A passenger readies his Canadian passport before boarding a flight to the U.S. CBC has found that more than 200,000 people are at risk of losing their citizenship — and denied passports — because of out-of-date laws. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)
Ottawa says there are 450 cases of 'Lost Canadians,' but a CBC News probe has found that more than 200,000 people may be at risk of losing their citizenship.
Last Updated March 2007
Citizenship is something most Canadians take for granted — and it is arguably the most important right a nation can confer. But for thousands of people, many of them born in Canada, or born to Canadian parents — citizenship has become an elusive goal.
Although the federal government says it is aware of about 450 cases of people who have lost their citizenship, a CBC News investigation found there could be more than 200,000 people living in Canada who could potentially lose their citizenship, under sections of the 1947 Citizenship Act that are unknown to most people.
Origin of the story
CBC's Lost Canadians investigation is the result of research conducted over a period of three years. It began when reporter Gary Symons learned of a Kelowna, B.C., woman who had been stripped of her citizenship, despite having Canadian parents. The original series of stories concerned people who lost their rights to be called Canadian because their fathers took out citizenship in another country. CBC's work led Parliament to pass an amendment to the Citizenship Act in May 2005 that allowed people in that situation to regain their Canadian status more quickly. However, since then, CBC News has learned that there were far more Lost Canadians impacted by other sections of the act. CBC's estimate of the current numbers of Canadians at risk of losing their citizenship comes from an analysis of Canadian and U.S. public-use microdata files. Barry Edmonston, a demographer and population specialist at the University of Victoria, crunched census data from 2001 and 1996, as well as immigration and migration patterns.
The categories of interest CBC has identified mirror those used by the Citizenship and Immigration Department. This is the first time a Canadian media company has investigated the true potential of the number of Canadians at risk of losing their citizenship. The CBC estimates this number to be around 200,000. However, the government has told CBC that immigration officials have never conducted such an analysis. The citizenship and immigration minister says there are 450 lost Canadians.
Audio: CBC's interview with the demographer who conducted the research: March 8, 2007 (runs: 1:58)
The problem has become aggravated over the past few years because of a new United States law. The U.S. now requires passports for everyone entering the country by air, causing millions of Canadians to apply for a passport. For some, instead of a passport in the mail, they're receiving a letter saying they are not Canadian.
Others discover they are not Canadian citizens when they reach the age to apply for Old Age Security.
Lost citizenship in childhood
The best known of the so-called "lost Canadians" is Don Chapman, an airline pilot who was born in Canada to Canadian parents. Chapman says his family is as Canadian as you can get. His great-grandfather was one of the Fathers of Confederation. Don Chapman's father fought with the Canadian military, and collectively, his family has donated millions of dollars to Canadian universities and charities. The Chapman Library at UBC is named after Chapman's father, Dr. Lloyd Chapman.
But according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), Don Chapman is not Canadian. When he was a child, his father moved to the U.S. to work and was required to take out U.S. citizenship.
Chapman considered himself Canadian, and always planned to return to Canada. But when he arrived at the border at age 18, he was told he had lost his citizenship. Under the law of the time, anyone whose father took out citizenship in another country automatically lost their citizenship as well.
"It is unbelievable," Chapman says. "The law says, in so many words, that it's only the rights of the father that count. That children and wives are merely chattel or possessions. It's blatantly discriminatory, and a violation of our Charter of Rights. And yet, Canada's Citizenship and Immigration department continues to apply this law today, and it's ruining people's lives. It's something all Canadians should be ashamed of."
Chapman has been fighting to return to Canada as a full citizen ever since. He could have applied to become a landed immigrant, but Chapman argues that his citizenship, and the citizenship of more than 100,000 people like him, should be recognized retroactively.
Through his efforts, in May 2005, Parliament passed a law that expedited the return of citizenship to people in Chapman's position.
Brides, babies and born abroads
2006 census effects
Canadian census numbers from 2006 have just been released. Barry Edmonston, the demographer consulted for this investigation, says Statistics Canada will not release the newest microdata sources for another two to three years. They will not be accessible to researchers until mid-2008 at the earliest.
Two groups identified by CBC in the Lost Canadians research may be affected by the new census.
