Scheer’s dual citizenship carries a political price tag

Does it matter that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Canada?

Legally, the answer is no. There is no law that bars a dual citizen from holding office in either the government or Parliament of Canada.

Indeed, there is no law that requires a would-be prime minister to be a Canadian citizen at all.

Politically, however …

Politically, it can be considered a little dodgy — at least in English Canada.

In Quebec, it is deemed quite acceptable for a politician to have a French passport in his or her back pocket. In fact, doing so carries a certain cachet.

Former Liberal leader Stephane Dion was rarely, if ever, taken to task in his home province for being a dual citizen of both Canada and France. He did face criticism in the rest of Canada.

Ditto for fellow Quebecer and former New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair.

The fact that Quebec media personality Michaelle Jean held both French and Canadian passports didn’t disqualify her from being appointed Canada’s governor general in 2005.

It is worth noting, however, that under pressure — including that levelled by Conservatives such as Scheer — she reluctantly relinquished her French citizenship before taking office.

In Canada, outside Quebec, the issue of dual citizenship is politically more complicated, particularly if the second passport is American.

Dual citizenship is certainly not uncommon in English Canada. Many new immigrants find it convenient to hang onto the citizenship of their birth countries.

Some immigrants come from countries like Egypt or China that do not allow them to easily relinquish their citizenship of birth.

Still others find two passports useful in purely practical terms. An American passport, for instance, allows the bearer to work and live freely in the U.S.

Mulcair famously explained that his decision to obtain French citizenship was motivated by a desire to avoid long airport lineups when travelling to Europe.

Nonetheless, there remains in English Canada a strain of nationalism that is deeply suspicious of the U.S.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives successfully mined this during the 2011 federal election campaign, when they portrayed then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as a wannabe American who was “just visiting.”

Harvard-based essayist Ignatieff was not a dual citizen. But he had spent much of his adult life in the U.S. and, in his writings, tended to refer to himself as one of “we Americans.” That was enough to tar him.

Presumably, Scheer understands all of this — which is why he never volunteered the fact that he holds dual citizenship (his somewhat lame excuse is that no one ever asked).

Nor did he volunteer the fact that he has registered for the draft, a requirement placed on male U.S. citizens that allows them to be conscripted into the American military.

Now that the story is out, Scheer is moving quickly to renounce his American citizenship. He said that while he made the decision to do so after winning his party’s leadership in 2017, he just never got around to starting the complicated process until this August.

The Liberals are approaching this story carefully. They don’t want to offend voters who carry two passports. As a result, they are focusing not on Scheer’s dual citizenship itself, but on his reluctance to reveal this particular biographic detail.

But they, too, understand the often contradictory elements of Canadian nationalism, particularly as it relates to the U.S. It’s a chippy nationalism that is both proud and resentful.

It’s a nationalism that wonders why a would-be Canadian prime minister needs a U.S. bolt hole and asks: Are you really committed to this place or are you preparing to bail out if things get rough?

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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