Three ways to rethink the concept of citizenship

As tech experts, entrepreneurs, activists and academics from around the world gather for the annual 6 Degrees forum, we asked three of this year’s participants to give their vision for a future citizenry.

By: /
25 September, 2018
New citizens stand during the US national anthem at a US Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Jai Sahak
By: Jai Sahak

Diversity and community engagement coordinator, Town of Ajax.

john powell
By: john powell

Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society

Renata Ávila
By: Renata Ávila

Director, Ciudadano Inteligente (Smart Citizen Foundation) 

This week, a range of start-up founders, digital experts, thinkers and doers from around the world are gathering at the annual 6 Degrees forum in Toronto, a three-day event that delves into the challenges and opportunities around inclusion. 

Digital pioneer Sue Gardner helped kick off the event by delivering the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture Monday evening, setting the tone for this year’s themes of connection and isolation, on and offline.

While those in Toronto look at how technology is both empowering and dividing society today, we asked three 6 Degrees guests to shine a light on how citizenship, as a community membership tool, also helps to both empower and divide. Has the general concept of citizenship brought people together as much as it now keeps us apart? Could it be more inclusive? If so, how?

Here are three ways to envision a revised version of the concept:

A call for a new way to define ourselves

As john a. powell asks, how can we move beyond the idea of citizenship to a more inclusive kind of belonging?

Citizenship is a complex concept that spans thousands of years and cultures across the globe. The concept of citizenship is often used in conjunction with the relationship between a formal body, such as the nation-state, and the people.

Although it is often associated with geography, that is both over- and under-inclusive. Consider Indigenous peoples dispossessed from their land and not included or recognized as citizens in a nation-state. Consider migrants or people forced to move who often live outside of a place they claim as their nation-state. Consider temporary workers in Germany, many of whom were born there but still are not considered citizens. Consider religious minorities in India who may have called a place home for hundreds if not thousands of years and who are technically citizens but functionally are not. Consider people with disabilities in Russia who often are hardly seen as people and certainly not citizens in a meaningful way.

“People need a place of belonging and also need to be able to move.”

Citizenship is an aspiration that is always being defined and challenged. I prefer the terms “membership” and “belonging” to citizenship. As I’ve previously written about, there is little doubt that a nation-state owes something to its members. The rightful good it owes them is membership and belonging. Out of membership all other rights flow or are withheld. Without membership and belonging, it is not just citizenship that is being denied but also full personhood.

While we recognize the nation-state owes something to its members, that is just a start. It is increasingly clear the nation-state owes something to those who are not full citizens and/or who live outside of a nation-state’s defined geographic borders. We are in a period where, in order to thrive, people need to be protected from threats that transcend any one border. In order for people to thrive they need things beyond the nation-state.

It is not just enough to engage the role of the citizen, we must engage the role of the nation-state. We recognize globalization, climate change and capital are not limited to the nation-state — why would we try to limit people? People need a place of belonging and also need to be able to move. We need engagement with each other and with the land. We also need to be free. We are embodied spirits that have moved long before there was ideas of the nation-state and citizenship. We need to have citizenship and nation-states that are in service to people, not just credit, capital and stuff.

We live in a world today where we no longer have connections and family in just our village, we increasingly have friends and family all over the world. While a nation-state cannot have the same support for all people on the planet, we can no longer accept citizenship or membership as just a narrow and set category. In a world that is inter-dependent and inter-connected, the well-being of citizens of one nation-state is influenced by what happens in other countries as well.

What does citizenship mean in the twenty-first or twenty-second century? Let’s start by asking people. If we are to have a future, we must participate in its creation, and it must belong to us all and we must all belong. 

john a. powell is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and a professor of law, ethnic studies, and African American studies at UC Berkeley.

Citizenship of the future must have agency at its core

A ‘citizen’ should one day be defined as someone who is actively involved in governance of the commons, writes Renata Avila.

The current use of “citizenship” is outdated and fails to meet the standards of the twenty-first century in any of its three dimensions — social, legal or political.

Legally speaking, we are currently applying an outdated concept of citizenship, which is rigid, exclusive and granted by municipal or state authorities to those who fulfil a list of requirements. The logic here is that citizenship can be (and is) denied to those who fail to meet what are often arbitrary criteria.

This means citizenship is a socially created category, imposed by those in power, designed to exclude some and include others. As a result, even if a group of people share a space, there is a division between those who are granted the status of citizen and those who fail to meet the requirements. Those with rights and those with duties, those who are entitled and those who are policed.

“Citizenship could be not limited to the place we inhabit but to those places where we interact.”

Politically, even if some progress has been made on citizen participation, such as the exercises in participatory budgeting of the last decade, active platforms to participate, beyond votes on budget or the allocation of a small amount of resources, are rare.

We should be able to think beyond this. In the future, citizenship could be more fluid and ubiquitous, not limited to the place we inhabit but to those places where we interact. Citizenship could be broad, with equal recognition of the diverse social identities of those who can claim it, rather than assessing those identities against a checklist of bureaucratic requirements.

