Feds urged to fast-track athlete's citizenship before Games

OTTAWA - The Canadian Olympic Committee urged Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office to fast-track the Canadian citizenship of a Chinese-born table tennis star in time for him to compete for Canada at the summer Games, a newly released document shows.

OTTAWA – The Canadian Olympic Committee urged Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s office to fast-track the Canadian citizenship of a Chinese-born table tennis star in time for him to compete for Canada at the summer Games, a newly released document shows.

A short time later, Eugene Zhen Wang, the top-ranked table tennis player in North America, was a Canadian citizen.

“I am writing to you regarding Mr. Zhen Wang’s request for an exceptional early granting of Canadian citizenship,” says a May 11 letter to Kenney’s office.

“The Canadian Olympic Committee supports Mr. Wang’s request and I am writing to confirm that Mr. Wang would be eligible to compete for Canada at the 2012 London Olympic Games if he is granted Canadian citizenship by July 4.”

Canada’s medal hopes were also tied to the speedy granting of the Olympic hopeful’s citizenship.

“As we approach London 2012, Mr. Wang has distinguished himself in the sport of table tennis. His presence with Table Tennis Canada’s national team has already furthered the progression of his talented young teammates,” the letter says.

“His nomination to the 2012 Canadian Olympic team would benefit his fellow table tennis athletes and improve Canada’s chances in London.”

Wang was among the four members of Canada’s Olympic table tennis team introduced during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations June 5 in London, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper — an avid table tennis player himself — praised the team and singled out Wang.

“I just want to add, in particular for Mr. Wang, he is to be doubly congratulated, because today he is also becoming a Canadian citizen,” Harper said at the time.

The prime minister’s former director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, who now works for the Canadian Olympic Committee, was at the London event with Harper. Kenney’s office said it had no communication with Soudas about Wang’s citizenship case.

Soon after the London event, Wang and his teammates attended the prime minister’s garden party and took turns playing Harper on the front lawn of 24 Sussex Drive.

Kenney posted a photo on Twitter of himself and Wang at the garden party.

“Met new Canadian citizen & Olympic table tennis hopeful Eugene Zhen Wang @ PM’s media garden party,” the minister wrote.

The 26-year-old’s spot on the Canadian men’s team was far from assured going into the Games.

Because Wang had not yet received his Canadian citizenship, he had to watch from the sidelines as his teammates competed for an Olympic berth at the North American Olympic trials in April.

The Canadians qualified for the Olympics, and Wang received his citizenship with a month to spare. At the Games, however, the Canadian men’s team suffered a first-round defeat to Japan.

The names of the sender and recipient of the Canadian Olympic Committee letter are blacked out in the copy released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The letter is addressed to the “Director of Case Management, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Canada.” It comes from someone with New Brunswick and Eastern Ontario phone numbers.

Kenney’s office said Wang qualified for something called “five-four citizenship.” That refers to Section 5(4) of the Citizenship Act, which states that the minister may grant Canadian citizenship “to alleviate cases of special and unusual hardship or to reward services of an exceptional value to Canada.”

The minister’s office says “five-four citizenship” has been awarded roughly 500 times going back to 1977, often to athletes who have to travel around the world, and therefore do not meet the specific requirements for Canadian citizenship.

“Many athletes have been granted this exemption because their intense, international training and competition schedules may preclude them from fulfilling certain requirements,” press secretary Alexis Pavlich said in an email.

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said it’s well within the law to expedite cases such as Wang’s.

“It works when you have what they call ‘national interest.’ And it’s all above board, been done for literally more than 30 years. And the deal is, they just basically fast-track it on an emergency basis,” he said.

“They take the file and they go, ‘Okay, is it real? And is it going to benefit Canada?'”

At that point, it doesn’t take long to grant Canadian citizenship to suitable applicants. “They just put it at the head of the queue, get it done lickety-split,” Kurland said.

But moving someone to the front of the line can push someone else back, he added.

“It’ll bump someone to the next three-month window,” Kurland said. “So someone will suffer a 90-day loss.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee said it has made similar requests on behalf of athletes prior to previous Olympic Games and will continue to do so in the future.

“The Canadian Olympic Committee works closely with national sport federations and sends letters for such cases to support their requests,” Soudas said in an email.