A major overhaul of Canada’s citizenship laws will make rules clearer and “more demanding of prospective citizens,” the minister of citizenship and immigration said Thursday.

The proposed new measures will crack down on citizenship fraud by requiring applicants to meet tougher residency requirements, among other changes, Chris Alexander said.

In the past, “it was easier for those who wanted to abuse the system, unfortunately, to get through the door,” he told CTV’s Power Play.

“We were also not clear about what the rules were. We need to build this connection, attachment to newcomers that citizens need to do well in this country and to fulfill the responsibilities that go with citizenship,” he said.

“We’re going to be clear and more demanding of perspective citizens, but that’s actually what newcomers and Canadians across the board want.”

Alexander said that, in the last two years, about three dozen people have had their citizenships revoked because they had “grossly violated the rules.”

“Citizenship…is a privilege, not a right,” he said.

Among the proposed new rules:

  • Immigrants will have to maintain a "physical presence" in Canada for four out of six years before applying for citizenship. Currently, applicants must spend three out of four years in the country.
  • Permanent residents will also need to be physically present in Canada for 183 days each year for at least four of those six years, and will have to sign a formal “intent to reside” in the country.
  • Citizenship applicants between the ages of 14 and 64 will have to meet language requirements and pass a knowledge test. Currently, the age range for those requirements is between 18 and 54.
  • Penalties for bogus citizenship applications will increase to a fine of up to $100,000 and/or five years in jail.
  • Permanent residents who are members of the Canadian Armed Forces will have a fast track to citizenship.

The changes will also allow the revocation of citizenship from dual nationals who have been convicted of terrorism, high treason or spying, as well as those who join groups engaged in armed conflict with Canadian troops abroad. The immigration minister would have more authority to revoke citizenships in such cases.

Asked how the government would make sure that terrorism charges or convictions in other countries are legitimate, Alexander said the new rules would likely apply to exceptional cases, which will be thoroughly examined.

But Opposition critics say the new provisions could create a “two-tiered” citizenship system.

"We want to make sure it doesn't go against our Charter of Rights. We want to make sure it doesn't create two classes of citizens," said NDP immigration critic Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe.

"We have a justice system, a legal system that is able to deal with criminality and we're not sure it's necessary to go on that dangerous path."

Chantal Desloges, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, echoed those concerns, saying that the changes could lead to different treatment of citizens who were born in Canada, versus those who acquired citizenship by naturalization.

“For example, if I were to commit an act of treason or terrorism, why should I be treated one bit differently from someone who has the same citizenship that I do but just happened to have been born in a different country?” she told Power Play.

However, Desloges applauded other measures, including the crackdown on bogus citizenship applications.

“Fraud in the system, frankly, is rampant,” she said, noting that “shady” immigration consultants often help people break the rules and file fraudulent documents.

The government said it hopes that the Citizenship Act overhaul will help streamline approval of citizenship applications, even as stricter requirements are introduced.

The current backlog involves more than 320,000 files and processing times can take as long as 36 months.

With files from The Canadian Press