Maybe you really can't go home again

Danielle Smith
Calgary Herald
February 6, 2003

Are you a Canadian citizen? Don't be so sure. An obsolete provision in Canada's old immigration act may have stripped away your nationality without you even knowing it.

That's what happened to Vancouver resident Magali Castro-Gyr, who testified before a parliamentary committee last week. When she applied for certificates of Canadian citizenship for her children in 2001, she was given the surprising news she is actually a foreigner. How could this happen?

In 1975, when Castro-Gyr was a teenager, her father took out American citizenship after living in the U.S. for 11 years. From 1947 to 1977, Canada's citizenship laws were written so when a father renounced his citizenship, it applied to his children, too.

Castro-Gyr was born in Montreal, her Canadian family history stretches back generations, she has a Canadian birth certificate, social insurance number, passport and even sponsored her Swiss husband to enter Canada. But, when she tried to pass her birthright to her own children, she was informed she's actually an outsider in her own homeland.

Had Castro-Gyr's dad become a U.S. citizen after 1977, she wouldn't have had this problem. That's when the Canadian government acknowledged its policy was flawed and switched to recognizing dual citizenship, so minor children would retain their nationality. But, the government did not apply the rule retroactively. Thus, an estimated 10,000 Canadian-born people, whose families left Canada between 1947 and 1977, are not permitted to return to their homeland. They have to go through the process of applying for landed immigrant status, with no certainty of success.

Don Chapman has been fighting a one-man campaign to be recognized as a Canadian since he was 18 years old -- more than 30 years -- and has finally won several politicians over to his side.

Chapman's family lineage stretches back to the 1700s in Nova Scotia. Yet, in 1961, when Chapman was six, his dad took out American citizenship and the rest of the family was swept along with the decision. His case is even more unusual, because his brother and sister, being adopted, had to be sworn in as U.S. citizens separately, on a different day. For this reason alone, they never lost their Canadian citizenship.

The bureaucratic maze gets even stranger. In 1997, in the case of Benner v. Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the old immigration laws were discriminatory because they granted citizenship to minor children based on the father's nationality, but not the mother's. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Mark Benner, born in California in 1962 to a Canadian mother and an American father challenged the law after being deported. Under the old laws, he would have been granted automatic citizenship if his father were Canadian; since it was his mother, however, he was required to pass a criminal background and security check. Benner, who has a criminal record, thought this was discriminatory. The courts agreed -- but the ruling did not extend to Canadian-born children.

So now, Canada is in the strange position of automatically recognizing foreign-born children as Canadian, as long as one parent is Canadian. Yet, a Canadian-born child, with Canadian-born parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents, is not Canadian if his or her father happened to take up citizenship in another country between 1947 and 1977.

Could the red tape get any stickier?

Canada is trawling the globe seeking applicants to fill its 250,000-a-year immigration targets, yet it won't extend citizenship to people born here. And, the country has been whining about a brain drain, yet it refuses to accept the children of these workers, when they want to come back.

We have room for would-be terrorist Ahmed Ressam, yet no space for Chapman, a commercial pilot, or Castro-Gyr, a teacher.
Canadian Alliance MP John Reynolds has introduced a private member's bill to amend the Citizenship Act and correct the problem. However, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre has so far refused to budge -- saying he prefers to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

That's not good enough. A parliamentary committee is travelling the country over the next two weeks to hear submissions on how to amend Canada's citizenship laws. Several "lost Canadians" will be attending the hearings to plead their cases.

All they ask is to be treated the same as other Canadian-born, but relocated children, who have been permitted dual citizenship since the laws changed in 1977. It's the right thing to do; the Canadian way.