Sawicka from Poland. Credit: Chris Lund/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-129262.\r\n

Rights and Responsibilities of Canadian Citizenship

Rights of Canadian Citizenship
Fundamental Rights Freedom of conscience and religion — the right to develop, change and practice one’s beliefs.
Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression — this includes freedom of speech and of the press.
Freedom of peaceful assembly (e.g., rallies).
Freedom of association (i.e., you can freely join or leave a group).
Legal Rights Habeas corpus — the right to challenge unlawful detention by the state.
Anyone charged with an offence is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Democratic Rights Adults (those 18 years and older) have the right to vote in federal, provincial and municipal elections.
Adults have the right to stand for election to political office.
Mobility Rights The right to live and work anywhere in Canada.     
The right to enter and leave the country freely.
The right to apply for a passport.     
Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Treaty or other rights or freedoms of Indigenous peoples cannot be adversely affected by the rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Official Language Rights and Minority Language Educational Rights French and English have equal status in Parliament and throughout the government.     
Citizens have the right to education in either official language.
Multiculturalism All members of Canadian society have the right to preserve, enhance and share their languages and cultural heritage.
Equality The right to be treated fairly, regardless of gender, age, cultural background, religion, race, or mental or physical disability.

Responsibilities of Canadian Citizenship
Respect Others Respect the rights and freedoms of others.     
Respect the two official languages and multiculturalism.
Legal Responsibilities All individuals and groups must obey the law.     
Citizens are legally required to serve on a jury when called to do so.
Democratic Responsibilities Citizens are responsible to vote in federal, provincial/territorial and local elections.
Personal Responsibility Citizens are responsible to look after themselves, including working hard and taking care of their families.
Community Involvement Volunteering in the community is an important part of Canadian citizenship.
Protecting Heritage and Environment All citizens are responsible to avoid waste and pollution and protect Canada’s natural, cultural and architectural heritage for future generations.

Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947

Before 1947, both people born in Canada and naturalized immigrants were considered British subjects. The Canadian Citizenship Act came into force on 1 January 1947. It was the first nationality law to define people as Canadian. The creation of Canadian citizenship was an important expression of the country's growing sense of national identity.

The Act outlined the process and requirements for obtaining Canadian citizenship, as well as the reasons it could be revoked. Among other things, it gave married women full control over their nationality status; prior to 1947, a woman's nationality status in Canada was generally defined by that of her husband, and could be lost through marriage.

Citizenship Act of 1977

The 1977 Citizenship Act (which received royal assent in 1976) came into force on 15 February 1977. Most provisions of the Act still apply today. It defines "citizen" as "a Canadian citizen." It ensures that both native-born and naturalized citizens are equally entitled to all the rights of a citizen, and subject to all the duties of a citizen. These rights and duties are governed by provincial and federal laws and by the Constitution Act, 1982. Citizens are guaranteed democratic rights; these include the right to vote in elections of the House of Commons and legislative assemblies, and the right to run for office.

The new Act removed the previous distinction between British subjects and “aliens.” This was an important change for Canada’s non-British population, which grew quickly in the decades after the Second World War. Many new immigrants from Europe and elsewhere had become frustrated with the unequal treatment they received compared to those coming from Britain and the Commonwealth. In response to this, the Act made all people seeking to become citizens equal.

The Act also allowed Canadians to hold dual citizenship; previously, they would generally lose their citizenship if they acquired the citizenship of another country.

Under the Act today, all persons born in Canada are Canadian citizens at birth, with minor exceptions (e.g., children of diplomats born in other countries). Generally speaking, children born outside Canada are citizens if either parent was a Canadian citizen at the time of the child's birth, except if that parent was also born outside Canada.

Adults who have immigrated to Canada are eligible to become citizens if they have permanent resident status; have lived for a certain number of years in Canada; have adequate knowledge of French or English; have adequate knowledge of Canada; and fulfill certain other conditions. Children under 18 whose parent or parents have become citizens — or who are applying for citizenship simultaneously — are also eligible to become citizens if they are permanent residents, and if their parent or parents apply for citizenship on their behalf.

The minister of citizenship and immigration holds discretionary powers in this area. These include the power to waive certain citizenship requirements; the power to grant citizenship to any person to assist in cases of special and unusual hardship; or to reward services that are exceptionally valuable to Canada. Citizenship can also be revoked under these powers if obtained by fraud, misrepresentation, or "knowingly concealing material circumstances."


Canadian citizens have the absolute right to leave and enter Canada (e.g., returning from travelling abroad) and the right to live in Canada. Indigenous people registered under the  Indian Act also have the right to enter and remain in Canada. Permanent residents and convention refugees are allowed some of these rights in Canada. But they face certain restrictions. For example, only Canadian citizens are eligible to obtain Canadian passports. Permanent residents and refugees can be issued travel documents. (See also Immigration Policy.)

2009 and 2014 Amendments to Citizenship Act

Several important changes were made to the Citizenship Act under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Amendments to the Citizenship Act in 2014 were the first since 1977 to significantly alter the Act. Important changes also came into force in 2009.

The 2009 amendments dealt with a group of residents known as “lost Canadians.” The term refers to people who were never granted Canadian citizenship, or ceased to be citizens, due to outdated legislation, despite a substantial connection to Canada (e.g. a person who took the citizenship of another country before dual citizenship was introduced in 1977).

