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News

'Lost Canadians' Advocate Isn't Celebrating Yet

Changes to Citizenship Act leave Don Chapman 'guardedly optimistic', but court battle continues.

By Jesse Donaldson 7 Feb 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His first book, This Day in Vancouver, was recently published by Anvil Press. Find his previous articles published in The Tyee here.

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Chapman: Did revised definitions of who is a Canadian citizen fix the problem? 'I'll believe it when I see it.'

They're known as the Lost Canadians: people who have spent much of their lives in Canada, but have lost their citizenship thanks to a series of bizarre provisions in the country's antiquated citizenship laws. Each case has its own unique parameters: some are Mennonites. Others celebrated their 24th birthday in a foreign country sometime between 1947 and 1977. Many are the children of Canadian servicemen and "war brides" born out of wedlock before 1947, when the Canadian Citizenship Act first came into effect (children born within the bonds of marriage automatically took their father's nationality).

There are an estimated 37,000 Lost Canadians scattered worldwide, from every facet of life; schoolteachers, pharmacists, journalists, movie stars and rock musicians. Many of these people have resided in Canada for decades, working and paying taxes, only to discover they weren't Canadian citizens when applying for healthcare, a pension, or a passport.

"That's the bizarre part about being a Lost Canadian," explains Don Chapman, a citizenship advocate and former Lost Canadian himself. "Half the people never knew they had lost it." Chapman claims "people such as Romeo Dallaire and Eric Clapton" are Lost Canadians. "I have members of Parliament who are Lost Canadians. You probably didn't know that you can be Canadian, and have a child who isn't Canadian."

A number have pleaded their case before the government, including Jackie Scott, who after three attempts has mounted a lawsuit against the Citizenship minister and the federal government. Scott was born out of wedlock to a British woman and a Canadian soldier during the Second World War. Her parents married after the war and Scott grew up believing she was Canadian, only find out the Canadian government did not deem her to be when she applied for a passport in 2004.

In 2009, Bill C-37 fixed the problem for approximately 95 per cent of the Lost Canadian cases, covering anyone born after the 1947 Citizenship Act came into effect, but not those born before. Proposed legislation, announced Thursday, which Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander calls "the first comprehensive and overdue reforms of the Citizenship Act in more than a generation" -- could finally put more of these cases to bed, retroactively granting citizenship to many of those not covered by the 2009 amendments.

On paper, and in the mainstream media coverage, it seems like a victory. But for Chapman, sometimes known as "Canada's Most Irritating Activist" and self-proclaimed "leader" of the Lost Canadians, it's not time to celebrate just yet. The Tyee had a chance to catch up with Chapman following Thursday's announcement, to get his take on the proposed legislation, what it means, and what's in store for those still left behind.

Tyee: What is a Lost Canadian?

Chapman: "It's very difficult to define. It's somebody who was left behind because of discriminatory legislation. Originally, it ended up being that there were 12 ways to be stripped of citizenship. Now we're down to five. And it was just really wacky, and to try to explain it in a short sentence is difficult. We have the second-generation born-abroad people -- pre-and-post Bill C-37, the Mennonite population -- if you tried to explain it, it would take half a book to explain.

"And the government has confirmed they're leaving out all the war dead [pre-1947]. So, the war dead in Canada were really just British. We might as well just scratch the Maple Leaf off their headstones...

"We cornered Jason Kenney a couple of years ago, and said: If citizenship didn't exist, then are you saying that our war dead weren't Canadian? He'd never thought about that one. He looks at us, and says: 'They were our heroes, but no, they were never Canadian.'

"Now, wait a minute, everybody's been taught in Canada that our country came of age at Vimy Ridge. Well, the soldiers went off to fight in World War Two, and they were given a booklet called 'Battle of Brains' that said: 'You're fighting as a Canadian citizen. This is a citizen's war. Go for it.' The first Governor General of Canada in 1867, right after Confederation said: 'We've just created a new nationality called Canadian citizenship.'

