Is the government doing enough to help these ‘lost Canadians’?

Interesting that committee hearings focussed on the narrow changes related to a gap in coverage of “lost Canadians” (S-245) turned into a broader discussion of the first generation cut-off (children born to Canadians themselves born abroad are not  Canadian citizens).

As for the analysis of the relative restrictiveness of generation limits, the more relevant cohort are immigration-based countries, where citizenship at birth is the general rule, and countries in Europe and elsewhere, where blood line is the basis of citizenship.

The previous retention provisions were complex and largely unworkable and developing a”connection test with simple and clear criteria” is neither simple nor clear:

Carol Sutherland-Brown’s family is part of a sprawling military legacy that began here even before Canada became a country.

Born in 1955, her father, Colonel John Orton, was born in Alberta and served as an artillery officer during World War II.

Her husband’s family settled in the country in the 1840s. His father, too, served in the war as colonel commandant of the Canadian Royal Engineers.

Sutherland-Brown says she’s a proud and loyal Canadian who would love to pass on that identity for generations, and it pains her that her two grandchildren, Findley, 5, and Sloane, 3, are being “robbed” of their citizenship just because they were born in the U.K.

“My daughter is an only child. I’m an only child. So that’s the end of the line for Canada,” said the 68-year-old Ottawa woman, a retired civil servant for the federal government.

What led to the lost Canadians in her family can be traced back almost four decades when Sutherland-Brown gave birth to her daughter, Marisa, in Saudi Arabia in 1985 while she and her husband were working overseas. The family moved back to Canada permanently when Marisa was 2.

Little would she have known the citizenship law would change, apply retroactively and upend her family history in Canada.

“I wish I could have gone back. But you can’t go back and choose where someone’s born,” she lamented.

In 2009, the previous Conservative government changed the citizenship act and imposed the so-called “second generation” cut-off that denies the transmission of citizenship by descent to foreign-born kids if both their Canadian parents also happened to be born overseas.

The change was to discourage “Canadians of convenience,” individuals with Canadian citizenship who live outside of Canada without “substantive ties” to Canada but were part of the government liability.

An amendment to the citizenship act is currently under review by the parliamentary immigration committee, which will go through it clause by clause in April before reporting back to the House of Commons for final reading.

However, critics say the proposed change in the law doesn’t go far enough to help the tens of thousands of lost Canadians now and in the future. And it unfairly penalizes women who choose to travel for work opportunities during their child-bearing years.

Bill S-245, as it is, will only restore citizenship for those who lost it as a result of an administrative gap under the previous amendment to the “age-28” rule, which required Canadians born abroad to apply to retain their citizenship before they turned 28. Unaware of the rule, they became lost Canadians on their 28th birthday.

“It’s a very small group of people who, during a particular historical time, lost their citizenship as a result of a technicality. And Bill S-245 is attempting to remedy their situation,” said University of Victoria professor emeritus Donald Galloway, who studied citizenship laws.

“But there is a larger group who are suffering a similar injustice and will continue to do so in the future because the law actually denies them citizenship, even though they may have well entrenched connections with Canada.”

Galloway said it’s a “mystery” why Canada uses one’s place of birth as a device to identify the deserving Canadian from the non-deserving, and arbitrarily limits the passage of citizenship by decent to the first generation born abroad only.

People are more mobile than ever before, study overseas and work for international companies and non-governmental organizations — and have children while abroad, he said.

“A rule that focuses on place of birth will in fact have more significant impact on women. If you are pregnant and you know that your child’s place of birth is going to be determinative of their future citizenship, then you’re not going to make choices about going overseas that might be required for your employment,” said Galloway.

“That, in my eyes, is discrimination.”

The Canadian Citizens Rights Council studied the rules of citizenship by descent in 55 major countries in the world and found Canada is among the most restrictive. 27 have no restrictions at all; 14 require only a simple government registration; six ask the child or parents and grandparents to show establishment; the rest, including Canada, have cut-and-dry rules such as generational cut-offs in place.

“There’s nothing in the Canadian Charter that says you cannot exercise your mobility rights during child-bearing years and you can’t be gone for a long time and come back. So this is where people really get caught up,” noted Randall Emery, the council’s executive director.

The existing second-generation cut-off includes limited exemptions for children born overseas if their parents are abroad serving in the Canadian military and for the government. Short of repealing that rule, said Emery, Canada should at least adopt an objective “connection test” to allow lost Canadians to re-establish their citizenship.