On 19 June 2014, a set of amendments to the law — called the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act — received royal assent. These amendments dealt with the modern issue of terrorism; clarified the definition of residence in Canada; and streamlined the citizenship process.

The 2014 changes made it tougher to obtain citizenship. The amendments increased the residence requirement for citizenship applicants from three out of four years to four out of six years. In addition, time spent in Canada before getting permanent resident status no longer counted toward the residency requirement. Applicants’ criminal histories (e.g., certain offences committed outside of Canada) also came under more scrutiny.

Prior to these amendments, a citizenship application was considered by a citizenship judge. Under the new law, citizenship judges no longer had any role in approving citizenship applications, except in cases where residency requirements were in question and the main role of judges was to administer the oath of citizenship to new Canadians. Applications would mainly be approved by government departmental officers.

Revoking Citizenship

The 2014 amendments to the Citizenship Act also greatly expanded the reasons that a person’s citizenship could be revoked. Under the 1977 Act, the only grounds for revocation were fraud or misrepresentation on a citizenship or immigration application. Under the 2014 amendments, Canadian citizenship could be revoked based on criminal convictions committed in Canada and abroad. Examples of such convictions include terrorism; violation of human rightswar crimes; and organized crime. Citizenship could also be revoked if an individual served as a member of an armed force in an armed conflict against Canada.

According to the 2014 amendments, the minister of citizenship and immigration had the direct power to revoke citizenship in cases of fraud. The minister would refer the decision to revoke an individual’s citizenship to the Federal Court only in cases that related to security matters (such as terrorism); human rights violations or war crimes; and organized criminality. Revocation of citizenship did not return the person to the status of a permanent resident; it rendered them a foreign national with no right to reside in Canada. This meant they could be deported. Applicants could apply for judicial review of a decision made on their case, but the grounds to do so were very narrow.

Opposition to 2014 Amendments

Critics of the 2014 amendments said that they made Canadian citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose.” The expanded grounds for revocation were questioned by the Canadian Bar Association (CBA). Under international obligations, Canada generally cannot make a person stateless. This suggests that the threat of revocation of citizenship will not apply to people who are solely Canadian citizens; but rather only to people who are dual citizens or who may be eligible to get citizenship in another country. The CBA and lawyers who represent refugees argued that this creates a distinction between naturalized and native-born citizens that is unfair and discriminatory. They also argued it may not comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The CBA argued that the law “appears to impose exile as an additional form of punishment.”

In June 2014, a group of lawyers including Rocco Galati, Manuel Azevedo and the Constitutional Rights Centre launched a court challenge of the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, calling it unconstitutional. Critics also said that the loss of flexibility in the amended law will make people with strong connections to Canada ineligible for citizenship. They also argued that this might affect Canada’s ability to attract skilled and desirable immigrants.

Bill C-6 and 2017 Changes to Citizenship Act

In June 2017, Parliament passed new legislation concerning citizenship. Bill C-6 repealed or amended the changes introduced in 2014. This included repealing the revocation of citizenship based on national security concerns. Under the new legislation, dual citizens who had been convicted of terrorism, spying or treason, or who had been part of an armed force engaged in conflict with Canada would no longer lose their citizenship. The legislation also created a new process for revocation. All cases of revocation would be decided by the Federal Court. An exception would be made if the individual requested their case be heard by the minister of citizenship and immigration.

The residency requirement was also reduced from four out of six years to three out of five years. Applicants could once again count time spent in Canada before becoming a permanent resident as part of their residency requirement. Other changes made it easier for minors to become citizens.  


Non-citizens in Canada do not enjoy political rights such as voting and running for office. But they generally have all legal rights and are subject to the law in the same way as citizens. Non-citizens include refugees; permanent residents; international students; foreign workers; and visitors. Permanent residents are entitled to work in Canada, while visitors usually are not.

Active Citizenship

Citizens enjoy many rights in Canada, including the freedom to live or work anywhere in the country; the right to fair trial; and the right to vote in elections. But citizenship also comes with responsibilities. For example, voting in federal, provincial and local elections is not only a right, but also a responsibility. Canadians are expected to take an active role in the community. This is known as “active citizenship.”  This includes not only voting but also volunteering (e.g., at schools, food banks and other charities) and protecting the environment (e.g., recycling, helping clean up polluted areas). (See also Active Citizenship: Plain Language Summary.)

Honorary Citizenship

The Government of Canada can grant honorary citizenship to foreign individuals. This recognizes their contributions to and importance within the international community. The move is purely symbolic. Honorary citizens do not enjoy any of the rights or privileges afforded by Canadian citizenship. The decision to grant a person honorary citizenship is a purely political one; it is not subject to formal requirements or procedures. There have been suggestions over the years to introduce a more formalized system, such as establishing an all-party committee to approve recipients.

Canada has bestowed honorary citizenship on six people: Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg (1985); South African political leader Nelson Mandela (2001); the 14th Dalai Lama (2006); Myanmar political leader Aung San Suu Kyi (2007); the Aga Khan (2010); and Pakistani women’s rights advocate Malala Yousafzai (2014). (Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship was unanimously revoked by both the House of Commons and the Senate in 2018 in response to her country’s violent actions towards Rohingya Muslims.)

See also Citizenship: Collection; Citizenship Quiz (Easy); Citizenship Quiz (Medium); Citizenship Quiz (Hard).

Further Reading