Citizenship should be about being politically active; it should have an active discourse on rights and be a means of direct influence in the formulation, governance and operation of the urban commons. The citizenship of the future should be one that enables each of its members and collectives to shape the space and dynamics they want to live in. The citizenship of the future should have fundamental rights at its core, not only for its members but also for its visitors and those the community decides to shelter.

A citizenship of the future must be rooted in the local but connected with the global. It must be able to visualize the social obligations that exist beyond the borders of nation-states and enable citizens to bear their quota of shared responsibility in global matters, not least the global struggle against inequality. And any worthwhile conception of citizenship has individual agency at its core. The ideal has to be one of smart, empowered citizens shaping the future they want, rather than high-tech smart cities “nudging” the behaviour of their inhabitants without their oversight or consent. 

Renata Ávila is the director of Ciudadano Inteligente, a Guatemalan international human rights lawyer and a digital rights advocate.

Membership for all, with or without papers

As Jai Sahak argues, Canadian municipalities still have a ways to go to offer sanctuary — and help others understand what that means.

Over the next three years, approximately one million new immigrants will be admitted to Canada from various streams; namely, economic migrants, family reunifications and refugees. As Canada’s reliance on migration hits an all-time high, municipal governments need to prepare for new realities and deal with the complexities of citizenship and belonging. Immigration poses unique challenges for municipalities — as the number of new residents increases, Canadian cities find themselves on the frontlines around issues of inclusion, accommodation and representation.

The most effective way local governments can engage in the federal immigration conversation is through the declaration of a sanctuary status, or similar ‘access without fear’ policies affecting municipalities’ most vulnerable residents, namely, those with precarious immigration status. Too often, these are women in abusive relationships with broken sponsorship agreements, or children and teens not attending school while working in unsafe work environments.

A sanctuary designation educates the wider community on these issues and allows non-status residents to fully engage with their city and live more meaningful lives. It provides a glimpse of what citizenship can mean on a sub-national level and creates safer, more cohesive neighbourhoods while also educating the public on the plight of the undocumented.

There is not an all-encompassing definition of a sanctuary city, but broadly speaking, a sanctuary designation means:

  1. Residents can access municipal-run programs and services, regardless of immigration status.
  2. Immigration status cannot hinder a resident from enrolling and engaging with municipal-run programs and services, and cannot be a requirement.
  3. Municipal staff are not required to cooperate with local police or share information on an undocumented resident, unless it is relevant during the course of an investigation.

There are currently six sanctuary-declared municipalities in Canada (Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver, Montreal, London and Ajax ). While some adhere to these elements in part (Vancouver and London), others have embraced them completely (Toronto), but not without challenges. The policies and approaches may differ depending on the location, but the spirit of the movement remains the same: sanctuary for these Canadian municipalities means access to the city and its services without fear. The movement is not new to Canada. The City of Toronto officially declared itself a sanctuary in 2013 but it had been exploring the idea since the 1980s. 

“To be part of a wider, accepted public discourse, Canada’s sanctuary movement still needs to undergo a transformation.”

For some, however, the term “sanctuary” is associated with aiding and abetting a fugitive, thereby undermining local and federal laws. For that reason, to be part of a wider, accepted public discourse on citizenship and immigration, Canada’s sanctuary movement still needs to undergo a transformation.

For instance, it is important to remember that non-status residents pay all municipal and provincial taxes such as HST and property taxes. Some even pay income tax through the use of other peoples social security numbers. In Ontario, under the Education Act (section 49.1), children under the age of 18 have the right to full access to schools in the province, regardless of immigration status. However, far too many school administrators are unaware of this fact. Non-status residents have access to housing, healthcare and social assistance. However, many agencies are unaware of their own policies and procedures as they pertain to undocumented clients. 

Unlike the sanctuary movement in the United States, which has historically challenged state sovereignty by undermining federal immigration operations and emphasizing a lack of cooperation with authorities, sanctuary movements in Canada should provide a counter-narrative to systemic exclusion by stressing the gaps in the immigration system and highlighting the stories of families and children. The sanctuary movement in Canada should not be an act of civil disobedience but rather take the form of civil initiatives to challenge and improve existing systems. 

Current criticisms and backlash of sanctuary policies in the US have exposed the limits of city power. With threats of funding cuts and an increase in immigration raids in sanctuary cities, the White House has made it clear that it sees sanctuary cities as an affront to its sovereignty. 

To avoid similar hurdles, Canadian municipalities must clearly define their purpose in declaring sanctuary status. Their stated objectives should set out to: ensure residents have access to all municipally administered programs and services, regardless of status; work collaboratively with local police to ensure community cohesion and trust are a priority over detention and deportation; provide resources to frontline agencies to ensure every resident pursues a path to legal citizenship; and create public education campaigns to inform residents about sanctuary practices.

None of these objectives undermine the sovereignty of the state, but still hold true to the spirit of sanctuary. As we move forward with redefining the relationship between government and residents, let’s ensure sanctuary policies in Canada are seen as civil initiatives rather than acts of civil disobedience.

Jai Sahak is the diversity and community engagement coordinator for the Town of Ajax.

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