British Columbia

'I have no country': After more than 60 years in Canada, B.C. woman discovers she doesn't have citizenship

67-year-old Irene Gyselinck fighting to acquire ID

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Irene Gyselinck, left, immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1951 with her mother and brother. (Irene Gyselinck)

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Irene Gyselinck arrived in Canada as a refugee from Germany on Aug. 25, 1951, with her mother and brother. She was just a one-year-old, and has never known any other home since.

But after more than 60 years in Canada, Gyselinck discovered she's not actually Canadian.

Gyselinck, 67, grew up in Manitoba and now lives in Deep Cove, B.C. Over the course of her life, she has worked as a welder, car detailer, and artist, among other things. She also married, had two children and was widowed.

She always had a social insurance number, health insurance and paid her taxes.

The realization that she's not a Canadian citizen has sent her life into a tailspin, leaving her unable to acquire valid identification and at risk of losing her health insurance.

"I always felt like I was part of the system," she said. "Now, I feel I've been here for 66 years and I don't count."

"I always felt like a proud Canadian. And then I find out I'm actually not." 1:33

The discovery

Gyselinck discovered her status when she tried to enter the U.S. in March 2012 without a passport. Prior to 2009, Canadians entering the U.S. by car were not required to have a passport, and Gyselinck travelled there many times, using her driver's licence as ID.

But this time, Homeland officials turned her back, urging her to get proper travel documents. They said she had no proof she had a right to re-enter Canada, and would need to apply for a temporary visa to return home. 

After several hours of confusion, she was eventually escorted back into Canada. 

"It really, really confused me and scared me," said Gyselinck, who immediately applied for a record of her citizenship. Since then, she's been in a back-and-forth battle with Immigration Canada, trying to obtain documents proving her status as a permanent resident. 

To her shock, she discovered she never became a citizen.

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Gyselinck has been trying to resolve the situation with Immigration Canada since 2012. (Irene Gyselinck)

The only person who might know how that happened is her 95-year-old mother. But she has debilitating dementia and Alzheimer's, and is unable to explain how or why her daughter, unlike other family members, slipped through the cracks. Gyselinck does not know why her mother did not fill out the paper work for her to become a Canadian citizen.

Immigration Canada would not comment on how many of these cases exist. 

Gyselink does not have German citizenship either, which makes her effectively stateless.

She says her lack of citizenship likely went undetected for so long because she never applied for a passport or voted, as she preferred to remain politically unengaged.

She said her older brother, who was also born in Germany, was issued a passport when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy at 18. Gyselinck said she now realizes that had she applied for citizenship before the age of 21, she might have avoided the situation she now finds herself in.

"I realized I have no country," she said. "I'm an undocumented immigrant."

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Gyselinck holds up her mother's record of landing card from 1951. Her own was lost, and without it, she faces multiple roadblocks to becoming a citizen. (CBC)

Panic sets in

In March 2013, Gyselinck's husband suddenly died. Shortly afterwards, she applied for the survivor benefit allowance, but because of her lack of documentation, found that she wasn't eligible.

"I didn't even have time to grieve," she said.

Gyselinck took steps to apply for a permanent residency card, with the goal of eventually becoming a Canadian citizen. But she soon discovered that her situation was so uncommon, she faced roadblocks at nearly every step in the process.

In June 2013, she sent an application to Immigration Canada to receive a replacement copy of her record of landing at Halifax's Pier 21, but it was returned and marked "incomplete."

A few months later she re-applied, and this time received no response at all. 

After two years of back and forth, she eventually received confirmation from Immigration Canada that she is a permanent resident. However, she still lacked the proper identification that would allow her to apply for citizenship.

In March 2017, Gyselinck received a letter from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) stating that under a new system, her B.C. health card and driver's licence would be issued together. Because one of her ID cards included her middle initial and the other didn't, she was asked to come to an ICBC office to update the IDs to avoid problems with her health insurance.​

Gyselinck headed to the office to fix what she thought would be a minor clerical issue. But ICBC told her that without a record of landing, passport or permanent resident card, she couldn't renew her cards under the new system — or her health insurance.

With a major surgery scheduled in February, panic set in. ​

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Irene Gyselinck's mother, centre, became a citizen in 1958. Because she now suffers from dementia, she is unable to explain why her daughter did not become a citizen. (Irene Gyselinck)

Gyselinck said the back and forth with Immigration Canada has been emotionally devastating, and that she now suffers severe insomnia.

"It's totally consumed me; the anxiety and stress has caused me to go onto medication," she said, adding that she's retired and cannot afford an immigration lawyer.

"It's really affected me emotionally. It's isolated me. I'm always in panic mode, so people just don't want to talk to me."

'Very betrayed'

Immigration Canada confirmed to CBC News that Gyselinck arrived in Canada in 1951 and, according to their records, is not a citizen.

They said children who arrive in Canada at a young age must apply for citizenship along with their parents.

A spokesperson for Immigration Canada initially responded to CBC's request for information by directing Gyselinck to apply for a permanent residency card.

After CBC asked specific questions about the hurdles Gyselinck faced in trying to apply, Immigration Canada assigned a case worker to the file.

The B.C. health ministry has now told Gyselinck that her health number will remain active until February so she can undergo her surgery.

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said cases like Gyselinck's are not as uncommon as they might seem — especially in cases from decades ago. Immigrant parents might not have applied for citizenship for their children because they didn't understand the process, or couldn't afford the associated costs.

"The person has worked so hard to get a solution and they're only at the permanent residence confirmation decision," he said. He added that Gyselinck "should be allowed to immediately apply for citizenship, because she obviously qualifies."

Gyselinck said her experience has left her feeling "very betrayed."

"I've always been proud to be Canadian, so to speak, because I thought I was. And I still consider myself a Canadian after all this."

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