The citizenship test doesn’t translate

Globe and Mail journalist Maragaret Wente barely passed the online Immigrantion sample test. An interesting perspective about Canadian citizenship, immigrants and family members. Language requirements for new immigrants and cuts to language programs for new immigrants don’t add up but should we be surprised?

The new citizenship test is not a snap. I took a sample test online, and barely passed. (“You might have to study harder!” scolded the automatic message.) People are grousing because failure rates have soared. In some places, they’re hitting 30 per cent. Yet the questions aren’t really harder than they were when I took the test for real more than 30 years ago. So what’s happened?

One change is that in order to pass, you now have to get at least 15 out of 20 instead of 12. Also, the old system featured rampant cheating. It was easy to get a copy of the test and memorize the answers. If you flunked anyway, no problem. You were automatically referred to a citizenship judge, where your friendly immigration consultant would “translate” your answers for you. Now the questions are changed frequently, so that they’re harder to memorize, and if you flunk, you have to take the test again.

People aren’t flunking because they’re stupid, says Rudyard Griffiths, the author of Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto. They’re flunking because they can’t read or understand the test. And that – rather than widespread ignorance of the capital of Nunavut – is a huge flaw in our immigration system. “Language is the passport to citizenship. If you don’t have language ability, you’re starting with a huge disadvantage.”

Contrary to popular belief, only 60,000 of the 250,000 immigrants who come to Canada each year are assessed for language skills. Their spouses and in-laws are not. The biggest losers are the wives, who often come from patriarchal cultures and are encouraged not to stray beyond their communities. Without language skills, they’re cut off from mainstream society.

There are two ways to address the language problem. One is by requiring competence before people are admitted in the first place. The other is by offering generous language programs for newcomers – and encouraging them to take them. We don’t do that either. Instead, we’ve cut back on language programs.

The burden on Canada is growing as courts, hospitals and social services struggle to accommodate people who lack language skills. The absence of a proficiency requirement also makes the system ripe for abuse. “Canada has helped spawn a scandalous spousal industry in its immigrant communities,” Indian journalist Gurmukh Singh charged in a piece published in the Sun chain. People in India, Pakistan and elsewhere are so desperate to get their children – and later themselves – into Canada that they’re willing to pay fortunes in dowry money. Other families bring in their elderly parents (who are exempt from the citizenship test) not because of filial concern, but because the parents will collect old-age pensions and contribute to the family income.

Australia thinks language competence is so essential to immigrant success that if you can’t speak English, you can’t get in. Canada continues to place much more emphasis on family ties. Our family reunification program remains the most generous in the world. By contrast, Australia tells immigrants that if they miss their elderly parents, they should buy a plane ticket home.

Citizenship has its rewards as well as its obligations (a passport, for example). So a tougher citizenship test might not be such a bad thing – unless you are a bureaucrat, of course. Evidently, the administrative hassle of flunking all those people is a huge strain on the system. So guess what? They’re going to make it easier! An 80 or 85 per cent pass rate would be about right, they say. Even if they have to slip people the answers.


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