Recasting Citizenship

I’m reading the Fall 2008 catalogue from the University of Toronto Press.  Recasting the Social in Citizenship, a collection of essays edited by Engin F. Isin (Open University) comes out this December and purports to show “how citizenship has increasingly been determined by social behaviours rather than by civil or political affiliations.” Well, we all knew it. Here’s a handy source to cite.

Political scientists used to argue that law and the constitution defined citizenship. Now – “recently” – they argue that it emerges from our “social activities,” our “everyday struggles,” our “debates over multiculturalism.” Indeed the argument is that it should emerge from social activities.

In Reimaging Canada (1994), Jeremy Webber described Canada as a “conversation.” Canadians learn what and who they are, what’s expected of them and what they are entitled to through an on-going national conversation. Webber was writing about the difficulty of drawing up a list of Canadian values to include in a “Canada clause” for the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord. We can’t constitutionalize our values and sense of citizenship, he argued, we can’t cast them in stone, because our values and the definition of citizenship change and change again as the conversation goes on.

Recasting the Social in Citizenship
should be a useful book, telling us the way things are. At the moment.

But as political scientists what we really want to know is whether the development Isin describes is “choiceworthy.” (“Choiceworthy.” One of Allan Bloom’s favourite terms.)

Should we regret the fact that scholars less often understand citizenship in the old terms?

Yes we should. In a system that relies on social debates and “everyday struggles,” to define citizenship, the first comers, the early immigrants, the largest and best-organized ethnic groups, the loud voices, the moneyed cliques, the bullies have a decided advantage. Shy retiring types go to the wall. Resentments abound and all feel threatened. When the debate is about who are the “real” Canadians, the more Canadian Canadians, the more “citizenly” citizens, things can get nasty. Who’s entitled? Who belongs?

What we want is a system where every citizen is equally entitled to the protection of the law and the benefits of the law, no matter how well equipped they are to take part in the Canadian social conversation. We want a system where someone who walks out of the citizenship court is, by the fact of having gone through the process of acquiring citizenship, just as entitled to that protection and those benefits, and just as obliged to respect the law, and to incur the punishments associated with infraction of law, as someone whose ancestors arrived a generation ago, six generations ago, or before recorded time.

We want a definition of citizenship grounded in the constitution and long-standing law.

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