This April many people who believed themselves to be Canadians, only to find out that they were not, will have their citizenship officially restored or established for the first time.
Many of them have lived their whole lives as Canadians—were born here, raised here, paid taxes, served and, in many cases, fought for the country—only to find out when they sought their pensions or other government benefits that were never actually Canadians to begin with.
These people are called “the Lost Canadians,” and while the government hasn’t yet released a final number as to how many lost citizens exist, a recent CBC investigation showed there may be as many as 200,000 Canadians affected by the antiquated Citizenship Act of 1947, the law that governs who is and who is not a Canadian citizen.
In many cases these are children of war brides or Canadian Forces members living abroad who were unaware of regulations which had to be met to establish citizenship.
There are many ways, according to the 1947 act, that a Canadian can be unceremoniously stripped of their citizenship, often without even knowing it.
New legislation in 1977 addressed some citizenship issues but still left many gaps for the lost Canadians.
For example, the act treated people born abroad after 1946 to Canadian parents differently, depending on whether their parents were married. They could be made citizens directly only if they were born in wedlock to a Canadian father or out of wedlock to a Canadian mother.
The act also restricted access to dual citizenship. If you were Canadian (whether or not you were born in Canada) and took out citizenship in another country between 1947 and 1977, you automatically lost your Canadian citizenship. Yet other people who were dual citizens from birth were allowed to hold both citizenships.
The act also caused children to lose their citizenship automatically if their parents took out another citizenship on their behalf. A person who immigrated to Canada and became a Canadian citizen (a naturalized citizen) could lose their citizenship if they lived outside Canada for 10 years. Yet such rules didn’t apply to citizens born in Canada.
The act required Canadian citizens born outside Canada to Canadian parents, and living outside Canada on their 24th birthday, to file documents to keep their citizenship.
It also required Canadian parents to register the birth of a child born abroad with the citizenship department, even if the birth was just across the border in the United States where the nearest hospital was for the parents. There are at least 10,000 border babies in Canada according to census data but many believe that estimate is too low. Children whose births were not registered were not Canadian citizens.
Don Chapman of Gibsons, B.C., has spent more than 10 years campaigning to change these laws and he is in every respect the most vocal of Canada’s lost Canadians. Chapman, formerly a United Airlines pilot now on a leave of absence, has lately become more optimistic however, as his long effort to fix the system seems to have finally paid off. On April 17, 2009, a new law will come into effect to reverse these wrongs and give citizenship to most, if not all, of the disenfranchised.
The new law will grant citizenship, retroactively in many cases, to the following:
• people who became citizens when the first citizenship act took effect on Jan. 1, 1947 (including people born in Canada prior to 1947 and war brides) and who then lost their citizenship;
• people who were born in Canada or became a Canadian on or after Jan. 1, 1947, and who then lost their citizenship; and
• anyone born abroad to a Canadian on or after Jan. 1, 1947, if not already a citizen, but only if they are the first generation born abroad.
The exceptions are those born in Canada to a foreign diplomat, those who renounced their citizenship with Canadian authorities, and those whose citizenship was revoked by the government because it was obtained by fraud.
“This will retroactively grant citizenship to pretty much anybody who wasn’t Canadian,” says Chapman. “If you were a Canadian and you did not renounce your citizenship—if you never got a choice and were disenfranchised against your will—then you will get your citizenship back.”
Chapman’s story is a good example of the kind of situation that creates lost Canadians. After Chapman’s father returned from serving with the Canadian military during World War II he stayed in Canada for a short time, long enough for his wife to give birth to Chapman in Vancouver in 1954. He then moved to the United States for health reasons.
Once in the U.S. Chapman’s father became a citizen there. Incidentally, due to the way the 1947 Canadian citizenship law was worded, Chapman and his siblings also became U.S. citizens, even though they never chose to renounce their Canadian citizenship.
“I should have been a Canadian all my life. If I had been, then my children would have been Canadian. So this will restore citizenship to my children too.
“So with this law, what they’re saying is that I will have been a Canadian all my life,” adds Chapman, ruefully.
While this is certainly a sweeping change to Canadian citizenship law, Chapman is unconvinced that all will go smoothly. “Does this mean when the bill’s passed that all of a sudden I’m a Canadian? Well no, I’m not. I have to wait. Will it take a year? Will it take three or four years? I do not know.”
Chapman is not alone in his concerns.
“We’re very happy to see that the bill has passed but, what do they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” says Melynda Jarratt, a historian who focuses on war brides and their plight. “We still have to see how they are going to do the implementation in April. And until then people are still having problems.”
As an example of the problems people are still having, Jarratt related the story of one Canadian who came here as an infant with his war bride mother in 1944. When the man recently became very ill and sought a pension and medical care from the government, he was shocked to find that he was not considered a citizen. The government told him he’d need to provide verification of entry, copies of his parents’ birth, marriage and death certificates and then apply for his status to be changed.
According to Jarratt, this is a process that could take years. Meanwhile, the man was attempting to survive on welfare and without adequate medical treatment.
“These people have been treated so badly for so many years,” says Jarratt. “I just hope they don’t have another level of bureaucracy to deal with now. There have already been so many ridiculous delays, stalling tactics and denials by various governments over the last 30-some years. So until it actually happens we’re not moving forward.”
While the government has been fairly quiet on the upcoming changes to the citizenship laws, it does have reason to be proud of its effort to fix this old and unwieldy problem.
“By introducing this legislation, (the) government took decisive action to help those people who had their citizenship questioned and to protect the value of Canadian citizenship for the future,” said Diane Finley, who as minister of Citizenship and Immigration saw the bill through Parliament.
The plight of the lost Canadians became focused after the United States announced its intention of requiring Canadians to show a passport when visiting even for short periods of time.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration held hearings on the issue of lost Canadians and issued a report in 2007. Dominion Vice-President Erl Kish represented The Royal Canadian Legion at a hearing, speaking on behalf of the families of Canadian Forces members.
Finley was also in the news answering questions on the case of Joe Taylor, the son of a Canadian D-Day veteran and a British war bride. When his parents divorced, he and his mother returned to England where he lost his citizenship. He fought for most of a decade to get his citizenship back which was finally granted by the Federal Court early in 2007. Fearing the precedent the federal government took that ruling to the Federal Court of Appeal which overturned a lower court’s decision. In the end, Taylor was given a special grant of citizenship by Finley which he accepted (Journal, January/February 2008).
If you are looking for more information on how the new citizenship law may affect you, a good place to start is Don Chapman’s website at www.lostcanadian.com. For information from Citizenship and Immigration Canada visit the website at www.cic.gc.ca or call the hotline at 1-888-242-2100.