Vancouver Observer: Kafkaesque bureaucracy denies citizenship to legitimate Canadians

Photo of Canadian flags in Ottawa via Paguma on Flickr. From Vancouver Observer

Jackie Scott and Linda Missal De Cock have collectively lived in Canada for over a century. Scott, the daughter of a war bride and Canadian soldier, arrived in Canada from England in 1948, and resided here for 57 years. De Cock, meanwhile, has lived in Canada for 69 out of 70 years. The women, living on opposite ends of the country, went to school, married, and carved a life out for themselves in Canada.

Click here to read original article in the Vancouver Observer

But bizarrely -- even as Canada accepts 250,000 new immigrant Canadians a year -- government has denied such individuals citizenship.

They are among the "Lost Canadians," a group of Canadians who have been denied or stripped of citizenship by federal government due to legal technicalities. While the majority of these cases have been resolved through the 2009 Bill C-37, An Act to Amend the Citizenship Act, some people are waiting years to receive the same citizenship papers that others -- such as Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar -- was granted within weeks. 

Lost Canadians: from citizens into refugees

"Canada's doing everything completely backwards," Lost Canadians advocate Don Chapman commented on the issue.

"The objective is to turn immigrants and refugees into Canadian citizens -- not the other way around."

Chapman, who was born in Canada to Canadian parents, has experienced the same situation that he sees others go through today. An airline pilot, Chapman is as Canadian as people come: his great-grandfather was one of the Fathers of Confederation, and the Chapman Learning Commons at the UBC Library is named after Chapman's father, Dr. Lloyd Chapman.

Yet he was among some over 200,000 Canadians who were denied citizenship due to outdated laws -- some still being enforced by the government -- which treats women and children as property of their husband or father.

After years of advocating, Chapman proved that there were tens of thousands of cases like his own and helped push through Bill C-37. But it was an incomplete solution, he said, which inexplicably excluded people born prior to 1947, while creating a whole new category of stateless Lost Canadians born abroad.

Chapman often receives distressed calls and emails from people from Canada and around the world who believed themselves Canadian citizens and recently discovered that they may not be. In some cases, children born abroad since 2009 to a Canadian parent are stateless, causing significant troubles for their families. Without citizenship, passports and travel documents, as well as health insurance and pensions, become difficult or downright impossible to obtain. 

CBC report on Lost Canadians who remained stateless after Bill C-37

A "flaw" in the Canadian citizenship system?
In Chapman's view, there is a "fundamental flaw" in the system to deal with citizenship issues in Canada, and it's causing headaches for long-term Canadians who have long contributed to the country.

"I've had military people on this (Lost Canadians) boat," Chapman said. "I've had people say, 'If I'd known that Canada would do this to me, I would have never volunteered to be in the military.' And why would you?"

One particularly sad case, he noted, was Guy Valllière, a Quebec-born and raised former soldier who went to serve in the Second World War.

In 2006, authorities told him that he no longer had citizenship, and was therefore ineligible for health care coverage.

"I had every possible piece of ID imaginable, such as a SIN card, a Canadian birth certificate, the names of my brothers and sisters and my father's papers—in short everything that the Régie de l'assurance-maladie (health insurance authority) was requesting," he pleaded with the government in 2007.

"Yet, I was denied coverage and asked to provide proof of my citizenship. I am at a loss to understand... I feel like a nobody, worse than an immigrant or even a terrorist."

Valllière died in 2009, without Canadian citizenship.

Bill Doobenen, a Canadian-born former Air Force member and engineer, encountered similar treatment as authorities tried to deport both he and his wife in 2008. He still remembers how he -- a legitimate Canadian -- was forced to apply for refugee status to Canada, then nearly deported.

Doobenen didn't know it at the time, but when he took out US citizenship due to requirements in his workplace in California, he automatically lost his Canadian citizenship status (dual citizenship came into effect in 1977). When he and his wife came back to Canada for retirement, they were told they were no longer Canadian citizens. At a loss for how to get back into Canada, they applied for refugee status and were later rejected. 

