Published on

Ask Tito Mike by Michael Scott

Government moves to address backlog

of failed citizenship applicants

By Michael Scott

On September 5, 2013 Citizenship and Immigration Canada put out a news release announcing that persons who failed the citizenship knowledge test are eligible to write a second test before having to appear before a citizenship judge. The department also announced that file splitting has been expanded to include cases where family members are held up in processing due to another member of the family needing a hearing. Both actions are timely because of the need to address an increasing problem in Canada: the problem of a backlog of failed applicants clogging up the system.

It is important for all new Canadians to strive to become citizens of our great country. This is in some ways the culmination of immigration to the country and provides holders with all the rights and privileges of citizenship including voting at election time and shopping south of the border on a Canadian passport. The road to citizenship however is not so simple and there are a number of factors to consider such as eligibility to apply and something many applicants now dread: the citizenship knowledge test.

The citizenship test used to be almost a formality and the failure was rate low. Things changed drastically on March 13, 2010 when Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Jason Kenny, introduced a new tougher knowledge test. The change in failure rate rose drastically. In 2008, approximately four per cent of the 145,000 test takers failed. The introduction of the new tougher test changed this number to 30 per cent. The number of failures shocked even the immigration department.

“I couldn’t believe it, it’s the highest failure rate I have ever seen here,” reported one Toronto area official. The department took immediate action by revamping the test and eliminating a long-standing practice of requiring correct answers to certain mandatory questions. The revamped test was introduced on October 14, 2010 and the failure rates fell to around 20 per cent. Departmental officials saw this number as an acceptable range.

“We anticipate that the pass rate will settle in the 80 to 85 per cent range, which would indicate that it is not too easy or too difficult,” said a departmental spokesperson at the time.

The impact of the tougher test is especially severe on newcomers from non-English speaking countries such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. In terms of geographic locations, Toronto, Ontario and Surrey, British Columbia were among the top two centres for failed applicants followed by Winnipeg, Scarborough and Niagara Falls (2010 numbers). A recent CBC story showed that applicants with a bachelor’s degree or higher saw their pass rate decrease from 95 per cent to 87 per cent as a result of the new test while those with a high school education saw their pass rate drop from 70 per cent to 55 per cent.

The knowledge test therefore is not an automatic pass and it is important to be prepared. The questions are based on a 63-page guide, Discover Canada, and applicants are given 30 minutes to answer a 20 question multiple choice examination. The pass mark used to be 60 per cent but not anymore. In 2010 the first change was to introduce a longer more detailed Discover Canada and the second was to make the pass mark 75 per cent. Small wonder that the failure rates have soared since, because you must answer 15 out of 20 questions correctly. No, you cannot call a friend or poll the audience.

Applicants who failed the pre-2010 test were automatically referred to a citizenship judge. In 2008 and 2009 9,500 failed applicants had to spend up to an hour with a judge to argue that they were worthy of citizenship. This approach is no longer working because of the vast inventory of failed applicants clogging up the system. In an effort to reduce the hearing inventory, to limit its growth, increase decision-ready cases and, to reduce processing times, the following measures were introduced on September 6, 2013:

  • Retesting those applicants who failed the first citizenship knowledge test;
  • Communicating test results to applicants and giving them their options, including withdrawing their application; and
  • File splitting cases where family members are held up in processing due to another member of the family needing a hearing.

The changes improve current practices but do not address questions about the new tougher test. Why was it necessary to make the test harder or to require a higher pass rate? The US pass rate, for example, is still set at 60 per cent. A 2012 Globe and Mail article, entitled “How applicants are stumbling on the final step to become Canadians,” pointed out that the new test requires better English and French language skills and more knowledge of Canadian history, identity and values. Successful and unsuccessful applicants are now distinguished by original homeland. Over 50 per cent of newcomers from Afghanistan and Vietnam now fail the test. Meanwhile, fewer than 2 per cent of immigrants born in Australia, England and the United States failed last year.

“Coming from a place that was ruled by Britain once upon a time means you’re likely to do well and that’s probably because you can read the guide more efficiently and read the test more efficiently,” noted University of Toronto politics professor Professor Phili Triadafilopoulos, who studies immigration and integration. He noted the Conservative’s changes to the test have put a particular emphasis on military history and the monarchy.

There are then bigger questions we should ask as the result of the changes made to the citizenship requirements (mandatory language testing) and observers such as Triadafiliopoulos question the government’s current definition of “Canadian” and how it should be awarded to newcomers.

“The question is, what is the function of these tests?” he asked. “They play a gatekeeper role and they create, quite literally, a boundary or barrier to people who are keen and interested in becoming Canadian citizens.”

Like all things political in Canada the future of the citizenship knowledge test is ultimately in the hands of the electorate. Voters can decide if they want a test that appears to favour applicants from traditional English speaking countries or have a more inclusive test that treats all applicants fairly. We the voters can decide if a 20 per cent failure rate is acceptable or if we want a system that appears to favour applicants from traditional (pre 1960s) English speaking or Commonwealth countries.

Michael Scott BA (Hon), MA, is a 30-year veteran of Canada Immigration and the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program who works as an immigration associate with R.B. Global Immigration Consultants Ltd. He can be reached at 838 Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg, (204) 783-7326 or (204) 227-0292. E-mail:

The views presented in this column are exclusively of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the management and staff of The Pilipino Express Inc.

Have a comment on this article? Send us your feedback