Public forum: citizenship, multiculturalism and the law

Dual citizenship helps make Canada a richer and more diverse society and must be preserved, said Senator Mobina Jaffer, QC at a Law Society forum on Citizenship and the Law on October 19.

“My Canadian citizenship means a lot to me because I earned it, and it’s made all the more special to me by the fact that I was never asked to give up who I was to be a Canadian,” said the Senator, who was born in Uganda and also holds British citizenship.

Speaking to the more than 140 people who attended the forum — an initiative by the Equity and Diversity Committee, chaired by Art Vertlieb, QC — Senator Jaffer rejected the suggestion from an audience member that Canada has a right to tell dual citizens to choose where their loyalties lie.

“The world is opening up so that people can have more identities,” said Senator Jaffer, “most countries in the world do have dual citizenship — the United States, most European countries. Part of my job as a Senator is to work with developing countries to encourage them to have dual citizenship.”

The forum — moderated by CBC Radio host Mark Forsythe — was approved by the Benchers to promote the legal profession and the rule of law among the community at large. President Rob McDiarmid, QC used his opening remarks to reflect on the role of the Law Society and the importance of an independent legal profession to ensure the rule of law is upheld.

Forum ParticipantsPanellist and Provincial Court Judge Justine Saunders, who was born and trained as a lawyer in South Africa, recounted her experiences defending black men accused of murder during the apartheid years. Judge Saunders described her first client to receive the death sentence — a 16-year-old with the IQ of a nine-year-old. She spoke passionately about her visit to see him on death row. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘why have they weighed and measured me?’” She “didn’t have the heart to tell him that they had to find out his weight so when the rope was put around his neck and the trap door fell they would know it was going to make a clean break and kill him.”

Despite having psychological reports done at her own expense, her appeals were rejected at every level, and a few months later she received the phone call she’d dreaded “at dawn, because they hang them at dawn, and I was told by the prison officials ‘we’ve just hanged your little man.’” In Judge Saunders’ opinion, the rule of law “never really worked in South Africa,” and she concluded her presentation by stressing the value Canadians should put on the rule of law, because it “is what protects citizens from arbitrary government.”

Panellist and former BC Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger, QC took an occasionally humorous look at the meaning of citizenship and reflected on the experiences of his own family. In the 1920s, Mr. Berger’s father came to Canada from Sweden. Mr. Berger told the audience, “when my father died, my mother said to me, ‘I’d like to go to Sweden and visit your father’s relatives.’ I said, ‘it’s a great idea, you’ll have to apply for a passport.’” When his mother did that, she discovered something the BC-born woman would never have guessed — she wasn’t a Canadian.

Mr. Berger said ironically, when his mother married his father, she had unknowingly become a Swede, and to further the irony, “when my father gave up his Swedish citizenship to become a Canadian, my mother remained a Swede.” She then had to apply for Canadian citizenship in her 60s, and Mr. Berger said, despite the fact “she had raised a family and grandchildren who were populating the province, she got a letter from the Governor General welcoming her to Canada.” Mr. Berger concluded by telling the audience how amused his family was when the Government of Sweden wrote to tell his elderly mother, “they regretted her giving up her Swedish citizenship and warned her that if she ever came to Sweden she was liable to be conscripted into the Swedish army.”

Panellist Najeeb Hassan, who is a lawyer and President of the North Shore Multicultural Society, spoke about the pro bono and volunteer work lawyers do in the community and concluded by saying, “because of that special place that lawyers hold in society, I believe that lawyers have a special commitment to do more than the law and going to work.”

In closing, Attorney General Wally Oppal, QC added that citizenship in Canada is made all the more rich by multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism means that we are diverse and should be proud of our diversity, but we are Canadians,” he concluded.

The forum was presented in association with CBC’s Think Vancouver series and in partnership with the North Shore Multicultural Society and MOSAIC.

The Benchers have approved a second public forum, the details of which will be provided to the profession in early 2007.