On Thursday, Jack Babcock, Canada's last surviving veteran of World War One, passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington where he lived since moving to the United States in the 1920s.
This article also appeared in the Daily Gleaner, February 23, 2010.
This interview was recorded in May 2008, after Jack Babcock's Canadian citizenship was restored through the intervention of Canada's Minister of Veterans Affairs, Greg Thompson.
Jack Babcock was a Lost Canadian, having only received his citizenship on May 8, 2008 after a mad scramble by federal politicians, including then Minister of Veterans Affairs, Greg Thompson, when it became apparent that the last Canadian born veteran of WWI was actually an American!
Yes, Jack Babcock was an American, even though he was born in Canada. In fact, Jack was never technically a “Canadian” until May, 2008, because when he was born in 1900 there was no such thing as Canadian citizenship. Yes, we have always called ourselves “Canadians” and considered ourselves “Canadian born”, but we were all British subjects until the introduction of the Canadian Citizenship Act on January 1, 1947.
So when Jack Babcock took an oath of US Citizenship in 1946 he became an American, and when he received a special grant of citizenship in May 2008, he was not becoming a “citizen again” as most media outlets reported. Rather, he was becoming Canadian for the first time.
In the past, when we raised this issue with reporters, the response was that the citizenship issue was such a minor technicality that it didn’t really matter. And, besides, it takes away from a good story.
It may seem like a technicality, but it’s technicalities like that which have worked against numerous Canadian born persons, including veterans of World War Two, who have been told they are not citizens. They certainly don’t get the same treatment as Jack Babcock, and the reasons are abundantly clear.
In 2006, the Dominion Institute launched an on line petition to hold a state funeral for the last veteran of the First World War. Ninety-thousand Canadians responded in three weeks and on November 21 the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion endorsing the move.
By May, 2007, Jack Babcock was the last remaining Canadian born veteran. In April 2008, sensing the urgency of the situation, Greg Thompson paid a special visit to Babcock at his Spokane apartment and asked Jack if he’d like to become a Canadian citizen. Jack said "Yes” and in a two sentence, hand-written note he made it official.
Twenty-one days later, Jack Babcock was a Canadian citizen for the first time in his life and Stephen Harper breathed a sigh of relief. Imagine the embarrassment if Canada’s last veteran of WWI was actually an American!
While we are happy Jack Babcock finally became a Canadian citizen, we are saddened that so many other Canadian born persons have not, including Guy Valliere, a veteran of WWII who died last February disenfranchised.
It was Guy’s fervent wish that he die a Canadian citizen, a promise made by then Minister of Citizenship, Diane Finley. Sadly, it didn't happen, despite the gargantuan efforts of many people, including Members of Parliament from the Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois caucuses who supported Guy in his struggle.
At his funeral, Guy was eulogized as “a man forgotten by his country but acknowledged by the wish to be Canadian.”
Then there is Vancouver-born Kathleen Freemont, who served with the Women’s Division of the RCAF during WWII. She is still not being recognized and at age 88 chances are she may never be.
Marcel Gelinas is another Canadian born veteran of WWII whose citizenship is not recognized. He’s also 88 and time is of the essence.
How does the Canadian government reconcile such different – one might say unequal - treatment of Canadian born citizens? No doubt, we can't all be Jack Babcocks and have the Minister of Veterans Affairs personally visit us with an offer of citizenship. But what part of the word "EQUAL" does the Canadian government not understand?
It behooves Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, to treat all Canadian born persons the same, especially veterans. After all, we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that makes it illegal to discriminate, not to mention a number of United Nations Conventions on Human Rights to which Canada is a signatory.
We believe that the special treatment afforded to Jack Babcock, however deserving, should also have been given to Guy Valliere before he died and to WWII veterans Kathleen Freemont and Marcel Gelinas before they are gone too.
After all, equal is equal, and there is no other way around it.