"We went to Vancouver for a court appearance, they turned us down, which is okay, but we asked them, 'What now?' and they said, 'Nothing. You just revert to visitor's status.' What they didn't tell me was that there's a very well-hidden clause in the immigration laws that after you apply for refugee status and are refused, you must leave the country in two weeks. We didn't know that, and they didn't tell us. The judge never told us any of that," he said.

The fact that Doobenen was Canadian-born, that he had worked in the Air Force and, after having been honourably discharged, was technically on military reserve to Canada for the rest of his life, and had built a home in Canada -- none of that seemed to matter.

Although Doobenen has citizenship today as a result of Chapman's intervention, his wife remains a US citizen. Despite applying for permanent residency years ago, she has yet to receive an answer. As a result of his experience, his trust in Canadian citizenship and immigration officials was deeply compromised, to the point that he wonders today if he was "set up" by officials for deportation.

In response toThe Vancouver Observer's question about why even people who served in the Canadian military were among the Lost Canadian cases, BC-based Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) communications advisor Danielle Vlemmiks gave the following response from Ottawa:   

"Any permanent resident living in Canada is welcome to apply for citizenship if they feel they meet the requirements. Individuals who are not citizens but who feel they have experienced undue hardship or made a exceptional contribution to Canada may apply to CIC for a discretionary grant of citizenship."

But this poses a particular problem for seniors. People who are retired generally don't qualify as immigrant Canadians. Although CIC maintains that grants of citizenship are assessed individually and on a priority basis, Chapman says that Lost Canadians apply and get turned down.

Scott, the daughter of a Canadian soldier, has been rejected several times over the last eight years, mainly because she was born prior to 1947 out of wedlock. This made her, according to now-outdated laws of the time, property of her mother.

It didn't matter that her parents married shortly after and legitimized her upon arrival in Canada. For federal authorities in 2005 and afterward, what counted was that Scott's mother didn't have a marriage certificate at the time of her birth. Nothing that Scott can do or say today can change this.

When the latest rejection letter came back stating that she was ineligible because her father -- an Ontario-born Canadian soldier -- was not a citizen at the time (1945), she decided to take the federal government to court.

A "dysfunctional" citizenship committee

Critics say the problem is that citizenship authorities themselves appear not to fully understand the issue, making calls that seem inconsistent with the laws in place.

Scott, for example, was "legitimized" by her parents as a young child under the Ontario Legitimacy Act. When asked why her legitimation wasn't taken into account, Citizenship and Immigration Canada briefly responded:

"Please contact the Province of Ontario for more information about this Act. Citizenship and Immigration is a federal department, so it abides by federal, not provincial, laws."

Yet a quick glance at the Citizenship Act today shows defines a "child" as follows:

    "child” « enfant »

    “child” includes a child adopted or legitimized in accordance with the laws of the place where the adoption or legitimation took place;

Chapman says this is a clear example of how the government either misreads its own laws, or chooses to ignore them. By law, he said, Jackie Scott and others like her should already be Canadian citizens.

"For (the ministry) to ignore this argument that certain people who were legitimized have no claim, I think, is contrary to how we are actually presenting their position according to current law," commented Donald Galloway, a University of Victoria professor who specializes in immigration, refugee and citizenship law.  

Liberal citizenship critic Kevin Lamoureux knows that the citizenship problem is ongoing. 

"Part of the problem is that the citizenship committee is kind of dysfunctional," he said.

"I was in the provincial legislature, and I know what accountability is in terms of questions and answers. If you're aware of how Ottawa works in its committee -- it's a joke."

In committee, a limit of five minutes is given question and answer -- not nearly enough time to address a complex and multi-faceted issue like the Lost Canadians. A transcript of a question and answer between Kenney and Lamoureux in May shows the short, vague exchanges that appear to be typical of conversations surrounding the remaining Lost Canadians.

Lamoureux asks if any part of the budget has been allocated to address the remaining Lost Canadians who were left out by the "flawed" 2009 legislation, requesting that Kenney keep his reply under 30 seconds.

Kenney retorts that the bill was not flawed, and that the majority of cases has in fact been resolved. He says an increase in resources has been made to resolve the issue, but offers no numbers in response to Lamoureux' inquiry.