Lisa Schubert was born in Belgium in 1976 when her father, a Canadian-born citizen, was working there in the nuclear power industry before returning home six years later. Schubert spent her formative years in Canada and joined the Canadian Armed Forces in military reserves in 1996 while studying at the University of Guelph.

After graduating with a master’s degree in education, she had a tough time finding a teaching job in Canada and was forced to go overseas to pursue her career and ultimately landed a position in Belgium.

Still, she’s kept her Scotiabank account and condo in Ottawa and continues to pay her Canadian income taxes every year. She returns home in the summer or during school breaks with her daughters, Maya and Naomi, who were born in Belgium through fertility treatment after she retired from the military.

“While my daughters are not Canadian citizens or passport holders, I want them to know Canada and to know their Canadian family and make those connections with my parents, with my brothers and their children,” Schubert said in an interview from Brussels.

“It really was important that we spent as much time in Canada as possible between those school year moments.”

She said her daughters, now 7 and 5, are raised as proud Canadians and cheer for Canada at every occasion, and poutine and Timbits are their favourites during their visits.

“It’s not like I got a Canadian passport through a lucky break and then I’ve lived overseas my entire life and I’ve never contributed to Canada. I’ve lived over 20 years in Canada and I served in the Canadian military for ten years,” said Schubert, 46.

“I love Canada. I’ve proven that I love it enough to serve in the military and go above and beyond in my devotion and commitment to the country.”

Currently, one option for lost Canadians such as Schubert’s daughters is to ask the immigration minister for a discretionary grant of citizenship “in exceptional cases”where a person is stateless or faces “special and unusual hardship” or proven to be “an exceptional value” to Canada.

Alternatively, Canadian parents can sponsor their foreign-born children to the country through family reunification if they are still underage.

Critics say both pathways are tortuous and unprincipled with little transparency, and decisions are rendered at the whim of a government bureaucrat.

Having a connection test with simple and clear criteria that’s based on a person’s family ties to Canada would be a practical compromise to address the situation of those who fall through the cracks of the two-generation cut-off, said Majda Dabaghi, whose daughters Louise, 9, and Adele, 8, were born in France where they now reside.

Herself born in Tunisia to Canadian parents, Dabaghi and her family returned home when she was three weeks old. She grew up and remained in Canada until 2007 when she left for a job in international law in the U.K., where she met her French husband.

She said, as someone born outside Canada, she shouldn’t be treated like a second-class citizen and have less rights to travel abroad during child-bearing years to pursue an international work experience.

“It really goes to the heart of your identity as a Canadian. It’s not really just about being able to pass on citizenship. This is to me a very hurtful response for the government to say, ‘Actually, you are not Canadian enough. You do not have the full rights of every other Canadian,’” said Dabaghi, 43.

“I was somehow in Canada as a passerby, that I didn’t have my roots. Trying to process all of that is incredibly upsetting.”

Opposition MP Jenny Kwan, the NDP immigration critic, said the citizenship law has been amended so many times with exceptions layered with exceptions that the regime has become so complex and it’d be much simpler and better just to bring in a brand new act.

“It was the conservatives who actually took out the passing on of citizenship to future generations, so there is a reluctance for them to get into this because they have to admit that they were wrong,” said Kwan.

“It’s a mystery to me why the Liberals wouldn’t want to fix it, other than to say that the Liberals are true to form, always says the right thing but they can never follow up with action.”

Any amendment to Bill S-245 involving the two-generation rule such as establishing a connection test will be ruled out of the scope of the committee in its current form, said Kwan, unless the government would make a royal recommendation to endorse it.

“I am very hopeful that we can come to an arrangement where this could be done so that we can address these issues,” she said.

Sutherland-Brown said the pandemic really brought home the importance of having Canadian citizenship for her grandchildren, who were prevented from visiting Canada because of the travel ban against non-citizens during the pandemic.

It was only after the border reopened and travel restrictions were lifted first in the U.K. that she was able to travel to England to visit Findley and Sloane in the fall of 2021 after two years of not seeing each other.

“We are living at a time of political upheaval and the emergence of the next pandemic is just a matter of time,” Sutherland-Brown noted.

Source: Is the government doing enough to help these ‘lost Canadians’?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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