End the sham of giving honorary citizenship
I suppose we could continue asking why Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship has not yet been revoked, but it seems better to ask why honorary Canadian citizenships have ever been given.
It is true that allowing the genocide-enabler of Myanmar to keep her distinction would diminish the value of all honorary citizenships if honorary citizenships were actually all that honourable to begin with. But they’re the honorary doctorates of global statecraft: a gift from the recipient to the giver, designed to bestow the good reputation of the presentee upon the presenter.
Still, honorary citizenship seems like the sort of thing a good liberal ought to support. This is only partly because the honour tends to be given to the best liberals: people who help pull humanity kicking and screaming out of such abominations as apartheid, as in the case of honorary Canadian citizen Nelson Mandela from South Africa, or no-girlsallowed education, as in the case of honorary Canadian citizen Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan.
It is not just who receives it, but what is being received that may appear to be progressive. The concept of honorary citizenship would look to be based on the chipper, arms-wideopen morality most commonly associated with liberalism.
It would all be so inclusive, so global, so unimpeachably liberal, were it not for this: Honorary Canadian citizenship doesn’t give you any citizenship rights (no right to vote, or even to live in the country for a while); what little it does give you (an assurance that you are one of us) can be taken away.
The notion of honorary citizenship implies that the most basic right we have, the right upon which all other rights rest — the right to belong to a country — is revocable. This is the vision of citizenship we offer the world even as we cultivate something rather different at home.
Revokable citizenship, you will note, does not sound very progressive. In fact, it sounds quite a bit like the previous Conservative government’s belief that citizens are rather like children and citizenship rather like a toy: If a certain kind of Canadian acts out in certain ways, their Canadian-ness will be taken away.
The confiscation of the most fundamental right was to depend on whether they were not the right type of Canadian; whether, that is, they also had a non-Canadian citizenship. You will note that this, too, bears a passing resemblance to the notion of honorary citizenship, which depends on the person being of another place as well.
Canadian honorary citizenship demands that honorary citizens, unlike just citizens, fulfil moral responsibilities and offers them no rights in return, a state of affairs that may be detestable to some even if it aligned with Canadian citizenship laws — but must surely be odd to all, as it does not align with those laws.
A simple alternative would be to only give exceptional non-Canadians awards that do not contradict the laws of Canada. If liberals want to thank people for global openness and progress, granting them citizenship without rights or guarantees seems like a strange gift.
A bit of ceremonial cognitive dissonance wouldn’t qualify as even a minor irritant were we not living in an era in which citizenship rights, like so many other rights, face serious existential threats. Nothing terrible will befall the world if we continue giving honorary citizenships, just as nothing more terrible will befall Myanmar than it already has if we do not take Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship away.
But as long as it occurs to us that one honorary citizenship needs to go, we might reconsider those we have been fortunate enough not to give.