The first group is babies born abroad between 2001 and 2006. There have been more than 1,000 babies born abroad each year who have subsequently returned to Canada. So, the number of born-abroad babies is expected to increase to perhaps 36,000 or more from 2001 to 2006.
The second major change will likely be the war brides category. A CBC analysis showed that there were 25,000 to 30,000 war brides in 2001, with an average age of 71. Given ordinary mortality for elderly Canadian women, it is fair to expect about 1,000 or more deaths each year. In 2006, there were about 20,000 living war brides. Few will be alive in 15 to 20 years.
During his long fight with CIC, Chapman discovered there are several other categories of people who also found themselves without Canadian citizenship.
Some are the war brides and the war babies. Between 25,000 and 30,000 wives and children of Canadian soldiers who fought in Europe during the Second World War, and who subsequently moved to Canada, are considered to be in this category.
Others are people who were born abroad. They include an estimated 76,000 people whose birth may not have been properly registered, or who were out of the country at the age of 24.
There are also the border babies. Prior to the introduction of public health care in Canada, many Canadian families had their babies across the border in the U.S., because that's where the closest hospitals were located. There are at least 10,000 border babies in Canada, according to census data, but most experts consider that figure far too low.
Finally, there is the bizarre story of Canadians who have lost their citizenship because they or their ancestors are considered to have been illegitimate at birth. In some cases, people living in Canada have been stripped of their citizenship because their grandfathers or even great-grandfathers were born out of wedlock. Most of the people affected are Mennonites, whose ancestors were born in Mexico, which did not recognize religious weddings.
In some cases, entire families have been affected by this section of the law, including hundreds of people living in Canada right now. Experts believe up to 30,000 people living in Canada and Mexico have been affected since the 1920s.
System overhaul 'major effort': minister
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley says her department must apply the law as it is written.
"Overhauling the Act is a major, major effort and quite frankly, it's more than we could take on to help these people at this point in time."
Critics say the law is unconstitutional, and should no longer be applied. Donald Galloway, an expert on immigration law at the University of Victoria, points out two federal court rulings that say CIC's application of the Automatic Loss Provisions violate the Charter of Rights. These include the Benner case and the Joe Taylor case.
"What is incomprehensible here is why," says Galloway. "These laws were found to discriminate against the rights of children, the rights of women. They violate the Charter of Rights, so why would Citizenship and Immigration Canada apply these laws … these antiquated, out of date, and clearly discriminatory laws, today, in 2007?"
Finley, however, says she prefers to deal with cases individually. She told Parliament her department is only handling about 450 cases of people who have lost their citizenship through the Automatic Loss Provisions. And Finley has ordered her department to make it easier for people caught in this predicament. In the past, they had to apply for permanent-resident status before getting citizenship, a process that would take at least three years. Some were forced to leave Canada. Others lost their jobs, or government services like employment insurance, welfare, old age security, or health care benefits.
Chapman advocates amending the current law, or writing a new citizenship act. "This is really so simple. These laws are clearly wrong. The government of the day clearly did not intend to strip citizenship from its own people … so, what do you do with bad laws? You change them. I don't think it would be difficult to rewrite the law to simply say, if you are born in Canada, or you are born to Canadian parents, you are Canadian. Because that's the truth. In my heart, I am Canadian, and always have been."
The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration has repeatedly called for the law to be amended. Prior to the last federal election, $20 million was budgeted to write a new citizenship act. When the Conservatives formed government in 2006, however, that funding was cut.
There are currently no plans to amend the law.
- Main page
- The Chattel Children: up to 20,000 in Canada, 85,000 living in the U.S.
- Border Babies: minimum 10,000 in Canada
- War Brides: potentially 25-35,000 in Canada
- War Babies: Between 6,000 and 20,000 living in Canada
- Born-Abroad Babies pre-1977: up to 32,000
- Born-Abroad Babies post-1977: up to 42,000
- Illegitimate Canadians: up to 30,000 Mennonite Canadians
- Military Brats: 110,000, mostly in Canada
- CBC coverage
- Paul Hunter reports on lost Canadians for the National (runs 2:55)
- Gary Symons reports on war babies for the World at Six (runs 4:16)