"And the cherry on top is the fact that last March the Attorney General of Canada argued against the Metis on a land claims case, saying that they were not entitled to land claims in 1870 because land claims were for Indians and Native Aboriginals, not full-fledged citizens of Canada. And the Metis in 1870 were full-fledged citizens of Canada. Here's a government arguing that citizenship existed in 1870, the Supreme Court says: 'You're right. It did.' Now a new Attorney General is coming in to argue that citizenship essentially didn't exist until 1947. In other words, you can't have your cake and eat it too. The Supreme Court has spoken. The case is closed on whether citizenship existed.

"There are thousands, tens of thousands of references to citizenship [before 1947]. What it shows us is, that we've got this [immigration and citizenship] bureaucracy, we have a prime minister, and all these MPs elected to represent Canadian citizens -- but the problem is, they don't even know what one is."

How is this announcement going to change the picture for Lost Canadians? Is it a victory for them?

"In a way it's a victory, because they've now announced that there's a problem. And they've announced that they want to correct part of the problem. They've also announced they're more than willing to leave some of the people behind. And they've shown that willingness to ignore the issue for 60 or 70 years. The point is: yes. It's a victory. But I've been here many times, where they've said: 'This is a victory.' In 2008, they said they were going to take all these people like Jackie Scott and help them, and that's how [Bill C-37] was passed. And what happened when the bill was implemented? They didn't take Jackie.

"Now they've announced a new bill, and hey, it's going to include Jackie. But what's going to happen when it really comes to light? I don't know. In other words, yes, I'm really happy that we scored a victory yesterday. And it was a big victory. But I'm reserved, and I'll believe everything when I see it…

"What they did is they left four categories of Lost Canadians behind this time. [In 2009], they left five. Now we're down to four. Even though they're making the claim, and they're trying to trick the media into saying, 'Okay, problem solved'. No, it's not.

"There are five categories of Lost Canadians. They fixed one category -- kind of."

What's the current status of Jackie Scott's case?

"We're going forward. Probably the only reason they really got serious about doing this is that they realized they have a huge lawsuit coming down the pike. Now, are they fixing our issue out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they've already turned Jackie down three times. And despite us going to Ottawa and pleading, they said: 'No, no, no. Get out of here. You're just a bastard child.' They obviously didn't do this out of the goodness of their hearts. I think they're going: 'Uh oh. We're going to lose this lawsuit.' We pull the lawsuit, they could easily pull the legislation. So, this lawsuit goes.

"And on top of that, since citizenship began well before 1947, that means Jackie Scott's a citizen denied all her rights. Well, when Maher Arar was denied his rights, everybody came screaming about it. We're entitled to damages, because Jackie hasn't been able to collect her pension, she hasn't been able to work, she hasn't been able to collect benefits. Even just to be able to work. To be able to be a productive member of society. You can't make a living.

Where do we go from here?

"What I'm going to do is ask for citizenship grants for my remaining people who are still out there. But they really should just change the law and do it right…

"I take aim at Harper, because he's the captain of the ship. He can correct this. So, it's his will. But I will embrace him, and say thank you for what you did today, because it is a big step forward, but let's just end this thing.

"They refuse to include me in these discussions on the Citizenship Act. So as they're going forward on this: how do you fix a leaky boat when you don't know where the leak is? If they don't talk to me, then how will they ever know?

"Jason Kenney, the previous citizenship minister, is the only minister who never talked to me. [Chris] Alexander hasn't talked to me. He should. It's his mistake not to, but it's not too late. He's kind of new, so I'll give him a break on that one. But he damn well better start talking, because if he doesn't… [laughs]

"What you don't know in citizenship law can hurt you. And when the number of Lost Canadians out there [over the years have been] something like a million people, it's a big deal. It's one in 35 Canadians. The government will say [it's been] 750,000, but when you do the actual number crunching, I think that's low. And today, providing the bill goes through, we might get a lot of people with citizenship.

"We'll see. I'm guardedly optimistic. But I've been disappointed a lot over the last 20 years, and they haven't given me much cause to say: 'Oh, this has all been fixed. Isn't this just wonderful?'"  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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