The hunt for lost Canadians
The government and opposition disagree over how many have unknowingly had their citizenship stripped
Macleans.ca staff | Feb 20, 2007 | 23:14:49
Looking to allay fears that the 450 people who recently found out they weren’t Canadian citizens are the tip of a disastrous iceberg, Immigration Minister Diane Finley assured a House of Commons committee on Monday that the government had not uncovered a substantial number of new cases.
Finley told the committee that the cases unearthed over the last few weeks due to a sudden rush in passport applications were being treated individually, and that she’d already granted citizenship to 33 of those affected.
"That's indeed a far cry from the hundreds of thousands - indeed the millions of cases - we're hearing about in the media," Finley said.
The problems are the product of some archaic provisions in the country’s pre-1977 immigration regulations. Those born before that year are susceptible to have lost their citizenship without their knowledge in a variety of cases.
The 1947 Citizenship Act, for example, could strip the Canadian citizenship of anyone whose father lost his for any reason whatsoever. In other cases, citizenship may have been stripped if the person was born in a U.S. hospital or if their birth abroad wasn’t properly registered with Canadian authorities.
Of the 692 inquiries the immigration department has received since it set up a hotline last month, only 17 people were unaware their citizenship wasn’t valid, Finley said.
Relying on figures provided by Statistics Canada, which he said substantiate calls for alarm, Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis said as many as 50,000 people may be unaware their citizenship is not valid.
"I'm saying to you that StatsCan has more reliable figures than you're giving us," Karygiannis said. "I'm saying to you that you don't know what you're talking about."
One witness at the hearing claimed there were as many as 85,000 people like him in the United States alone.
"We have barely started to scratch the surface," said Don Chapman, a 52-year-old airline pilot who lost his citizenship when his father became an American citizen.(Under the current citizenship law, anyone born in Canada is automatically a Canadian citizen.)
At least one of Finley’s cabinet colleagues appears unsettled as well - Treasury Board President Vic Toews claiming the issue "literally affects thousands of people" in his Manitoba riding alone, which borders the United States. Many residents of the area were born in American hospitals, the Montreal Gazette reported on Monday. Others, members of the riding's large Mennonite population, were born to Canadian parents in Mexico - or, in Toews' case, Paraguay - and may not have been properly registered with Canadian authorities.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada claims it is taking active measures to solve the problem. On its website, it notes that the 1977 Citizenship Act requires that members of "second and subsequent generations born outside of Canada" take action to retain their Canadian citizenship before their twenty-eighth birthdays. The Act refers specifically to foreign-born children of foreign-born parents who hold Canadian citizenship.
In October 2005, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration warned that the issue could affect both people who have lived in Canada their whole lives without being aware of the requirement and those living abroad who will lose their Canadian citizenship "unless they make an application to retain it, have registered as a citizen, and have either lived in Canada for at least one year prior to the application or can establish that they have a substantial connection to Canada."
Citizenship and Immigration says it now explicitly mentions the requirement on citizenship certificates it issues to Canadians affected by the requirement.
With files from Canadian Press.