OTTAWA — The moment Suzanne Bitye was handed her citizenship certificate Friday, she pulled it toward her heart and held it there for a moment with a broad smile on her face.
The ceremony in which Bitye pledged her allegiance to Canada was held in a windowless room in the bowels of a government building in Ottawa, with grey walls and a grey carpet.
But there were plenty of bright spots. The small paper flags. The red and white formal clothes of 96 people from 20 countries who stood shoulder to shoulder to sing the national anthem as Canadians for the first time. The smiles.
Afterward, Bitye, who is from Cameroon, said she wouldn't trade the experience of taking her oath in person.
But the federal government is seeking feedback on a plan that would let people opt out of the formal ceremony, and instead have them take the Oath of Citizenship online with the click of a mouse.
The immigration minister anticipates the one-click option would only be in effect as long as the government is swamped with backlogged citizenship applications. But the Conservative party's immigration critic worries it would "cheapen" an otherwise special moment for newcomers.
"Citizenship by click is not citizenship," said Calgary MP Tom Kmiec.
"They're really cheapening citizenship purely for political motivation, to reduce their backlogs."
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser first floated the idea in January 2022 as a way to speed up processing times. At the time, he said it would see someone "self-administer a digital oath by signed attestation, and celebrate their citizenship at a later date."
Yet the proposal published in the Canada Gazette late last month would instead allow someone to skip the ceremony entirely.
Fraser did not specify why the proposal had changed, nor who came up with it. But he said COVID-19 created a backlog that even virtual ceremonies can't quickly clear.
"For those people who choose to do an online self-attestation, they will still have an opportunity to participate in an IRCC-organized citizenship ceremony shortly after they complete their citizenship," Fraser said on Friday, in his first public comments about the proposed regulatory change.
New Canadians at the ceremony in Ottawa Friday said that swearing their oath alongside peers from all over the world was an important milestone.
Joseph Ngoie, from Congo, said after taking his oath that he thinks the ceremony is "very important" to complete, rather than "just to go online and to click."
He said he could feel the love and excitement in the voice of the officiant, Citizenship Judge Rania Sfeir, as she declared him and 95 others to be Canadians.
Fraser rejected claims that the moment would be cheapened if people skip the ceremony. He said the online process could help people who are facing the potential expiry of their permanent residency status because there aren't enough ceremony spaces available.
"This is purely to protect against negative consequences for people who've done everything that's been asked of them," Fraser said at a press conference at Humber College in Etobicoke, Ont.
"We anticipate it will only be in effect until such time as we restore processing times for citizenship grant applications and we get through the very specific challenges related to COVID-19."
Kmiec said the ceremonies are a big deal for people like him who were not born Canadian. Kmiec, who immigrated from Poland, still recalls taking his oath in 1989, and said the tradition shouldn't be diminished as a way to deal with an administrative backlog.
"These are very low-cost events; these are mostly retired civil servants, serving judges and ex-judges who do the actual ceremony," he said.
"The way they've done this tells me that they're embarrassed by it, because I'd be embarrassed by it too."
Kmiec argued the backlog stems from Liberal incompetence in administering programs, rather than the pandemic. He is also critical of a lag after newcomers take the oath, at which point they relinquish their permanent-residence card and await their citizenship certificate in the mail, which can be used to apply for a passport.
"There are some process changes they could do to actually make people's lives easier," he said.
In any case, Canada's former director-general of citizenship and multiculturalism, Andrew Griffith, said the department should have issued a press release about the proposed change instead of "trying to slip it by."
Griffith retired after a career with the Immigration Department and Canada's foreign service, and said the phrasing in the regulatory proposal and the lack of public-opinion research suggests it's aimed at reducing costs rather than making things more convenient for applicants.
"It's driven by the desire to reduce, if not eliminate, ceremonies, virtual or physical. And it's pretty explicit," he said.
"One gets the impression as a former bureaucrat that maybe the officials who had to draft the stuff weren't really that keen."
Griffith noted that the 1946 Citizenship Act explicitly called for ceremonies that instil the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, as Canada carved out an identity separate from Britain following the Second World War.
"It's really an abuse of the process, because it goes against the grain of what the Citizenship Act was designed to do," he argued. "It really goes against one of the fundamental objectives of citizenship."
The comment period on the proposed changecloses on March 27.
If approved, the changes to the citizenship regulations would come into effect at early as June, at a cost of about $5 million.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2023.
Dylan Robertson and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press