Conservative MP John Weston then follows up to say that the Lost Canadians are a "big priority" for Kenney. But the question of how or when the remaining or new cases of Lost Canadians remains unanswered as the committee moves to other topics.

Chapman expressed alarm that when he explains the Lost Canadians to people within the Citizenship committee, many are stumped about the issue and unaware of its details.

"They're making the decisions, and they don't even know their own portfolio," he said.

Foreseeable problems to Bill C-37

One of the recurring statements from the government is that the Lost Canadians issue at large is a result of unforeseen circumstances.

"We're looking for a legislative solution to that particular problem and hope to come forward with that later this year," Kenney told The Huffington Post in May.

"It's very sad. And it wasn't malice on the part of the government or anyone, it was just unforeseen consequences of legislation."

Critics, however, say that the problems were foreseeable, and that they had warned of trouble at the time. Chapman says that Minister Kenney has ignored his repeated requests to discuss the problems since he became Citizenship Minister in 2008.

"When the legislative battle was going on, a number of people had appeared before the committee at that stage. I went along just to say this is an unsatisfactory solution to the problem, and that it's not going to go away," Galloway said.

"For some reason, at the time, they were just bull-headed about it. It was like, someone created a solution and it was good enough to quiet the political noise that was going on about this issue."

"But Don (Chapman) was saying chickens are going to come home to roost here -- and many of us agreed with him. They knew all along that there was going to be problems."

A disagreement on Canadian "citizenship"

Although Kenney's office maintains that the issue is not a political one, one of its repeated statements is that the Conservatives passed legislation on the issue whereas the Liberals and the NDP did not.

A major point of contention is whether Canadian citizenship existed prior to the Citizenship Act of 1947. The government maintains that citizenship only came into being after the Citizenship Act, meaning that no one -- including Canadian soldiers who died during the First and Second World War -- was legally a citizen prior to the year 1947 (people who had survived would, in general, become citizens automatically after that date).

When Scott asked the Minister about the issue in May, his response was that Canadian soldiers during the Second World War were "obviously not" citizens at the time. Even though her father received documents during the war stating that he was a "citizen" fighting for Canada, the government's stance is that the use of the term (even by government) didn't have official legal meaning.

"While Canadian citizenship didn’t exist prior to 1947, it is common usage to refer to people who were living here then as 'citizens', even though in law they would have been considered 'British subjects,'" Vlemmiks wrote in an email to The Vancouver Observer.

In later correspondence, the office also stated:

"It is factually incorrect to state that Minister Kenney and/or the government  have held any sort of stance on this issue for years, as this is a matter of how the law is written, not anyone’s personal opinion or policy."

Advocates for Lost Canadians born prior to 1947, however, disagree, saying it is a political decision to close off citizenship to certain people.

They point out that Supreme Court documents dating from the 1940s also used the term "citizens" to discuss the deportation of Japanese Canadians. 

One document, written by an author of the Canadian constitution, is being used as evidence to support the claim that Canada did have "citizens" well before that date.

Excerpt from The Encyclopedia of Canada (1940), written by
Canadian Constitutional expert W.P.M. Kennedy.

Technicalities aside, advocates wonder why individuals with a proven Canadian parent, who have spent decades in Canada, married Canadian citizens and in some cases even served in the military, continue to face years of bureaucracy in the bid to obtain citizenship.

Backlog of citizenship applications

Until the Lost Canadians issue is legally resolved, the only recourse for individuals who remain excluded is to apply for a discretionary grant.

"Anyone who has been living in Canada most of their life and has the mistaken belief that they are a Canadian citizen, may be eligible for a discretionary grant of citizenship," Citizenship and Immigration advised.

But the backlog of citizenship applications -- estimated at 270,000 applications as of last December -- may delay that process considerably.

"The backlog is one of the most shameful stories that has been under-represented in the media," Galloway said. According to CIC, it currently takes 20 months for the office to get through just 80 per cent of the  applications.

"It's a bureaucracy that is clearly understaffed," Galloway said. "It just takes so long that people are left in limbo. It's egregious and unacceptable."

For Lost Canadians like Scott, the years required to become a citizen like the rest of her family have become too long to wait.

With file from Beth Hong