In the thick of the 2011 federal election, Stephen Harper appeared in the Indo-Canadian heartland of Ontario with a ringer.
At a campaign stop in Brampton, Bollywood mega-star Akshay Kumar praised the then prime minister, danced on stage with his wife, Laureen Harper, and thrilled the audience.
It’s unclear if Kumar’s stumping had any impact on voters, but a few weeks later the Conservatives swept every riding in Brampton and nearby Mississauga that has a large south Asian population.
And at some point, the Harper government invoked a little-known law to grant the actor Canadian citizenship, circumventing the usual, stringent residency requirements for would-be Canadians, says a former Conservative cabinet minister.
That Canadian passport recently caused a commotion in Kumar’s native India, where he has fashioned himself as an Indian patriot – and promoted nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the election that just ended.
But the way he became a Canadian raises questions about his participation in this country’s politics, too.
MP Tony Clement, who as industry minister met with Kumar in Mumbai, says the citizenship grant was just a thank you for the actor’s help in promoting Canadian tourism and trade to a huge emerging economy – not a reward for partisan support.
“Basically, he had offered to put that star power to use to advance Canada-India relations, our trade relations, our commercial relations, in the movie sector, in the tourism sector,” said Clement. “He earned it … He has a great attachment to Canada as well as India, so he was doing all this free work.”
But at least one critic of the citizenship system said Tuesday he is appalled by the gesture, especially since countless people with far deeper roots in Canada have struggled for years to gain citizenship.
“This is so unjust,” said Don Chapman, a U.S.-based airline pilot who has made “lost Canadians” a life-long cause, even authoring a book on the topic. “Why was Harper denying us and accepting him? … I think it was, pure and simple, ‘You campaign for me, I’ll get you in’.”
Representatives for Harper and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who was federal immigration minister at the time, did not respond to requests for comment.
Kumar first attracted controversy last month when he conducted a lengthy, televised interview with Modi that was criticized as little more than campaign propaganda.
"I think it was, pure and simple, 'You campaign for me, I’ll get you in'."
Then under pressure he admitted he had obtained Canadian citizenship several years ago, an act that would require him to relinquish his Indian nationality. Kumar said he hasn’t stepped foot in Canada for seven years and pays all his taxes in India.
Many members of the Indian elite obtain foreign passports, allowing them to travel the world more widely, says Chinnaiah Jangam, a Carleton University history professor.
In Canada, people born in other countries to non-Canadian parents typically have to first be accepted as permanent residents and live here for three of the previous five years before they can apply to be citizens.
But under section 5 of the Citizenship Act(4) , the minister can grant the privilege at his or her discretion in cases of statelessness or unusual hardship, or “to reward services of an exceptional value to Canada.”
Kumar did, in fact, provide such services to Canada, as an official ambassador of the Canadian Tourism Commission – now called Destination Canada – and in other roles that included carrying the Olympic flame through Toronto in 2009, said Clement.
“It became bedlam and mayhem as like 10,000 people showed up to watch him jog the flame into Toronto,” he recalled. “He’s been a great friend to Canada and certainly promoted Canada-India relations when we were in power.”
But Chapman said giving Kumar a passport was simply not fair. He said he’s worked with numerous people who have lived much, or all, of their lives in Canada and been repeatedly denied citizenship, often because of arcane aspects of the federal legislation. They include Second World War veterans classified as British citizens, and crooner Robert Goulet, whose parents were Canadian and who lived in this country from age 13 until his early 20s.
“I feel Canadian,” Goulet said in 2006. “I tried to become a citizen for a long time but the red tape is going to drive me nuts … It’s always the red tape.”
He died a year later aged 73 and, said Chapman, still had not obtained that passport.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019